We have 15 minutes until we have to walk out the door for the birthday party. It’s already been a rough morning: My 5-year-old woke up complaining about the weather, the temperature of her toast, and my gall to ask her to brush her teeth. At this point, my goal is to get to the birthday party without any more power struggles.
“Sweetie, we’ve got to go,” I announce as calmly as I can. I am loath to set her off, and rushing her is like pouring unleaded gasoline on a campfire.
I hear her running toward the stairs. Whew, I think, we’ve totally got this.
I see her legs first. They’re fire engine red from the thin tights we bought at Target on super-extra clearance months ago. They were supposed to be for her mariachi costume last Halloween. But she’s sporting them now, even though they are pilled, saggy and out of season.
When she comes into full view, I see she’s paired the pantyhose-like tights with a shirt. I sigh because it means I have to explain that she’ll have to put on a skirt or dress because those cherry red tights are not leggings. They’re see-through.
She takes the news with an eye roll and a huffy sigh, but agrees to revise. I’m praying she ditches the awful tights for bona fide leggings or picks a dress that goes past her knees.
She reemerges, this time with a pair of black “monkey” shorts—the shorts we bought for her to wear under her dresses during the summer. They’re super short, glorified bloomers, really. Now she looks like a cross between an elderly Russian babushka and a 1969 Knicks player.
When I was a little girl, birthday parties were a big deal. They required special clothes that had an aura of importance about them. I also grew up in the south in the mid-’70s so there was a lot of focus on how little girls should look (pretty, dainty, precious), and a birthday party brought all of those ideas into sharp focus. Early on, I burned with shame because my hair didn’t curl just so, my cheeks weren’t rosy, and my stomach was pudgy. Because I’ve had to untangle many of those messages as an adult through a messy and expensive therapeutic process, I am adamant about not passing them on to my daughter.
© Courtesy Christie Tate
But as I stare at her outfit, I’m wondering where the middle ground is between monogrammed smocking dresses with matching hair bows and the look she’s got going this morning.
I know I’m going to let her wear it. I tell myself I’m saving her years of therapy by not dressing her up like a doll and imposing my taste on her. I need more consolation so I up the ante and tell myself I’m supporting her creativity and self-expression so maybe I’m sparing her three years of law school or a string of unsatisfying desk jobs.
I’m doing a good thing.
Then why am I holding my phone, itching to text the birthday girl’s mom to warn her that my daughter insisted on picking out her outfit? Oh how I want to text something pithy like, “She insisted on that outfit! Don’t judge me because my kid is wearing bargain basement hosiery the color of a whore’s parlor!” Har, har, har.
I don’t send the text. I mean, I’m either behind my daughter or I’m not. Sending degrading texts to other mothers to manage my shame about her taste isn’t exactly supportive behavior. And that’s exactly what I’m trying to manage: that same old shame from long ago. Ironically, this is exactly the experience—the tidal wave of crippling shame about what other people will think of me—I’m hoping to spare my daughter.
We pull up to the party. It’s time for her to go out in the world. I look into her eyes, avoiding the specter of her ensemble, and say, “Have a great time. I love you.”
She giddily skip-walks away in those frigging tights. It’s not lost on me that she’s moving through the world like someone who’s free—free of shame, self-consciousness and the too-heavy burden of having to fit into anyone else’s vision (mine, society’s, Anna Wintour’s) of how she should look.
It’s not a freedom I had at her age. Even now, I only experience it in fleeting moments.
She disappears through the door, and I realize the bullet we’ve narrowly dodged. The bullet is the baggage I carry about how little girls should look and the pernicious idea that she’s an extension of my image that I get to manage by steamrolling over her desires and tastes.
As long as I keep my mouth shut, she gets to be free. It seems a fair price to pay.