When you see it—that thing you have been trying to describe to your spouse for weeks but can’t quite capture because of your limited vocabulary—stop what you are doing immediately. When you see him make that face that is so pensive and adult, yet so innocent and sweet. And it doesn’t hurt that he is wearing that polo shirt that makes it look like the color of his shirt and the color of his eyes were pilfered from the same wavelength, the deep greens of both the shirt and his big, child-eyes longing to be reunited.
Wipe the soapy water, or the grime, or the snot from your hands to make sure none of it gets on the camera that is always tucked safely away in a box in the front closet, the one that you don’t use enough considering how much your mother-in-law spent on it, outdoing herself at Christmastime once again.
Try to remember what that book about photography said, the one your brother gave you for your birthday because he wasn’t sure what else to get you, the one you tried to read, but only got two chapters into before you gave up on it.
Check the aperture, hold your breath so that when you take the picture it won’t be blurry. Tuck your elbows in to support the weight of the camera and keep the lens from shaking. Suppress your dread that he won’t appreciate the advantages he has; that he will be muscled out of the socio-economic opportunities you want for him by some egregious exploitation by some nameless, fascistic politico-corporate machine; suppress your fears that he will feel about you the way you feel about your parents.
Get him to stop screaming, knocking over vases that have been in the family for years, destroying library books and the toy bought for him by your aunt who died unexpectedly when he was a month old.
Set him there on a spot on the rug that is not streaked with vomit, blood, or excrement.
Suppress the fear that he will end up with cancer, lupus, ADHD (or whatever they are calling it now), chronic depression, diabetes, or toddler-onset carpal tunnel.
Get him to hold still, to look up, but to keep that look on his face. Turn on the flash so the background won’t overwhelm him. Change your mind about the flash. Turn the flash off. Turn on the lights in the room because the sun is shining at a strange and off-putting angle, a way that makes his nose look like your father’s. You don’t want this picture to remind you of your father. You want this picture to be perfect.
Take off the lens cap. Make sure you have enough room on the memory card.
Worry that you should be savoring the moment rather than trying to obsessively and pathologically capture and catalog every little event. Wonder if you are present enough as a parent; if you spend too much time staring at your phone.
Resolve to be more Zen about things.
Worry that by referring to him as "him" and by giving him a traditionally male name (not to mention all the superhero action figures, sports equipment, the toy workbench, the plastic trucks, and that motorized motorcycle) that you are reinforcing societal gender norms and making decisions for him that he should make for him or herself.
Think about his friend Morgan whose parents are progressive minded enough to buy him all manner of dolls and plastic cooking utensils, a little beauty station, and to even put ribbons in his hair. Think about how disappointed in yourself you are whenever you arrive at playgroup to find that you are shocked and made uncomfortable by the ribbons in the young boy’s dark, wavy hair. Think about how closed minded your parents are and how, on so many occasions, you have confronted them with how regressive their own thinking is. Recognize the hypocrisy in your refusal to buy him sneakers that one time last summer because the only ones at the store that were in his size were pink.
Try to forget all the things you read on that internet message board that implied you needed to schedule children to keep them regimented. Try to remember the useful stuff you found from those old Cosmos from the 1950s in your grandmother’s basement and try to forget the terrible stuff about shaming him to keep him from getting fat.
Give yourself permission to think about all of these things for a moment. Luxuriate in the anxiety that he will lash out, drink too much, and that you will have to figure out how to continue loving him after he does something heinous: robs, rapes, or murders. Think about how difficult it might be to continue loving yourself. Fix your thoughts on the horrors that lurk like silent, sharp-toothed animals loosed in his room—the horrors the media and your in-laws and friends with kids and friends without kids assure you are waiting to devour him. Allow yourself to think about these things just long enough to be able to see them for the perverse fantasies they are, to inoculate yourself against them like drinking rattlesnake poison to protect yourself from the venom of a bite.
Try not to get hysterical.
Get him to look up for one second, and to keep that look on his face, the one you want to preserve and show your spouse, get him to sit still so that you can go back to doing whatever it was you were doing, whatever menial task that you never remember doing before you had him in your life and that now you seem to do pretty much nonstop.
Check the aperture again, keep holding your breath for just a second longer.