Growing up in a Christian household in Jamaica, my grandmother made it clear: Girls wear skirts and dresses; shorts are for boys and sinner girls.
My grandmother’s philosophy stayed with my mother. Mommy wore long skirts and dresses that kissed her ankles, even through the brutal cold winter months in New Jersey. She looked regal, so unlike the other mothers, which became a problem for me and my sister, who wanted our mother to blend in.
One day, we convinced Mommy to try on a pair of pants. While I oohed and my sister aahed, Mommy stood frozen in front of us. She did not recognize this pant-wearing version of herself. She took off the pants and slid back into her dress, resuming her familiar form. And like her, like my grandmother, and like countless generations before them, my sister and I continued to wear our dresses to church, too.
At nineteen years old, I fantasized about one day having a daughter and about the many dresses she’d have in her closet. I hand-stitched a dress and a matching headband for her. Three years later, I got what I wished for and gave birth to a baby girl.
For years now, my daughter has worn whatever I tell her to wear, without issue. But today she looks at me like I’m holding up a trash bag instead of a dress.
“I don’t want to wear the dress,” my daughter yells.
I’m stunned. Fury rises in my body. I’ve already brushed her hair into two ponytails and added the blue berets to match the A-line princess dress I pulled from the pink hanger in the closet. Today is Sunday. We are supposed to put on our best dresses. This is how we dress for church.
I try saying, “It’s so pretty,” then I shimmy the dress in midair to entice her.
Her usually cute smile is upside down on her face like a horseshoe. I can almost see steam coming out of her nose.
Words of a Caribbean mother bubble up in my throat. “Put. On. The. Dress,” I say, choking on generations of mother power.
“No. I don’t want to wear the dress,” she says again, but this time her words are soft enough to slip under the armor of my ego and into my heart.
“A soft answer turneth away wrath,” the Bible verse says.
My daughter answered softly. I spoke to her in wrath. The realization strikes me. I don’t want to be wrathful. So I ask questions and dig. Why am I feeling this fierce anger towards my daughter all because she doesn’t want to wear a dress? Whose rule am I following and implementing with such intense conviction? This idea that girls and women should wear dresses is an idea that was passed onto me, and I’ve followed. But do I believe it, and can I defend this idea with any reasonable words? Is this idea more important than my daughter’s freedom to express herself and make her own choices?
The dress in my hand feels heavy. I lower it, expecting to feel defeat in the face of my daughter’s defiance. This feels like a victory, instead. Our disagreement has turned into an opportunity for me to question a long-held belief that has guided my behavior.
Now I wonder, what kind of mother do I want to be — one who holds onto someone else’s parenting expectations without examination, or one who is open to change and can adapt to new ways of thinking? The second option feels more inviting.
“What do you want to wear to church?” I ask, inviting my daughter to choose her own outfit.
She selects a pair of pants with baby elephants printed on the legs.
Today, I let go of an old idea that no longer served me and can admire my daughter’s style. I also admire being shown how to be soft while standing up for yourself. Mostly, though, I appreciate how our mother and daughter argument provided me with this opportunity to grow and learn and become a more loving version of myself.