I took my 3-year-old daughters shoe shopping recently. One of my daughters chooses a cute navy pair that fit her narrow feet, but my other daughter wants something glitzier. I try to steer her away from those awful, overpriced shoes with garish pictures of Disney princesses on them, but she still manages to find the girliest, sparkliest shoes she can find. They are Barbie pink, coated with silver sequins. Lights flash when her little feet hit the ground.
I start back-pedaling. “How about these purple ones?” I ask her. They have sequins too, but in comparison, they now look practically demure.
“I love these,” Eva says gravely, looking down at her feet. Eva is a sweet-natured girl, not inclined to make a fuss, and I use it to my advantage in this moment.
“Babe, those don’t look comfortable. Let’s look around.” We leave the store without any shoes for her and a promise to come back if we don’t find anything else. But walking down the street holding my daughters’ hands, I begin to doubt myself. The problem with those shoes isn’t my daughter’s discomfort — it’s mine. What is going on? Why am I making such a big deal about such a little purchase?
I let my kids make lots of choices about what they wear. They dress themselves, which means they often look like homeless, colorblind clowns. I ignore the looks we get, and they genuinely don’t bother me. I know that in order to become whole people my girls need to make their own decisions. So much is decided for them, and so many things are out of their control. If they want to wear an orange t-shirt, purple striped leggings and bunny ears to the grocery store, that’s fine.
I see moms like me from time to time. The mom with the kid at music class in Spiderman pajamas, the little girl wearing her furry boots and pom-pom hat in 80-degree weather, the little boy in a purple butterfly shirt. We smile at each other. We could become friends under the right circumstances.
Yet, even with all this open-mindedness, I am virulently opposed to princess culture. I try not to judge other parents, but when I see a little girl in a tiara and puffy dress on the playground, part of me wants to thrust “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” at her parents. I want to ask them if they worry about the ramifications of allowing their child to worship a culture that teaches them girls are for looking pretty and rescuing. I harbor the prejudice that tomboys are somehow psychologically healthier than the ultra-feminine little girls who won’t leave the house without a handbag and are afraid of bugs. What’s all the panic about? Oh, you can probably already guess. I grew up wanting to be pretty and waiting to be rescued. I’d like something different for my daughters.
But sitting in the sunny bagel shop, I have this sinking feeling I’ve made the wrong choice. Identity is not a straight shot. I loved “Charlie’s Angels” growing up. A friend of my mother’s babysat me one day and she set my hair in hot rollers, and it came out big and puffy, like Kelly Garrett’s. It was the single greatest thing a grown-up had ever done for me. But I was also a young adult in the ’90s, and I wore jeans and flannel shirts for about a decade. I have experimented with both the tomboy and the ultra-feminine. It’s hard to trace the impact of either of these fashion choices on my heart and mind.
Another uncomfortable thought occurs to me. If I had a little boy who wanted to wear dresses, or only wear pink, I would make sure I nurtured that. I would stare down anyone who judged. I would be comfortable defending his right to wear whatever made him feel like himself, whatever made him happy. But Eva can’t have pink, light-up shoes? What gives?
Eva is a beautiful kid. So is my other daughter, of course, just as beautiful. But Eva’s looks are unique. She has curly red hair, and huge blue eyes set in a delicate, pale face. More than one person has stopped me in the street to tell me we could make money off her looks. One woman, a former model herself, went on and on about how to go about sending her picture to the Gap. I wanted to tell that woman to shut the hell up. Not least of all because I had another kid, a kid who apparently isn’t Gap material, standing right there, but also because I want so much more for Eva than a life of what I assume is mostly vacant superficiality and eating disorders. As it is, she gets much more attention for her appearance than I wish she did. I do what I can to act as a counterweight. I praise my daughters for their intelligence, their kindness, their competence, their courage. For now, my voice is louder than anyone else’s. But for how long?
It makes sense that I want to protect my daughter from a culture that will idealize her beauty and trivialize the rest of her. But doing that by not allowing her to wear pink, light-up shoes? It sounds stupid to me, too. What I realize is that I am denying Eva something she wants, something that it is easy for me to give, because I am afraid of a lot of things that are out of my control.
Children do not come to us as blank slates. They are already packed with all kinds of complexity. Their identities are revealed to us in facets all the time, with so much intricacy the mind boggles. Eva loves soccer, Daniel Tiger, and tutus. She wants to be a builder, a policeman, and a bunny baby sitter when she grows up. She is cautious, but extremely coordinated. She is sensitive, but resilient. She has a fantastic sense of humor, but if you hurt her feelings she draws herself up like a queen, haughty and dignified. Our life together will be a series of revelations. I will not like all of them, but it’s not my business to. My job is not to turn her into who I think she should be, my job is to nurture who she already is, to help her become more fully herself.
Back out on the busy sidewalk, I turn to her. “Eva, do you still want those shoes in the shop?”
“Yes!” She answers immediately. We go get them. She wears them out of the store. When we get home, the babysitter is there. Eva runs to show off her new shoes. “Look Ana, I got these shoes. Mommy says they’re not her favorite, but I can have them anyway.” The touch of regret in her voice breaks my heart.
Before I leave them for the afternoon, I want to say something to her. Something about the shoes, something about what I was thinking. What I really want to tell her is this: I love you like a crazy person. You could burn the house down, crash the car, get pregnant at 16, and I would still cheerfully lay down my life for you. But the problem with being a parent is mostly you don’t get to make grand gestures, and sometimes it’s easy to get stuck in this binary system of yeses and nos. Sometimes it seems like there are mostly nos. No you can’t do that, eat that, play with that. It’s not polite, organic, it has lead. And on and on. And sometimes mommy is an idiot and she forgets that it’s not your job to prove her right, or be the living example of some parenting philosophy. Because, really, you are perfect right now, and my job is to not mess that up. But that is way too much information for a 3-year-old, so what I say is, “Eva, I love your shoes. They’re great. I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you the first time.”
She says, “Thank you, mommy. I love your shoes too!” Then she jumps, hops and dances around the living room like a maniac, watching the bright pink lights that go on and off.