Sunday, May 14, 2006

Mother's Day Post: A Picture of Autonomy

When I was nine years old, my favorite outfit was a pair of stretchy bell-bottom pants with an eye-popping green-and-white pattern, paired with a knitted red-and-white striped HealthTex sailor shirt. I thought all the colors and patterns together were exciting and cheerful, and I wore that lovely combo once a week or so all through fourth grade.

As an adult with a (slightly) more sophisticated sense of color and fashion, I used to cringe at the memory of that outfit. How could my mom have let me wear it? What on earth was she thinking? I must have been a laughingstock! Yeah, she was busy, she was a divorced working mom with two kids to look after, but still! She must have been totally oblivious, I thought, not to mention irresponsible, to let me go out like that, week after week, without even saying a word to try to dissuade me.

Finally, several years ago, I asked her about it. She laughed. "Oh, that outfit!" she said. "It was terrible! But I decided it was your choice, they were your clothes, and you'd make your own decisions about what to wear. I knew you'd figure out what colors went together eventually."

She hadn't been oblivious at all; she'd made a conscious decision to let me make my own choices, without comment or criticism. She felt that my growing sense of autonomy was more important than whether or not I went to school looking like a fashion plate, or whether I might get teased, or even the risk that my teachers' eyeballs would explode from viewing my fashion disaster every week.

I was amazed and impressed when I realized that, but I didn't understand what a tremendous gift it was until I had a child and realized that everything she does or says--or wears--can be (and often is) seen as a reflection on her parents. In my mind, if not always in reality, there's a constant murmur of criticism from the world at large about Mermaid Girl's every imperfection: if she's rude, it's because we've spoiled her or haven't taught her manners; if she's shy or afraid of something, we've somehow impressed our fears upon her; if she's vain, we make too much of her looks; if she's fixated on Barbie and Disney Princesses, we've failed to stop her from being swallowed up whole by the heteropatriarchy...

Whether or not anyone actually says or implies these things, they're there, in my consciousness. It's hard to remember that MG is a person, herself, and not just a reflection of our parenting competence or lack thereof. It's hard to remember that letting her be her own person, and make her own choices, is more important than what unspecified (or even specified) people might think about her or us. It's just about the most important thing, I think. But it's way, way harder than I thought it would be.

Way, way back at the dawn of time, when MG was a baby, Renaissance Woman and I agreed that there were three circumstances under which we would make rules or say "no" to her:
1) Something dangerous to her or someone else
2) Something unkind or disrespectful
3) Something that we JUST COULDN'T STAND (reading "Strawberry Shortcake Cinderella" one more freakin' time, for example.)

"Something that someone somewhere might construe as evidence of poor or lax parenting" was conspicuously not on that list. And we have tried to stick by those guidelines, but man, sometimes it's tough.

Like, last Thursday night, when I was putting her to bed and she picked out her clothes for the next day: a pink and green flowered jumper, a blue and white flowered blouse, and yellow flowered tights. All flowered, but all different patterns and color schemes. I thought of her running around school all day in that eye-popping getup, and what her teacher might think, and I almost said something. Not to tell her she couldn't wear that outfit, but just to make, you know, a gentle suggestion: maybe a plain shirt under the jumper? Or some white tights?

Then I reminded myself that she hates to be coaxed or jollied, that it just makes her clamp down. I remembered that I need to pick my fights with this one, and that there will be plenty of other chances to cash in my parenting points. But mainly, I remembered my green-and-red outfit, and how happy I'd felt when I was wearing it, and how that happiness would have been sullied if my mom had done so much as raise an eyebrow in criticism.

And I kept my mouth shut.

And this morning, after MG presented us with the Mother's Day cards and paintings and sachets of bath salts that she'd snuck home from school and hidden in her room (two of everything, thanks to her thoughtful and clued-in teacher), she and RW gleefully unveiled the masterpiece they'd been working on in secret all week: a hand-decorated wooden frame holding this photo of MG, taken last Friday afternoon:

I've never been so grateful for not stepping on her choices.

Thanks, Mom, for the example. And a belated Happy Mother's Day.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This reminds me of a moment of revelation I had long before I had children. I was in a kitchen shop and overheard a mother and daughter (age 8? 10?) choosing some plastic (plastic!) wine glasses. They came in three colors--clear, blue, and pink. The mom said, "Which of these shall we buy?" The girl, predictably, said, "The pink ones." And the mom answered, "Oh, I think the blue ones are nicer. Let's take these."

I thought at the time: WELL, WHY'D YOU ASK HER, if you weren't going to go with her choice? And I swore to myself then, childless and not knowing what I was in for, that if the choice *really* didn't matter--if it was just a matter of some tacky plastic glasses *anyway*--that I would swallow my aesthetics and pride and good taste and let the kid enjoy herself. Whenever pattern blindness rears its ugly head, I try to remember those pink plastic wine glasses.

love, e wein

1:59 AM  
Blogger Phantom Scribbler said...

Thanks. I really, really needed to read this. Must be better about controlling my penchant for feeling humiliated by the idiosyncrasies of my kids....

8:36 AM  
Anonymous peripateticpolarbear said...

She looks bee-yoo-tee-full!

9:01 AM  
Blogger liz said...

She is so gorgeous. I love that outfit.

And I love this post. Thanks for the reminder!

10:21 AM  
Anonymous baggage said...

Thanks for this. She looks beautiful.

3:31 PM  
Anonymous the younger brother said...

Report from other family branch: MG's cousin, Little Bear, prefers to wear two different-colored socks.

Recently, she's figured out how to wear three or even four different-colored socks by the simple expedient of wearing socks on her hands.

Long may she continue to do so. If she wants to.

4:38 PM  
Blogger susan said...

What a gorgeous photo, and a wonderful post.

4:44 PM  
Blogger Angel said...


Happy (belated) Mother's Day :)

8:20 PM  
Blogger Tamar said...

What a beautiful, beautiful post. I will print it out and use it for my early childhood development courses.

4:00 AM  
Blogger RHD said...

Your girl gets lovelier every day.

And my girl would totally covet that outfit. As the fashion designer Betsey Johnson says, "Your favorite clothes always go together."

9:08 AM  
Anonymous Renaissance Woman said...

When I first saw that outfit last Friday morning, I failed the Elswhere Kid Autonomy test in my typically passive-aggressive way. "The yellow tights might be too hot," I opined to MG, "The white tights would be cooler." But MG just glared at me, so I gave up.

Originally MG planned to wear her "Bride & Prejudice" costume for the photo, which is why she decorated the frame with sequins. But when time came to take the photo, she decided to "come as she was." And I'm glad she did. Now her Fabulous Five year old Fashion sense is enshrined forever.

9:39 AM  
Blogger That Girl said...

With my son it's the long, in-your-eyes hair they are sporting nowadays. I try to control my hands but I cant be responsible for what happens in my sleep!

You are a wonderful mom. Im sure MG will be mad you let her wear that!

5:35 AM  
Blogger Mary Tsao said...

She's so beautiful! I love the photo and especially her awesome sense of style. What a thought Mother's Day gift. You'll cherish it forever, I'm sure.

3:57 PM  

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