Should a Feminist Mom Make Her Preschool Daughter Wear Her Brothers’ Clothes?

Question: Do preschool girls of feminist moms wear their brothers’ hand-me-downs?

Answer: Mine does. She’s a tw-urly-dress gu-urt, but she’ll wear a small selection from the boys’ closets, like the glittery shirts of my eldest son’s preschool days or the cozy, soft midnight blue hooded chenille sweater all her brothers wore. But by no means is she dressed solely in their clothes.

My daughter is very slight. Practically speaking, many baggily cut clothes—one of the characteristics of  lots of boys’ “fashion”— do not really fit her; boxy shirts and loose pants swim on her. Then, there are the style choices, the ones she’s put her small foot down about as being unacceptable due to “not being pretty.” Her current favorite footwear? The sparkly boots handed over from her friend Marmar. So with her affection for things that are more “girly,” that means that almost every single one of her brothers’ old t-shirts is out—she eschews trucks, silly monsters and most stripes — even though they are in perfectly good shape.

Long before she arrived, after our third boy outgrew the onesies and toddler overalls and sweaters and pj’s, I weeded the boy clothing down to the items I most liked and would want to see again if we did have one more child. The truth is that when I go back through those clothes now—or the ones the next-older brother outgrows in real-time (just over the weekend, I sorted some more), I keep very little. It seems silly to hang on to things that are so not her style just in case her taste in clothes changes five years from now (he’s that much older) when I have plenty of smaller children than he to pass stuff along to—some girls, some boys, by the way.

I don’t pay retail, not even sale prices, for most clothing. My hand-me-down streams keep us in sundresses and bathing suits and sturdy but pretty shoes (and those super-noteworthy boots). One friend even-handed down a Hanna Andersson striped dress and leggings combo that really may have been the sole reason I wanted a girl so badly (true confession, don’t take this too lightly nor judge me too harshly). We live in a terrific, generous community that way.

Logistically speaking, to cater to her style is easy.

But as I let go of perfectly good sweatpants and a plain but boxy orange shirt with grey trim yesterday, I thought about my earlier parenting years when I accommodated my eldest son’s preschool love for clothes with glitter and flowers. In those days, I felt a little proud, a little brave, a little defiant and a touch Free-to-Be. I advocated for his dress wearing (to a wedding) and stood up against one grandmother’s offer of a cape instead. One grandmother purchased the flowery, glittery shirt for my son, that my daughter Saskia now wears.

Recently, I ran into an old friend whose daughter was in preschool with my son. I flashed to many conversations with the mom about her frustration that her daughter didn’t want to wear dresses. She had an older boy and this was her chance at the cute clothes. I remember thinking that the mom should just let the girl—a fiend on the playground—wear pants so she could play. Now a high school senior, she’s a gifted field hockey player her mother proudly reported. Somewhere in there, her mom got comfortable with her daughter’s choices.

To stand up for hair and clothing (not only the glittery flowers but also the truck shirts that followed for the next boys, who loved trucks) felt important to me at the time. I think my support for my sons’ preferences was important, but not necessarily just because boys can like pretty things and girls can play field hockey, as important as the Free-to-Be message remains some forty years out. Much as I have a different set of feelings about our little girl and her dresses—I love them although I sometimes wish she wanted to wear pants and I love that she’s adorable and cute and I sometimes wish I didn’t care or wish that others didn’t remark about that– I realize that everything about these kinds of choices feels easier with her, less fraught. My comfort or discomfort is not about her conformity or non-conformity. Rather than pine for a gender-bender girl (wouldn’t it be cool to have a girl who wanted short hair, we used to say, from deep in the land of gender-bender little boys), I’m a dress enabler—because I like her as her, the person she wants to be. That’s what we do, we parents, we work to get comfortable with our kids’ choices, to love our kids for exactly who they are, because that’s when we are our best selves. Whatever work it takes to get there, it’s so worth the toil.

Find guest contributor Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser on me on Twitter: @standshadows.  You can also find her at her blog, Standing in the Shadows.

Image via iStockphoto/Patrick Hume

  • Sarah H

    One thing about people not knowing an expected baby’s gender is that it stems the flow of girl or boy clothes. My parents didn’t exactly understand our choice or gender issues with kids clothes until the other day. They went to buy E some outfits and were appalled by the princess-y (not just pink- but way over the top) girl clothes and how hard it was to find anything that’s just fun and cute. We’re lucky to have great baby consignment stores and always check the girls and boys sections. Now most of her clothes are yellow and green. Thanks for this article.

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