By Real Simple
Updated February 10, 2009
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Credit: Tara Donne

On a winter’s day in 1998, I dressed my one-year-old daughter, Charlotte, in a pink sweater knit by her great-aunt Nancy, pink pants, and white baby shoes. I then went to brush my teeth.

Recently ambulatory and dressed for action, Charlotte set out on an exploration of the kitchen. She first invaded a cupboard, somehow overcoming the childproof locks I had on everything, and, not finding anything to her liking, proceeded to the refrigerator, which she subjected to a scientific investigation.

First she engaged her neophyte analytical faculties on the French’s Mustard. She plucked it from the shelf on the door, smelled it, tasted it, then tossed it behind her: rejected. Next she found the jumbo bottle of Hershey’s Syrup―a personal necessity that I kept next to the mustard. She uncapped the syrup, tossed the cap, and performed the same empirical research that she had done on the mustard, but with very different results.

Charlotte’s findings: The Hershey’s Syrup smelled very good―much better than the formula she was usually given and better than oatmeal and strained carrots. The bottle wasn’t dissimilar to her formula bottle; a little sucking got the chocolate going. Evidence collected around her mouth as she sampled it over and over again―delicious! At this point, I finished whatever I was doing in the bathroom and came out to discover my baby daughter chugging chocolate in the kitchen.

When I think back, I am pleased and almost proud to remember my reaction. Instead of immediately confiscating the unhealthy snack (or beverage, in this particular case), I commended Charlotte’s good taste and sensibilities. I noticed the mustard on the floor and, although I am a mustard fan myself (and Charlotte is now, too), I thought she had certainly made the right choice.

Of course, like every other mom, I was worried about feeding my baby the healthiest food. I had even asked our pediatrician whether I should ever feed her cookies or ice cream or if we should avoid sweets altogether. What was I thinking? I remember the kind doctor answering, “You only live once; the kids enjoy a treat once in a while.”

And so, instead of hysterically snatching away the sugary syrup, I ran for the camera and took Charlotte’s picture. Aiming down from the top of the refrigerator door, I was able to capture the opened cabinet, the rejected mustard, the discarded Hershey’s top, the open refrigerator, the white baby shoe, and the telltale chocolate-covered mouth.

In other situations, I reacted similarly. Charlotte rifling through my wallet: I ran for my camera. Charlotte’s younger brother, Matthew, pouting because I couldn’t read his mind: camera. Charlotte and Matthew both flopped on the floor wailing in simultaneous temper tantrums? That merited the video camera. Sometimes the most precious moments are not those with staged smiles; the ill-behaved and cross moments are equally poignant for a mother. For the record, I also learned to take pictures of my children from the front and the back, especially when they’re in Halloween costumes with tails.

Ten years later, this picture is front and center in a magnet frame on our refrigerator. Charlotte, my sweet little baby, is now a tweenager with an attitude and a bra. But this photograph remains one of our family favorites. It speaks of our mutual love of chocolate, our philosophy of experimentation, and our keen fashion sense. My kids still use some of the same tactics that Charlotte employed in 1998: Wait until Mom is otherwise occupied; perform empirical research on potentially off-limit targets; act on results with enthusiasm. But they also know that (1) Mom will probably discover them, and (2) when she does, she’ll probably have her camera.

Kathryn A. Higgins is a contributor to mcsweeneys.net.