At five years old, my daughter is feeling the pressure to fit in. As a dad with marginal power, there is still great responsibility.
My daughter loves Spider-Man. While we don’t know why, I suspect it’s the love interest as much as her favorite colors. Whenever there’s a scene between Peter Parker and Mary Jane, she has a tentative, all encompassing smile. Maybe that’s me projecting adult emotions on a five year old but no other superhero or franchise sticks like Spider-Man: T-shirts, boxers, sweatshirts, her favorite shoes, her favorite drinking glass, her favorite car, her favorite puzzle, the action figures on her nightstand that she rearranges before bedtime. And pajamas.
So when it was pajama day at gymnastics, and her Spidey pjs were clean, I was stunned when she shook her head no.
“Other ones,” she said. She didn’t specify what she wanted, only the ones she didn’t want. Scooby was dirty, and she’d been wearing her mom’s t-shirts as pjs for months. I tried again to see if I misunderstood, but I hadn’t.
“But why, honey, I thought these were your favorites?”
“They’re not girly. I need girly ones for ‘mnastics.”
There was a slight pause before the indignation boiled in me. I thought of all the other girls and the mothers who dress them in leotards and tutus and that. My daughter demands shorts and t-shirts. We had her in dance and she hated it, hated the clothes. No jeans fit and she refuses dresses and skirts “except special church days” like Easter or Christmas. She’s a head taller than all her pre-k classmates, and doesn’t fit into typical girl clothes because, as our pediatrician put it, “she’s dense.” She loves sports—her mom was a division two field hockey star in college—so she’s enrolled in ice hockey, swimming, basketball, and, for the social side of things, gymnastics. That’s just for this quarter. She does pushups with me, can ride her bike miles, piggybacks her older brother, walks up the sled hill easier than I do, and is a tough, determined girl.
She’s not girly, never has been, but now she recognizes it. She won’t let me comb her hair unless I make up a story on demand; ponytails, barrettes–any jewelry except for Lego keychains–are banned.
And she’s home with dad four days a week. I’m way more self-conscious about it than I was with my son, so much so that I ask her if she wants to paint my nails. It was easier socializing with my son and his prospective friends’ parents; making playdates for my daughter has been much more problematic, largely because moms are less comfortable sending their daughters to a house where the dad is there alone with the kids. One mom said this to my wife, not about me, of course, but you know…
Whatever. Suffering the rejection of five-year-olds and their mothers is a much different form of rejection than what I’m used to because it affects my daughter.
So when she was cowing to this kind of peer pressure, I felt responsible: my presence limited her social circle. Even though she dresses like her mom, a scrub-wearing nurse, she’s still more likely to dress “girly” with Mom, no matter how I present it. I ask her to wear dresses to give her a choice but she doesn’t like the attention, people calling her adorable. But her favorite pajamas?
“Honey, you wear whatever you want…” And I went on that whole being-comfortable-with-yourself platitude that parents pass on so confidently to their offspring, as if my insecurity wasn’t the reason for my speech. I was on a knee at this point, eye level with her on the edge of her bed, Spidey pjs in my hands. “It’s what feels best on you.”
I was dumbstruck.
“The pink ones with the mouse.”
“My friends wear girly ones, I want girly ones.”
So she wore the pink ones. I’ve overheard her gymnastic and pre-k friends say “I like girly clothes” and there haven’t been judgments at this point. But cliques are forming, identities are shaping, and using girly as an adjective helps them communicate.
She enjoyed ‘mnastics all the same. It was nothing about gender roles or peer pressure–these problems we identify as parents. Nor was it about fitting into her clothes; it was about fitting in. No different than me wearing a blazer to work when ten years ago it felt suffocating. It’s a choice—her choice—and that choice is influenced by her environment. The influence of her girlfriends over Spider-Man is something I have to get used to.
—first appeared in the New York Times “Motherlode”