On frigid winter mornings before I had children, I remember sipping coffee in front of my kitchen window and watching neighborhood boys wearing little else but shorts race to catch the school bus.
“How can their parents let them out of the house dressed like that?” I recall thinking.
Now that I have three kids of my own, I have a better understanding.
Parenting, to me, feels like an extended exercise in letting go, in accepting that I ultimately have little control over these beings that I helped bring into the world. But it has taken me a long time to reach this precarious conclusion, and its truth still sometimes evades me.
When my twins first started preschool, for instance, I would wrangle them into coordinated shirts and pants — an exercise much like wrestling an octopus into a net sack, as someone once said — and bundle them up against the weather. But I soon tired of this work and realized that Georgia and Griffin could dress themselves.
I decided that, as long as they were not leaving the house naked, it mattered little what my twins wore. Taking charge of their own clothes gave them a growing sense of independence. Plus, it freed me to get myself dressed.
I did suffer for a period when Georgia, now 8, put on her shirt backward for pre-kindergarten each day. Some mornings, unable to restrain myself, I forced her to turn it around. Other times, I plumbed the depths of my willpower to refrain from making a critical comment.
I also recall how her twin brother, Griffin, at about the same age, went through a phase during which he insisted on wearing his Crocs on the wrong feet. I kept fixing them, and Griffin kept switching them back.
“Isn’t it hard to run around with your shoes like that?” I remember asking.
“No,” Griffin said.
And then he waddled off, splay-toed, to preschool, with his sister trailing behind in her backward shirt.
I worried that something was wrong with my children. I fretted that this stage would never pass.
Of course, it did. And now I try to remind myself of these early days, now that my twins are 8 and have been joined by a younger sister — now that the emotions surge higher and the daily power struggles sometimes feel like navigating an abandoned mine field.
When my kids have been insisting on wearing summer clothes during this unseasonably chilly spring, I have been trying to recall those neighborhood boys who all survived their scanty wardrobe decisions and successfully emerged out into the world.
“Children don’t feel the cold as much as adults,” I console myself, as I shiver at the bus stop with my twins in their shorts. Germs make them sick, not exposure to low temperatures, I reason, while I also strive to accept that my older daughter hates to brush her hair.
After months of spritzing Georgia’s fine strands with detangler and tussling with her as I teased out the knots, I finally determined that this routine was too painful for both of us.
“It’s your hair,” I told Georgia one day. “You can do what you want with it.”
Not surprisingly, my daughter preferred to do very little, totally unselfconscious about the wild state of her locks. And ever since then, as I wistfully gaze at her friends’ slickly groomed ponytails, I have to remind myself that Georgia needs to be in charge of her own body, no matter how much I’d like to intervene. But my husband even finds it difficult not to interfere.
“Don’t you at least want to wear a headband to soccer, like Mia Hamm?” Jeff recently asked, cleverly invoking one of Georgia’s idols.
“I’ve made two all-star teams without a headband,” Georgia retorted, making us laugh and reminding us to back off.
I have even pulled back with Jane, who, although she is only 4, already has very strident opinions about how she wants to adorn her body. When I made her wear a hand-me-down snowsuit out sledding this winter, for instance, Jane refused to partake in the fun, standing on the sidelines and wailing, “This outfit’s too poofy! I look ugly!”
Last week, she came downstairs wearing a headband around her waist to hold up the leggings, a size too big, that she had selected.
“Doesn’t that hurt your tummy?” I asked, alarmed.
“No, mommy. It’s fine,” Jane said, completing her outfit with a pair of tattered purple rain boots.
No matter how important I feel it is for my kids to take charge of their personal care, however, I can’t help but wonder what the teachers must think as I watch my rag-tag bunch make their way off to school each morning. Do they feel sorry for these neglected children? Will I soon be hearing from social services?
But then, the other day, Georgia brought home a writing project entitled, “Why I Shouldn’t Wear a Coat!!” And I found myself hoping that her teacher had finally gained some insight into the daily battles I encounter — that she was able to reach a more charitable explanation for my beautiful daughter’s sometimes bedraggled appearance.
“Who needs a coat when it’s 32 degrees outside?” Georgia’s treatise began. “I don’t. That’s for sure! Oh and by the way I don’t need a hat or gloves either…
“I will do all of my chores for 1,000,000 years if I never have to wear a coat again! I will live on bread and water for a week (ONLY a week not a month or a year just a week). Coats are very, very, very (a million verys) useless!”
“Your opinion is very clear, and your reasons are strong and convincing,” Georgia’s teacher commented. “Good luck persuading Mom and Dad!”
I had to laugh and realized that, no matter how many conflicts we’ve had in the past and will continue to have in the future, at least our children feel free to express themselves — and that that is ultimately more important than all this coat and hair business after all.