The author's son (left) and nephew. Photo: Courtesy of Julia Pelly
When my son was 11 months old, I found myself standing in a long line at the mall with my sister and our babies, waiting our turn to set our sweet boys on Santa’s lap and snap the classic holiday picture. As we waited, I happily bounced and rocked my son, kissing his cheeks and whispering words of love in his ears. He seemed to enjoy the wait, too, as his eyes followed the sparkly lights and the toddlers and bigger kids running around the indoor winter wonderland. Together, we inched forward calmly and, after nearly an hour’s wait, it was finally our turn to step toward the man in the big red suit.
While I hadn’t visited Santa since I was a child myself, years of passing kids sitting on his lap at the mall and seeing adorable images of my friends’ children smiling for the camera in picture-perfect Christmas outfits on Facebook and Instagram made me look forward to this moment. I wanted my own pictures to share and look back on. Because my son and my nephew are just a few weeks apart, my sister and I envisioned them growing up together through their annual Santa photos. There was a part of me that was there for the experience itself. But the other part of me—the one that wondered whether I was cut out to be a mother and was constantly self-conscious around other moms who seemed to be so much better at everything—was there for the picture. I wanted to prove that I was a good mother who created holiday traditions and ensured that my son’s childhood was magical.
For some reason, my expectations for this big moment made me ignore all the usual ways I respected and protected my child. I knew my baby was too young to understand who or what Santa Claus was—and his separation anxiety was starting to kick in—but I imagined he would sense that this was a safe situation and that Santa was a friendly and exciting guy. In reality, though, while my son found the colourful lights, Christmas music and cottony snow intriguing, he had no context for why we were there, who we would see and what a baby was supposed to do on Santa’s lap.
As soon as I placed my son in the outstretched arms in front of me, his bottom lip pushed outward and his whole face scrunched up. As soon as he had enough breath to do so, he let out the longest, loudest, saddest wail I’d ever heard. My heart began to race. I’d never let my boy cry the way he did then, but I wanted this picture so badly that, instead of swooping in to comfort him, I left him on a stranger’s lap to cry. While his eyes desperately searched for mine, I ducked behind the photographer and asked him to take his picture quickly, even though my son looked miserable and distressed instead of flashing the gummy grin I’d hoped for. My nephew soon followed suit, bawling just as badly, and my sister was as stunned as I was.
The photographer snapped away, wiggling a set of jingle bells above the camera lens and making silly noises in an effort to get a shot we’d like, while my poor son and his cousin continued to howl, confused, sad and scared. As they cried, I became increasingly anxious. With the seconds ticking by, my own face reddened and I began to feel hot and overwhelmed. After about a minute, when it was clear that both boys were too upset to continue and that there was no way I’d be getting a smiley picture, my sister and I snatched our babies off Santa’s lap. As soon as my son’s arms clasped my neck and his cheek rested against my chest, his wailing ceased, but he continued to whimper and catch his breath as we made our way to the kiosk where parents could review and purchase images.
As the babies calmed down, my son continued to snuggle into me as I looked over the proofs, his breath hiccuping as he clenched and unclenched his fingers around my sweater. “Aw, more cryers!” said the woman behind the desk. “The crying pictures are the cutest!” I gave her a half-smile and anxiously scanned the long row of nearly identical images of my baby crying and reaching out for me and my nephew arching his back and sobbing, hoping to see one where they were perhaps a bit distracted and not quite so tortured. It became clear that there was no such picture, so I bought the first image she showed me and hurried off to join my sister. While I’d seen plenty of pictures of babies and young kids crying on Santa’s lap, I’d never realized the depth of fear and confusion the kids pictured must have felt until it was my own son in the images.
I sat down to nurse my son. As his tears dried and he began to settle, he looked up at me with pure trust and love and flashed a tiny smile that made his forgiveness clear. My eyes filled with tears and I couldn't believe that I’d allowed him to suffer for a picture he wanted no part of and that would bring him no personal joy or satisfaction.
After a few minutes, I composed myself and gathered my sleeping son, slipped the pictures I’d purchased into my purse and headed to the car, where my sister had taken her son to nap a few minutes earlier. Later that night, after an extra-long bedtime routine, I sat down and got the pictures out. The photograph I’d purchased—the one I’d let my baby cry for—was just sad. His face was red and streaked with tears, and his eyes were desperate. It wasn’t the memento of a happy first holiday that I’d hoped it would be—it only reminded me that I’d neglected my son’s needs in favour of my wants. In that moment, just like it had when my son smiled up at me earlier in the day, guilt and shame burned through me and I knew that I would never, ever force my son onto Santa’s lap again.
Though I wish it hadn’t taken my baby’s tears to learn a lesson, I was glad that at least I had. That day, I made a commitment—and I’ve stuck to it over the past four years—to never put my son (and now his baby brother) into uncomfortable situations.
Does that mean I never let them cry? No, there have been times where both of my sons have been scared and sad (like at the doctor’s office while getting shots or on their first days of preschool) and I let them feel their feelings while I supported them and still made them follow through because I knew they would benefit them in the end. But when we see the Easter Bunny at the mall or a Disney character strolling through an amusement park, I don’t hand my naturally shy-tempered kids over or try to convince them to scoot closer, no matter how cute other people’s kids look in similar pictures. I also don’t force my kids to perform in their preschool singing programs if they don’t feel like being on stage. I even asked their teachers not to try to cajole them into taking school pictures if they are anything less than enthusiastic at the opportunity.
My nephew (and now his baby brother) passed quickly through the “stranger danger” phase. But my sons, almost five and two, are still meandering through it slowly and often look to me for support when they’re approached by a friendly waiter who wants to shake their hand or a classmate’s parent who wants them to join in a birthday party game.
Until my kids are old enough to ask to join in activities where the goal isn’t directly related to their joy, well-being or learning, I won’t ask them to participate. Sure, our photo albums are missing some of the “classic” shots of early childhood, but my sons know they can trust me. Over time, as I’ve come to know my children as the people they are, I’ve expanded the list of things I won’t ask them to do to include things like snuggling up with relatives to read a story, sharing goodbye hugs and kisses with grandparents, aunts and uncles and performing new skills (like reading or reciting a song) that I’m proud they’re capable of. I trust my kids and want them to be able to trust themselves. I’m hoping that by not putting pressure on them to do things they don’t want to do, I’m teaching them valuable lessons on what it means to both give and get consent.
Last week, my almost five-year-old and I went to the mall to do a little holiday shopping. As we walked past the sparkly snow and glittering lights of the mall-made winter wonderland, my son glanced upward at Santa in his golden chair and the long line of parents and kids waiting to talk with him and get their pictures taken.
“Mom, I think I’d like to talk to Santa this year, but I’m not sure if I want to sit on his lap,” he said. “Does Santa mind if I stand near him to ask about what it’s like at the North Pole?”
“No, buddy, he doesn’t mind at all,” I responded, squeezing his hand. “I think you’d both like that very much.”