It is time for school. At five minutes past seven my kids have between 10 and 30 minutes to finish breakfast, brush their teeth, and be ready to be picked up; yet my seven-year-old daughter has still not come downstairs.
Mortified by her brother’s insistence on wearing whatever is on top of his clean laundry pile, Ella goes through a complicated and time-consuming ritual each morning of laying out several outfits before choosing the one that ‘feels right.’ Inevitably at least one of these outfits will have a vital missing piece that has escaped the laundry pile, and this will add several valuable minutes to the morning routine.
Today she is taking an especially long time because a favorite pair of blue leggings has gone AWOL, and I am skittish with impatience shouting repeatedly to her to come down for breakfast.
When she does arrive, I’m so relieved to get her fed and out the door that it takes me several moments to notice what she has on. Then it hits me. She’s wearing knee length white shorts, a long sleeved purple shirt and a cropped black velvet bolero jacket with ankle socks and sneakers.
I have long since given up trying to choose my daughter’s outfits. This is the child who wore a full length black and red fringed gypsy dress with patent-leather go-go boots to school on Spanish Language T-Shirt Day because 'it felt Spanish' to her. Meanwhile, my daily jeans and sweatshirt combinations are met with her silent disdain and disappointment.
It’s unclear where she got this sense of style, certainly not from me, but most of the time I admire it. She has a way with clothes and a confidence in wearing them that I could only dream of possessing.
However today the knee-length shorts are a concern. Normally they are a favorite comfy choice and I respect that. But now it’s November, in Chicago, and if she’s lucky the temperature will climb to 32 degrees by recess.
I should make her change, but it’s 7:15 and her ride – my sister – will be here any minute. More importantly, I know from experience that if I insist she change her clothes it will instigate a battle of wills that will involve tears and slammed doors, which simply cannot be played out in 10 minutes.
Instead I choose to let it go. I point out in my calmest mom voice: “You know shorts are not appropriate for November and you are going to be cold today. You understand that, right?”
A solemn and defiant nod is all I receive in response.
So I say okay. I make sure she has her puffy winter coat, hat, mittens and gloves. And for a moment I feel okay with this decision. Being cold today will not kill her, and if she is freezing at recess or forced to stay in because she is not appropriately dressed it will be a much more powerful lesson than being made to change her clothes by a mother who does not understand her fashion choices.
Plus we have avoided the tears and drama that would certainly have ruined both of our days.
But as I walk my children out to my sister’s car to say goodbye, I am greeted with a shrill “Ella, what are you wearing? You’ll get frostbite!” This is followed by a scornful ‘you are a bad mother’ glare from my sister, whose daughter wears undershirts with everything and never goes to school without a second layer – just in case.
“I told her she’d be cold,” I insist, but it is too late. I am a bad mother. My inward assurance that I have made a clever parenting choice has been replaced with a vision of a my baby shivering on the playground, and fears that the next phone call will be from her school insisting I bring her a proper pair of pants.
And I am amazed suddenly how easy it is to make good parenting choices in private and how quickly they can turn on you in the glare of public scrutiny.
In the end she got her way and wore those shorts to school. And I know she will survive this day and will likely make warmer choices for the rest of the year. But on the off chance the winter-wear lesson isn’t driven home today, I’ve hidden the rest of her shorts on the top shelf of my closet where they will stay until I say the weather is warm enough to wear them.
Because sometimes the best defense as a parent is to avoid the battle all together.
5:00 pm Epilogue
Triumph. Ella went to school in her shorts, defiantly ignoring the weather, only to be scolded by several of her teachers for wearing such a ridiculous outfit on a cold November day.
She came home vowing not to wear shorts to school again and wishing she had listened to her Mama.