What are wearing for your senior portrait?  Are you planning on getting a haircut?  Why aren’t you planning on getting a haircut?  Can I order you something new to wear?  Why don’t you care what you wear?  Can I make an appointment for a haircut? Have you tried on the new clothes I ordered for you?  Did you make sure they fit? Did you hang them up? What time is your senior portrait?  Would you like to brush your hair again?

The lead-up to my son’s senior portrait was a month-long (mostly one-sided) conversation where I peppered him with questions and he deflected as best he could.  How did the day in question turn out?  Funny you should ask.  At 6:45am that morning my son came downstairs in the button down shirt I had ordered for him and it was TOTALLY and UTTERLY wrinkled.  The shirt I ordered a month earlier, that I begged him to try on, that I pleaded with him to hang up, looked like it had been living in the corner of his closet where a pack of wild horses roamed. The shirt was straight from its crushed, plastic packaging, rumpled like a bag of potato chips at the bottom of a backpack.  

When he walked into the kitchen wearing the tread-upon shirt, I (internally) gasped in horror and then, with absolutely no self-control, started in on the issue.  First, I tried to surreptitiously smooth the wrinkled collar while telling my son how great he looked. He asked me to please stop touching his collar. Second, I offered to quickly steam the shirt in the shower before he went to school. He told me there was no time. Third, I suggested he try tucking in the shirt to hide some of the most offensive creases.  He informed me he didn’t have a belt so he couldn’t. (Side note, what is it about men and belts anyway?) Last, I asked whether he wanted to try on a different shirt just to compare.  My son gave me a firm NO.  My husband finally gave me the: “I know what you’re trying to do, but please stop because you’re going to freak him out” look.  So I smiled up at my son and accepted his (wrinkled) hug and sent him on his way for his senior portrait.  On the way out the door he turned to me and said: “Don’t worry Mom, you won’t be able to see the wrinkles in my shirt anyway.”

The digital gallery of photos came back last week.  Could I see the wrinkles in my son’s shirt? You bet I could.  Did I get annoyed all over again about the wrinkles?  I sure did.  Was I kicking myself for not making him try the shirt on days earlier so I could be sure to iron it?  Of course I was.  But then, I started clicking through the photos of my kid and after a few shots, (for the most part) stopped seeing the wrinkles.  Instead, my life as a mother to this boy flashed before my eyes. I started seeing the person inside the shirt, the man he was becoming and the child he had been. As I scrolled through the photographs, I laughed at the shots that caught him scowling at the photographer the same way he used to scowl at kids who took his trucks in the sandbox.  I cringed at the images of his forced smiles, reminding me of the photo session from his bar mitzvah. And I teared up at the photos that captured the essence of this kind, warm, handsome, gregarious, funny, caring, large, loud, loving human being.  I texted my husband with the photo and said, “Can you believe we created this person?”

It turns out, my son’s senior portrait was, like most things in parenting, about his senior portrait and not at all about his senior portrait.  The endless questions from me, the push and pull dynamic between us, the annoyance, pride and awe I felt, are all part of the larger reality in our home right now.  Senior year is dominated by the college application process which, during a pandemic, is a funhouse version of the normal process.  Everything is distorted, surreal and possibly even more painful than normal. It dawned on me that for better or for worse, I was handling the college application process the same way I (mis)handled his senior photo. I ask my son a million questions to try to understand what the hell is going on. I attempt to use my hard-earned adult wisdom to pave a smoother path for my kid.  I am both embraced and rebuffed by my son depending on the moment.  I desperately try to control the small stuff (did you register for this session?) because I cannot control the big stuff (where the hell will you spend the next four years?) Really I just want a happy outcome for my kid, but I don’t always handle it as best as I can. 

With some reflection and a little more self-awareness, the wrinkled shirt has taken on new meaning for me in this moment.  Originally an irritating symbol of what I cannot control as a parent, the shirt has morphed into a grounding touchstone in what will inevitably be a messy year.  A reminder, that as much as I would like, I cannot make my son’s year as picture-perfect as I would want it to be.  No matter how much I prepare, how many questions I ask, we will all still come out rumpled.  And ultimately, as hard as it is, I need to support my kid as best I can without taking over — it’s up to my son whether he wears a wrinkled shirt, so I guess I better get used to wrinkles. 

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