At the playground my 3-year-old daughter, Julia, is busy climbing the rope ladder to the top of the curvy slide. I wrestle with the wood chips that invade my flip-flops and wave to her. Julia returns the gesture, her wave all arm as though she's flagging down a ship. Around me other parents, caregivers, grandparents do the playground dance of half-noticing someone else's child.
"She's so adorable," an older woman says. I smile a thank-you. Another mom helps her toddler on the swings. She studies Julia and then starts with playground chatter. "You're brave." I assume she means letting Julia climb to the top of the rope ladder. "She'll be fine. She's a great climber."
"Not the rope." She points to Julia, who is now running the length of the wooden bridge, her untamed curls bobbing in the fall wind. "I mean -- she's so colorful!"
Up until now I have hardly noticed what Julia is wearing. Upon closer inspection, the tally is this: orange pants that belong to one of her brothers, purple socks, hand-me-down Teva-style sandals, and a light-blue-and-navy striped velour shirt. "She dressed herself," I say and shrug. Julia dresses herself each morning, in fact, in whatever suits her.
The other mom leans in conspiratorially. "He has no interest in dressing himself," she says of her son. "The few times he has, he throws together the weirdest combinations." She says this and then blushes, thinking she might have insulted me. "Not that there's anything wrong with..."
"It's fine," I assure her, and I mean it. Of all the emotional issues of parenting, I am not invested in how my kids look. "Julia's got her own sense of color. Doesn't bother me."
"Well, you're brave," the mom says.
Bravery? Does such a word apply to kid fashion? My own mother would disagree with the word choice, and yet she never would have allowed me out in public in Julia's chosen style.
Case in point: the day before fourth grade at my new, fancy private school. All the girls were invited to Melinda's house to play and to meet me, the only new kid.
"Ready to go?" my mother shouted up the stairs at our new house. We'd moved that summer and I was still getting used to the echoes. Clad in typical end-of-summer attire of shorts and sneakers, I presented myself at the bottom of the stairs.
"Go change," my mother instructed. She looked immaculate, as usual, in a linen top and fitted trousers.
I was shocked. What was wrong with my shorts? "We're just playing outside, Mom. Everyone's going to be wearing this."
She made me change, and I arrived at Melinda's in my seersucker pink-and-white dress with a Peter Pan collar and sandals that buckled on the ankle, only to be greeted by a swarm of dirt-caked girls in torn T-shirts, ragged cutoffs, and sneakers. I was humiliated. Not only did I stand out, I stood out in a voice that wasn't mine, but my mother's. I shot her a look that could wilt cacti.
One of the other mothers stepped in. "Don't you look adorable!" Nods all around.
"Come on, Emily, we're climbing trees!" The girls urged me to join them. I wanted to go but couldn't -- I would ruin the dress my mother had bought me. The problem was solved eventually when Melinda lent me shorts and a shirt, and I sucked up the pain of the blisters that came from running around in the sandals.
This scene was not a one-off. More often than not, appearance played a large part in my relationship with my mother. So much, in fact, that it's hardly there in my relationship with Julia. It's not that I want to exclude how she looks from the equation of how she fits in the world, but rather I want it to take second (or fifth or sixth or twelfth) seat. Granted, she's just 3 years old and my mother and I have survived 35 years of clashing over image, but I'd like to think I won't turn "What are you going to wear?" into an emotionally loaded proposition. I often felt that meeting my mother's expectations was so crucial that there was no way I could succeed.
"You look wonderful," my mother said as I met her for lunch a few years before I had Julia.
"Where did you get those shoes?"
"You don't like them?" I looked down at my feet. I'd splurged on the shoes -- they were wing tips, and later I would come to loathe them, but right then, I wanted her to approve.
"I didn't say that."
"But you did." And she had, with the unspoken nuances that only the mother and daughter can feel and see.
"They're just a bit..." She paused, trying not to hurt my feelings. "...manly." The lunch dissolved into a discussion of feelings versus accessories, my desire to dress and to speak for myself and still gain her blessing over my outfit. It didn't help that she looks elegant in just about anything -- jeans, suits, even culottes (which look good on hardly anyone). Her outfits work, and speak out about the person she is.
At this point, with four kids under age 8, my "wardrobe" is primarily jeans and T-shirts. I'm not one of the mothers who show up at afternoon pickup in full makeup, tweed jacket, skirt, and boots. I'm the mom chucking a baseball in the yard with the same polar fleece I've had since college. By and large I wear what my life dictates.
My mother doesn't mind as much now, but the fear of dressing wrong, of somehow making a fashion faux pas, still lurks in the background not only for me, but for my kids. A few Thanksgivings ago, she and her new husband had the combined modern family (seven kids, sixteen grandchildren) coming over for turkey and football. "Make sure you dress the kids," she said. Hidden in that request was one for me and my husband. "I will," I assured her. I understood the pressure of bringing together people who are suddenly related. "No jeans" was her final dictum. Despite our annoyance (we were thinking nice jeans and a pressed button-down or sweater), we avoided denim, only to be greeted by our entire stepfamily, who were all...wearing jeans. [pagebreak] I used to think that I could change my mother's opinion about clothing, about appearance. Since having a daughter, however, I've come to realize that like many issues in parenting, dressing our kids is all about having a voice. More than just the typical parental need to control through what our kids eat and wear, I think my mother was trying to make sure I fit in. I don't blame her -- perhaps she thought if I arrived at that summer party in shorts, I'd be miserable if all the other girls were in dresses. Perhaps if we'd shown up in jeans on Thanksgiving, we might have disrespected our new family.
"I'm going to pick out my clothing for tomorrow," Julia says after the playground, when she's bathed and getting ready for bed. She opens her drawers and gives it real consideration. Leggings? Pants? She settles on a white skirt and tie-dyed blue shirt, polka-dot socks and sneakers. As long as she is weather-appropriate, I don't care what combination she wears. She doesn't know yet that her clothing is different. And the few times she has noticed, she hasn't changed her mind.
My mother is picking Julia up at school tomorrow. Will she notice the outrageous shirt? Wonder why she paired it with a skirt? Maybe. But perhaps she'll also recognize Julia's voice in her outfit, see her determination, her love of color, appreciate her reasons for the skirt ("It's flowy on my legs").
The next afternoon, my mother drops off a nearly asleep but very happy Julia and tells me about their day. "We went for a walk in the park. We picked up leaves and read books. Her skirt is stained. Did she use paints?"
I look at the skirt. "No," I tell her. "I washed it with a blue tablecloth and it ran." I am about to justify myself -- my letting Julia go to school with the stain, my inability to sort clothing for a wash. But I don't. "It's okay, Mom."
My mother smiles and gives me a kiss on the cheek. She takes in my T-shirt (it started the day clean and now has spitup on not one but both shoulders), my jeans (rice cereal on the thigh), my socks (ripped from a nail in the floor). Mainly, she takes in my smile as I hug Julia hello.
"I'm a mess," I tell my mother before she can say it to me. My clothing is the billboard for everything my days consist of now. But they don't tell the whole story. My mother wrestled with piecing together her own life and making sure that her exterior -- and mine -- were always pristine even when things were rocky. Now, with Julia, maybe I don't have to do that.
"You look happy," she grins. "You look like a mom."
Julia wants my attention, wants me to pick her up after her long day. "Can you take the baby?" I ask and hand my 4-month-old over to my mother. She coos over him, and he grants her a smile and then promptly spits up on her. She laughs. "Oh, no. Right on the sweater." She goes to mop herself up.
I wrap my arms around Julia, shifting her weight from my chest to my hip the way I did when she was a baby. I wonder if she will continue to make bold fashion choices, if she will want to stand out or to blend in. I hope I'm giving her the voice to do either, to do what feels best to her. I've read all those articles on the effects of focusing on girls' looks rather than their achievements. And I notice how people say to my boys, "You've got quite a pitching arm there." Or "I heard you playing the piano, wow!" And then to Julia, "Don't you look adorable in your dress!"
"Well, needless to say, I'm going to have to change," my mother says, the baby still in her arms, her sweater darkened with water from the attempt to clean it.
"Look at what I made," Julia says with my mother back in the room. She slides on the floor and goes to her schoolbag. She unfurls a crinkled painting done in splashes of magenta, green, bright blue.
"Was it fun?" I ask. Julia nods. "You sure like to paint. The blue and green remind me of an ocean."
"A big ocean," she agrees.
"And that shirt you have," my mother says. "The one with the design on the front."
Julia nods. "I know that one. Can I wear it tomorrow?"
"Sure," I tell her. "If you want to."
How she looks -- adorable, stained, sweet, slobby, hair brushed or not -- does not mean for me what it meant for my mother. I want to teach her a balance: Sometimes you shove on sweats and other times you need to dress up. But more than all that, I want her to know that my happiness has very little to do with how I look. That my self-worth isn't based on exteriors. That I hope hers isn't, either.
I remember showing up at the party in my seersucker dress and, right now, I recall something else besides my embarrassment. The feel of my mother's hand around mine as we stood in the driveway surrounded by other women and their daughters. How she admitted her mistake and let me change. I squeeze my mother's hand now while Julia's legs are still wrapped around my waist.
"My Grammie is your mom!" Julia says as though no matter how many times she's said or heard the fact, she cannot quite believe it to be true. The three of us, all dressed how we like, are together. My mother and I are marked with the mess of motherhood, the love, the kisses, the paint splotches, the marks and dings of trying to be heard, of being brave enough to let go.
Emily Franklin is the author of Too Many Cooks: Kitchen Adventures with 1 Mom, 4 Kids, and 102 Recipes, a memoir. This essay is from Because I Love Her: 34 Women Writers Reflect on the Mother-Daughter Bond, edited by Andrea N. Richesin and due out this month from Harlequin.