“Always better in theory,” I captioned a photo online just before Halloween. Our family stood in front of a historic home lined with over 3,000 lit jack o’lanterns. My five-year-old son wore a disgruntled expression. My three-year-old, though performing for the camera, had just recovered from a meltdown and was conserving energy for his next one.

We had arrived at the iconic Pumpkin House at twilight, even though the house’s peak beauty was on display at nightfall. But what toddler could handle that? The air was crisp, not cold—a perfect fall day.

Still, my three-year-old’s nose had turned red in the elements. It had taken us an hour to drive and find parking. The walk to the destination, without children, would have been a scenic stroll. With kids in tow, we held hands tightly, lest someone feel the urge to run into traffic. Our conversation was filled with assurances of, almost there, honey—just a few more blocks away, followed by attempts at defining the word “block.”

We knew we were at the site once we heard Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” blasted from elevated speakers. Pumpkins carved with musical notes lit up in conjunction with the song. My husband and I stood in awe at the artisanship while our children began dancing to the music in the crowd. I pulled my phone from my pocket and snapped a photo to document this candid moment of joy.

Still, we were there for less than 10 minutes before the first tantrum began. It was loud, despite the hubbub of the crowd. I could feel the politeness of strangers, attempting to divert their gaze from the spectacle of my son. I tried to guide my son away, turning to the street vendors in hopes I could distract him with some treats. But the lines for these desserts were long. I would need to devise a distraction for my distraction.

My son tugged on my sweater. “Let’s go,” he moaned as he lay down on the damp grass. I could hear my other son whining to my husband: “How much longer?”

During a brief moment of peace, I turned to a person in the crowd to ask if they could take a family picture. We smiled for the camera. Then we left almost as soon as we arrived.

The trip, overall, was a bust. My children couldn’t have been disappointed by the destination itself. But still—it was crowded and intense, an event that looked more impressive in images than in an actual immersive experience.

As I look through images of holidays past, I realize that many moments with my children are not quite as idyllic as the picture may prompt me to remember.

Still, the less-than-fun parenting moments often become fond after enough time. Most experiences in parenting—in life—are not just one thing. And maybe this dimension is part of the magic. The newborn phase is sleeplessness and skin-to-skin. It’s blow-outs and cute diaper butts. It’s a baby who cannot express their needs in words yet, and it’s the mystery and frustration of learning their primal language.

Almost a year later, I find myself looking at photos of this night, and I feel the warmth of nostalgia, images of my children just a bit smaller, standing in front of one of my favorite holiday destinations.

This month, if the weather holds and the viruses leave us alone, we will probably make plans to visit this holiday site again. And even though I would like to enjoy more of the scene, I’m not expecting perfection. I’m aware that those crowds can both energize and overstimulate. I’ll be content with a moment of joy. Eventually, in my memory, the mundane always seems to morph into magic.

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