Today, please enjoy the audio of Rebbie Brassfield's story on our Strangerville Live stage over the weekend. We've also published the text below.
by Rebbie Brassfield
It’s almost Christmas card season. The happiest time of the year!
In my house growing up, my Mom would tape every Christmas card we got to the side of the pantry and by the end of December it would be covered, floor to ceiling. All these beautiful parents surrounded by little explosions of children.
I was always very embarrassed by whatever my mom would send out for our family. There was the page-long recap of what everyone was up to, and she always sounded so proud of me, which was humiliating. Then there was the picture itself – a whole other source of stress. Had she made us wear matching outfits, in a public place? Was she gonna send it to the family friend whose son I once kissed?
When I became an adult, I thought, the Christmas card is not a thing I need to continue because family pictures are objectively insane. The Dad is always wearing a suit, in the mountains. People are frolicking through the ocean, in jeans. The family photo, as Instagram (or maybe just Utah) has made it, was a mystery to me. Until I, too, had children and my maternal instincts made me insane.
In the Summer of 2022 I was 4 months postpartum with my second son. I had a date scheduled for family pictures that was rapidly and stressfully approaching.
Any woman will tell you that the most important part of the family picture is the outfits. Which really means her outfit.
I started looking for something that could make me look very different from how I felt. And I found the perfect dress.
This dress cost $238 dollars, which is not how I was raised. But it really was perfect. It came from this sustainable fashion boutique called Christy Dawn, is anyone familiar? They’ve carved out a very impressive niche in women’s fashion by making exclusively sexy prairie dresses. All their photography is just women wandering through nature with windblown hair and American Girl Doll boots, looking incredibly hot.
My dress was a simple short sleeve empire waist maxi dress in this gorgeous, orange-yellow color they called “Marigold.”
The marigold dress arrived on my porch the same day as the three nursing-friendly housedresses I’d ordered from Amazon, and the two unboxing experiences could not have been more different. The Amazon dresses were stuffed in a plastic bag and smelled like the factory they came from, while the Christy Dawn dress was folded delicately in a beautiful recycled box nestled under a sprig of dried lavender. It came with a branded tote that was exactly what I needed for all my Saturdays spent wandering the farmers market. It even had a note about honoring our Mother Earth that contained the phrase, “may your daily ceremony of dressing become a reminder of your radiant presence.”
Of course I had looked, half heartedly, for something less expensive to wear. But this was the only thing I could fit into, at least while maintaining my current diet, which included a lot of crème brûlée.
Brief tangent, because who is eating a lot of crème brûlée?
My in-laws had come in town for a few weeks right after the baby was born. One of the many helpful things they did was to stock our house with food from Costco, including a 12-pack of crème brûlée.
I feel that in some cases, the FDA should step in to regulate what is allowed to be sold in bulk. Something tells me crème brûlée would not make the cut.
Has anyone bought the Costco crème brûlée? No judgment. Each one comes in a little glass pot covered with gold foil. It’s very fancy, I never knew if I was allowed to throw them away. But it also didn’t seem right that crème brûlée should come in plastic. Like maybe France made a law that if crème brûlée has to be sold in America, it must be served in glass?
When I first saw it in the fridge I was like yeah, we’ll never finish those. But we did! Or I should say, I.
When I cracked the first one open it was like, I can’t eat this with a regular spoon. It’s meant to be savored in delicate little French-sized bites. Luckily, I had a lot of baby spoons on hand! When I was feeling especially indulgent, I would sprinkle a handful of the frozen mixed berry medley from Costco on top and let it sweat out. I’d sit on our back deck in one of my husband’s t-shirts, eating crème brûlée with a baby spoon, and I would have fifteen minutes of bliss.
ALL THAT TO SAY – the marigold dress was the only one that obscured the many thousands of calories of crème brûlée I’d consumed.
The only problem? There was no other piece of clothing ON THE ENTIRE INTERNET that matched it.
Yellows were not orange enough. Oranges were too orange. I tried complementary colors – blues, greens, blacks, whites – who knew there were so many shades of white? I bought hundreds of dollars worth of clothing, and then had to lay out all the possible combinations and send them to five different group texts.
Outfitting this picture became my only purpose outside of survival. It was causing so much stress, but I also kind of liked it? I felt this very calm awareness like, this is insane. And I will not stop.
One night, I was in a fitful state of sleep between baby feedings and I had this flash of epiphany – WAIT!! I saw something today that is the exact color of my dress. My subconscious starts searching, searching, searching. And then I realized what it was –
Those of you who don’t have kids are now thinking, why would she buy a dress the color of baby poop? But those of you do have kids have to admit it’s a beautiful color. Marigold! It’s not a color you expect to see come out of a human body. Especially not the bum.
I hit a real low after that night. Let’s just cancel the whole thing. But then, miracle of miracles! I found a shirt for my toddler from an overpriced children’s boutique that had blue, white, and marigoldish stripes that pulled the whole thing together.
On the morning of the shoot, our photographer sends me a photo – she’d gone to scout our location and discovered that a field of purple wildflowers had just magically sprung up. I was giddy. I start picturing myself in my very own Christy Dawn ad. Frolicking through lavender fields with my children. Maybe in one I’ll be breastfeeding, but in a hot way.
An hour later, it starts raining. I’m talking downpour. I’m texting the photographer, frantically refreshing the weather app. We cancel the shoot. I’m despondent.
And then after dinner, the sun comes back out! My hair has humidified to this incredible voluminous wavy situation. We put the shoot back on and I go into full-on pregame mode.
Picture me ironing a piece of clothing for a 4 month old, while “eye of the tiger” plays. My bubble was slightly burst when my husband came into the room and said (completely genuinely) “You have so many dresses! Couldn’t you have worn one of these?” To which I replied, “Scott. This came with a tote.”
We drive to the location, armed with a Costco-sized bag of gummy bears and a Costco-sized box of wipes, Scott descending deeper into darkness with every minute. Family pictures are the worst day of his year. And it’s not like they’re the best day of mine. But they are the most important.
We pull up and it’s like a family photo competition. There are little clumps of clones of my family waiting by all the photo ops. The wildflower grove, and the wistful tree, and the spot where the mountains peek through just right. The dudes are all wearing hard pants for the first time that year and the women are in their version of the marigold dress.
We look to our photographer like she’s the coach. On her signal we walk up to the spot and do whatever she tells us.
We do all the things. The one where you hold hands and walk. Tickle your kid and laugh. For one shot she tells Scott and I to gaze into each other’s eyes, and we do and I see he’s now considering divorce.
Even as we took the pictures, I could feel the dichotomy between how this moment looked and what it really was. It looked so gorgeous – late summer, perfect dusky light, vibrant wildflowers. And it was horrible– mosquito bites, whining kids, swamp odor of Utah lake.
At the end of an hour, the smiliest baby in the world had not smiled once and the toddler had given mostly creepy fake smiles. But it was okay! It was over! We did it, and I felt this sense of accomplishment and pride and power.
In the weeks that followed, as I came back down to earth, I started trying to process what had happened to me. Initially I felt ashamed that I had become the vain Instagram mom I used to make fun of. But I think it goes deeper than vanity. I think this family picture was a primal act of self-preservation.
I had to do it because I worked for nearly a decade before having kids, and I do not know how to give everything to something that gives nothing tangible back. These pictures are a paycheck. They’re my trophy.
And I think they have been for moms since the dawn of time. Past the invention of social media or even Kiddie Kandids, back to whatever century they were getting family portraits painted. We may never know the stories of those paintings, but it’s likely they included the lady of the house being like “Ugh, just call it off. I can’t pull off a ruff!
I think even my choice of baby poop Marigold was a primal instinct. Because the dress came in other colors. But my subconscious knew this was the only one I could wear because it was controlling for bodily fluids. If the baby were to spit up or pee on one of our outfits, we could recover. But infant poop is instant death for whatever material it touches. My deepest maternal instincts were like, must protect the photos. Marigold, marigold, marigold.
I used to make fun of family pictures for being unrealistic, and they are. But they’re not entirely fake either. They’re not accurate, but they’re true. They are the only thing that captures the fleeting magic of parenthood. Like how my now-18-month-old somehow always has a diaper wedgie. Which I do have many pictures of, but it might be weird to hang them on the wall. Or that my toddler thinks the worst possible thing you can say to someone is, “get outta here,” which I need to remember forever but there’s no way to visually capture it. I needed this family photo to take the mess of my life and turn it into art.
I sent out my first ever Christmas card last December. It was very inconvenient, and stamps are so expensive, and I used one of those embarrassing templates that has like 7 photo spots because I couldn’t bring myself to narrow it down.
Despite all you might think I’d have learned from this experience, I know I will repeat it. How do I know this? Well, a few weeks ago I went to my parents’ house and was reminded of the most audacious family photo of all time. In it, my parents and their five children stand in front of the charred remains of our home that, a few months prior, had caught fire in the middle of the night and nearly burned to the ground while we slept. We’re wearing firefighter jackets, holding hoses. I, at age 6 months, am perched on top of a scorched bicycle wearing a dalmatian jumpsuit. My mom has this incredible smirk on her face, while my Dad looks only slightly less thrilled to be there.
I always loved this picture. Partly because it allowed me to dominate show and tell, but also because the fire was this dramatic thing my older siblings had survived, and this picture let me feel like I was in on the memory. It was like family history, except not boring. It felt like an heirloom, even then.
Looking at it now that I’m a mom, and I know what it takes to get a family photo done, I see it a little differently. I see the time and emotional labor and the guts it probably took to go back to the scene of this traumatic experience and decide it was worth recording.
I kind of can’t believe my mom had the fire picture taken, and yet I can. Because apparently the women in my family are nuts! Or maybe motherhood makes all of us do crazy things for love.
~It Just Gets Stranger