“Cry,” my five-year old daughter whispered in my ear. “It’s okay to cry now.”
She was wedged on my hip as I carried her into her kindergarten classroom for the first time.
The expectation was that I would break down in the same I-am-so-sad-you’re-starting-school tears I had shed for her older brother at the onset of his formal education.
But my eyes were dry and my calm-mommy reserves on the fritz. It took every ounce of self-control not to dropkick her and flee.
You see the morning had not gone well.
Let me backtrack a few years to set the stage.
By three years old, my daughter was a stubborn fashionista. Her clothing had to be pretty by her standards or she wouldn’t wear it. Her attire was an extension of her personality.
Lots of plastic bling.
Think orange and pink striped tights paired with a yellow ruffled skirt, a purple shirt and green sunglasses. The skirt had to have lift when she spun around.
And she would not let me dress her.
We quickly arrived at a reasonable arrangement. She told me what she’d wear. I bought it. And then I left her alone with her wardrobe.
As kindergarten approached we were both excited. She would have opportunities to express her fashion sense to a larger audience. And I’d be done paying for daycare. Our excellent public school district was launching a pilot all-day kindergarten program and I was sure she’d get a spot.
Except she didn’t.
There was a lottery and we drew a high number.
The thought of my smart little daughter in daycare while other kids reaped the benefits of full-day education incensed me. However, the nearby parochial school offered a full day kindergarten for half the price of daycare.
Yup, we went Catholic. (I figure I’m 2% Catholic anyway—remember this blog?)
The uniform was a blue, green, and black watch plaid jumper with navy socks and brown loafers.
It hung innocently on her closet doorknob those last couple weeks of summer. I suppose, on the hanger, it didn’t appear too bad to my daughter.
The first day of school arrived.
At my computer, I heard a blood-curdling scream.
Little heavy-footed loafers thudded across the landing.
“Help me, Mom!”
My heart raced. “What’s wrong?”
The sobs started before I reached the staircase landing.
She stood in front of the mirror.
“It’s so ugly!” The tears fell. “Why are you making me wear this?”
I chuckled because she looked adorable in her uniform.
“It’s not funny!” She stomped her foot. “And look at these shoes. It’s not fair.”
The injustice of having to wear such an abominable outfit turned her into a tiny devil.
No smiles for the camera.
No grandmom kisses.
Silence on the car drive to school.
The urge to rip her from the backseat and threaten corporal punishment was strong.
Instead, I took a deep breath and perched my daughter on my hip. I carried her toward the school, my teeth clenched. Other little girls, all dressed exactly the same, skipped by—smiling.
“So everybody is dressed this way?” she asked, incredulously.
As we entered the classroom, her grip loosened as she studied the other kids.
And then she whispered sweetly, “Cry. It’s okay to cry now.”
The next day she was all smiles and couldn’t wait to wear her uniform and go to school.
In hindsight, I realized I hadn’t explained that everybody would have to wear a uniform, that she wasn’t being singled out, that the uniform wasn’t a punishment.
Her first day of kindergarten reinforced what I already knew about my daughter: that she was strong-willed and relentless in her fashion sense. But it also showed me that she respected the rules as long as they were fair and equal.
As she’s gotten older, she’s grown more independent. She isn’t afraid to be herself.
I hope her confidence and self-reliance will sustain her through the difficult high school years ahead. That she’ll buck the status quo when a peer wants her to drink or try a drug; that she won’t conform. That’ll she’ll be her resourceful and opinionated self.
But my hope is that she’ll also know when to fall in line, to recognize the rules, and the value in them, like she did that first day of kindergarten.
My daughter still won’t let me choose her outfits.
But once in a while she’ll ask me, “Does this look okay?”
Yes. Yes. You’re beautiful. You’re fierce. You’re independent. Your moral compass is pointed in the right direction. Yes, you are perfect. So much so that sometimes I catch my breath and have to turn away lest you see my tears.
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Grown and Flown published a slightly different (longer) version of this essay here. And I read this piece at the Listen To Your Mother Baltimore show April 29, 2017.
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Self confidence is the best outfit, rock it, and own it.