Lynn Eickhoff can’t imagine not getting a headache after viewing endless hours of 20 children’s first-person footage for “My Life As A Child.” Armed with a digital video camera, her daughter Madison Walston-Eickhoff, then 8 years old, compiled dozens of hours of her two moms, her older sister Brooke and herself on film.
Some shots were testimonials. Some were dizzying clips of her bouncing on the stairs of their Saugatuck home. Others captured, well, a bit too much.
“There would be times we had no idea the camera’s running and all of a sudden she’s walking through the house and (my partner) Tara (Walston) and I would be half dressed,” Eickhoff laughs.
Other times, Lynn might have caught a bra hanging from a doorknob or dirty dishes piled up in the sink. But, by then, it was too late. She and Tara couldn’t edit or even view Madison’s footage as agreed upon through a contract with The Learning Channel, which will air Madison’s story as part of the six-episode series at 7 p.m. March 5.
That means they had to put trust in their camera-wielding daughter, who they tried to warn before entering certain areas of their home because, as Lynn admits, she’s more camera savvy than her moms. But, more importantly, the family had to put their faith in TLC, which could have depicted them as cartoon characters. “The media can slant (a story) the way it wants … . We could look like we’re the Simpsons,” Lynn laughs.
But that wasn’t series producer Amy Kohn’s intention. Kohn, along with BBC executive producer Abigail Harvey and TLC executive producer Brooke Runnette, wanted to capture snapshots of American children, with variances on race, religion, geography, socioeconomic status and family structure. The Walston-Eickhoff’s story as told through Madison serves as a single unit that represents a larger population of the United States. One that Kohn is well aware of.
“They’re a very wonderful family with two very loving parents,” Kohn insists. “A family with loving parents, no matter who the parents are, is a wonderful role model for all families.”
The mothers were weary at first. When TLC immediately confirmed Madison’s part on the show, after she wrote a reply to a casting call for 7 to 12 year old children with gay parents and filmed a 10-minute sketch of her life, Lynn and Tara dug deeper.
“We really thought, ‘OK, we need to do our homework,'” Lynn says, “and make sure these people really exist and this really is legit.”
Because the network wanted to send out a producer to their home, they did their research, discovered a similar show that recently aired on the BBC and quickly greenlighted the project.
Tania McKeown, the segment’s producer, spent time coaching Madison, who was selected from 400 children’s submissions, on camera techniques, scenery variances and filming herself. Over the next six months – from late winter through the summer – McKeown kept in touch with Madison, who spent five to 15 minutes every day filming her family. McKeown gave her pointers and idea triggers via telephone and e-mail.
McKeown explained to Madison’s mothers that to make this project look and feel genuine, their daughter had to work exclusively on it. “It’s not directed by us; it’s not coordinated by us. It’s entirely from her point of view,” Lynn notes.
If Madison’s candid footage does anything, it cements the notion that gay caretakers are just as capable as those with opposite-gender parents. “Some people don’t think that’s right (to have gay parents) and they can maybe change their mind about that if they watch it,” says Madison, bashfully. “It’s important so other people know how it feels to have two moms or two dads.”
Mom and mom
Tara isn’t worried that Madison’s story will elicit tasteless comments from her fellow fourth grade classmates. Neither is her daughter. “Madison has friends who have asked how she could have two moms,” Tara starts, “and she simply replies, ‘I just do’ and they run off and play.”
Tara and Lynn never hid their relationship from others; they also never flaunted it. “My Life As A Child,” though, made them step out with their story. A story that Lynn hopes will resonate with same-sex couples, but more importantly with mom-dad unions. On the show, Madison reinforces that.
She had no qualms about telling strangers, “This is my mom, and this is my other mom.”
“She’d tell anybody and everybody that,” Lynn says.
Madison is proud of her family, which glows through her tone on the show when she’s tickled – as she bounces around her room – that her family made the front cover of the local newspaper after attending Rainbow Family Week. “I’m very proud of that picture … ,” Lynn says in the program as they all pile on the couch. “All four of us, like we’re a family.”
Madison wants her mothers to marry. Her passion to see her mom’s wed feeds into the show, where she emphasizes that her family shouldn’t be treated differently because of her mothers’ same-sex union. But, for the now 9-year-old, that would mean packing her bags, leaving her friends behind and heading to Massachusetts. “It would be nice,” Madison says, “but at the same time we’d have to leave Michigan.”
Temporarily, they did. To the family’s surprise, they were sent to New York in January after Madison completed her work. Photographers shot publicity pictures and filmmakers taped promotional commericials of the children climbing a yellow scaffolding. In between shots, the Walston-Eickhoff family mingled with the other troops. And then Lynn realized something.
“Every story’s different,” she states. “Not only does each family have their own unique story … told genuinely through the child’s eyes, but (there’s) the common thread of love and the ties of family. No matter what, that’s the common theme that comes through.”