By Stephanie Sprenger
She wanted a little girl’s dress. And there were none to be found.
My oldest daughter regarded herself somberly in the mirror of the department store dressing room. She twirled dutifully as my mom and I gushed over her sapphire blue dress. Izzy didn’t look pleased. The dress was adorable, with a smocked bodice, a sleek, modern cut, and a skirt that was higher in the front than the back. A pattern of colorful, elegant butterflies adorned the fabric. Had the dress come in adult sizes, I would have bought one for myself. It was chic, stylish, and whimsical. She looked so grown up.
“I want a dress like Sophie’s,” Izzy complained, while her three-year-old sister licked the mirror. “Hers spins better.”
It was true. The ability of a skirt to fan out, ballroom-gown-style, upon twirling, was one of my preschooler’s prerequisites when selecting a dress. It was, in fact, the only prerequisite. Her closet contained hangers of forlorn corduroy dresses that went unworn due to their subpar performance when spinning.
My eight-year-old wanted a dress like that: a full-skirted number with ribbons and bows, one better suited for Easter Sunday than this discount retailer’s attempt at haute couture. She wanted a dress like I had in the 1980s, one that would have undoubtedly been accompanied by a stiff-brimmed Easter hat with a pale pink ribbon. She wanted a little girl’s dress. And there were none to be found.
Shopping for Easter dresses with Grammy had been a tradition; every year my mother happily would buy dresses for both of her granddaughters. Returning to our favorite clothing store, coupons in hand, we’d expected to find the perfect dress for the girls. After choosing a twirly dress for my youngest daughter, we had crossed an invisible line into the “big girl” area; as we perused the racks designated for sizes 7-16, it was clear we weren’t in Kansas anymore. This section of the girls’ clothing wing was a far cry from the precious offerings of the size 4-6x department, which showcased Disney princess nightgowns, comfy knit play-clothes, and ruffled swimsuits. Dismayed, we instead found selections that seemed more appropriate for elderly women, as well as garments resembling the tacky formalwear worn at a freshmen dance. Not to mention the ultra-short shorts that practically screamed “Stripper!” with their artfully-applied holes and frays and the occasional rhinestone smattering. To say the least, the pickings were slim; the butterfly dress had been the lone gem.
My mother and I were becoming anxious. If we couldn’t quickly find a suitable Easter dress in the older girls’ department, we would face the unwelcome possibility of hauling the children to the mall. Given the unauthorized mirror-licking, it was clear we were already shopping on borrowed time.
So we stood in the dressing room, fawning over my sophisticated-looking third grader, who reluctantly issued her consent to buy the fashionable blue frock. I sighed in relief and headed for the checkout. I should have known her heart wasn’t in it.
* * *
On Easter morning, my eight-year-old walked timidly into the kitchen as I whisked pancake batter for our breakfast.
“Mommy?” she began quietly. “I really like the dress Grammy bought me, but I don’t want to wear it for Easter today.”
I felt my blood pressure begin to rise. Noticing my daughter’s tearful expression, I quickly checked my righteous indignation.
“Why not, Izzy?” I asked, frowning slightly. “It’s so beautiful!”
“Well, I really want a dress that looks like Sophie’s. I don’t want a big girl dress. I have one in my closet that I really like,” she explained nervously.
A few minutes later, she brought the dress down to show me. I had never seen it before; it was a size 7-8 and apparently came at Christmas from her other grandmother in Texas. Resembling her younger sister’s dress, it had a halter neck, glitter sparkles, pastel flowers all over, a bright pink bow at the waist, and a full skirt, ideal for spinning. It was the perfect dress for a little girl on Easter.
“Honey, why didn’t you just tell us you didn’t like the blue dress that Grammy bought?” I asked, suppressing feelings of guilt and annoyance.
“I didn’t want to hurt Grammy’s feelings,” she confessed. “Will she be upset if I don’t wear this dress today?”
“If she is, that’s too bad,” I replied. “It’s your body and your choice. However, we are going to take the other dress back to the store. The next time you don’t really like a dress someone wants to buy for you, you can say, ‘No, thank you. I don’t want you to spend your money on something I don’t really like.’ I know that’s hard to say.”
“What if she’s mad at me?” my sensitive daughter worried.
“Protecting grown-ups’ feelings isn’t your job. It’s more important that you wear a dress that makes you happy today,” I replied, finding that I truly believed my words. “I should have realized you didn’t like the other dress enough—I tried to push you into buying it. I’m sorry,” I added, realizing that perhaps I had tried to force this mature style on my daughter before she was ready. She didn’t want a “big girl” dress like the girl next door whom she looked up to. She wanted to match her little sister, perhaps for the last time.
* * *
We sat outside blowing bubbles in the spring sunshine, and my father pointed out a caterpillar crawling in the grass. “Izzy, come quick!” he called to her. She raced over, squealing with enthusiasm and curiosity, and eagerly scooped up the tiny creature. Next April, she may not care about caterpillars in the grass, I thought grimly. Or having a special Easter dress. Maybe this is the last year she’ll believe in the Easter bunny.
I remember being in a terrible hurry to grow up; I longed to order off the adult menu at restaurants, to be given freedom to roam independently, to perm my hair and shave my legs. I stuffed dolls under my T-shirts to pretend I was pregnant.
Parents are frequently tuned in to how “fast it all goes,” forcing themselves to savor the fleeting years of childhood magic. But rarely do our children give a second thought to the transient nature of their youth—they’re too in the moment or dreaming of years to come. With this party dress, my daughter had been gifted with a flicker of wisdom to recognize the rapidly moving river of childhood. And as I have done many times since her birth, she wished to slow the flow, to pause time.
This Easter my daughter was not in a hurry to grow up. She twirled in her dress and held hands with her sister, whose outfit matched her own. I stopped caring about the wasted shopping trip and the possibility of hard feelings. I watched my little girl play under a tree in her Easter dress, covered in dirt and glitter.
Stephanie Sprenger is a freelance writer, music therapist, and mother of two girls. She is co-editor at The HerStories Project and blogs at stephaniesprenger.com.