Playing Human Whack-a-Mole with the boy.
It went about as badly as it could have.
It was Pajama Day at school—some sort of Spirit Week thing, I guess—so my kiddo and I woke up an hour early this morning to go shopping.
I awakened a child already in pajamas so she could put on clothes to go purchase pajamas to wear to school.
If you do not already have a tween, this is just a little bit of the cray-cray you can look forward to.
We are a low-key jammie family. Sometimes the kids get matchy-matchies for Christmas, but otherwise, our PJs are usually just t-shirts too worn, stained, or see-through to wear out in public anymore. This blasé approach to overnight garments has not heretofore been a problem. Until today. Freakin’ Pajama Day.
Pajama Day prompted the meltdown last night. Which led to the argument. And the words we should not say. Which led to the apologies. And the problem-solving wherein my oldest child strategized that she would pay for the superfluous new pajamas with her allowance money. Which led to the two of us standing in a department store at 7 o’clock this morning.
The only place open that early was north of the airport, an unpredictable drive on weekdays, but we made it in good time. We even saw a Panera nearby.
“Mom, I’ll just grab the first jammies I see and we can split a quiche before school.” That was my kid. Always making the best of things.
We don’t shop very often. New shoes as needed. Occasional sprees with Grandma. We are a hand-me-down kind of family. We had never been to this department store. It took us a few minutes to get our bearings.
After asking directions, twice, we ended up in Women’s Sleepwear, where even the puppies on the nightgowns looked severe. Around the corner, I found a Kids’ Zone with princesses, bubble gum, and unicorns affixed on every nightgown. Was there no area in between? At age 11, my daughter is a hybrid—part grown-up, part child, part sulking puppy, part unicorn. She loves softball and sushi and sweet boba tea. She sleeps with a stuffed animal, but she is also taller than I am. It can be difficult to find her styles, not to mention her sizes. She still likes bright “kid colors” – pink, purple, bright green, turquoise – but palettes become more subdued as sizes increase. Out of habit, I grabbed a handful of larges and extra larges, but once in the dressing room, we discovered that a child’s large was too small, and a woman’s large dwarfed her small frame.
Where was the tween wear? The LOL fleeces, those annoying emoji shirts?
My daughter ducked into the fitting room and declared the first pajamas at least a partial success. “Mom, I found a pair of plaid pants that will work,” my daughter called from the fitting room. “It is part of a set, but the shirt is totally see-through. I’ll just wear the t-shirt I brought in the car.”
“The vacation bible camp t-shirt from two years ago?” I asked. That was one of the shirts that had prompted this preposterous shopping trip in the first place. Last night, it had been rejected as not pajama-y enough. “I’ll find you a better top,” I replied.
“No, Mom,” she growled. “I don’t like the shirts here.”
“How can you say that? You’ve only tried on one. I’ll be right back.” I paged through rack after rack, and pulled anything that looked like a possibility. I brought back about fifteen pajama-like tops, and one by one, she tried them on and nixed them all. Too big, too itchy, too small, too green.
“Mom, you aren’t listening to me,” Katie wailed, after the ninth shirt.
Not listening? I was standing in a department store at 7:30 in the morning. To find pajamas for a kid who was now grousing at me for trying to find her pajamas. Now we were both angry. This was what I got for giving in to her ridiculousness: more ridiculousness.
“Just pick a shirt,” I replied. “And let’s get out of here. We are going to be late for school.”
“What about Panera?” she cried. “We were going to have breakfast, remember?”
When I reflect back on situations during which my daughter and I have clashed, I can usually point to a moment — when I could have righted the ship, steered us toward a safe harbor rather than deeper into distress. I now realize that this was such a moment. I could have taken my tween to breakfast. After all, there is nothing easy about being eleven years old, feeling simultaneously big and small, both responsible for yourself and utterly dependent on your mom. Even the department store could hardly figure out who my daughter was, with all those sizes and styles scattered willy-nilly. Breakfast would have made us twenty minutes late to school. But over eggs and toast, we could have laughed about how badly pajama shopping had gone. I could have parented us through this dicey situation.
Instead, I steered us toward the rocks.
“We don’t have time for breakfast now,” I replied tersely. “Hand me the pajamas you are buying, and get dressed.”
She half-heartedly tossed the pair of plaid pants over the changing room door, and muttered to herself about the meanest Mom ever.
Unfathomably, there was a line at the checkout counter. Other parents, I supposed, trying to placate their children with early morning retail. When it was our turn, the clerk said, “These pants appear to be part of a set. Where is the top?”
I turned to my kid. “I told you,” she said. “I don’t want the top. It’s too see-through.”
“Yes, but you have to—” I broke off. “Never mind,” I said. “We’ll be right back.”
We strode back to the dressing room full of children’s and adult sleepwear in a heap.
“Find the shirt,” I ordered.
“But I don’t want it!” she replied.
“Yes, so you’ve mentioned. But the store will not sell them separately. Find it.”
“That’s dumb,” she replied, and dug through the pile and unearthed a sheer sky blue shirt and thrust it at me.
Here was another opportunity. This was the first thing we had agreed upon all morning. We could have talked about the economics at play in pairing a great pair of pajama pants with a sub-par shirt. Or I could have applauded the modesty which had prompted my child to reject the sleazy shirt in the first place. Instead, I hustled her along—back to the checkout line, to the car, and ultimately to school. En route, she changed into her new plaid pants—the very first pair she had tried on an hour earlier, before I had offered her dozens of other choices and clogged up our entire morning.
In her new pants and her ratty old camp t-shirt from two years ago, she looked perfect. And, for once, I told her so. “You look great, kiddo.”
“Never doubt my sense of fashion, Mom,” she said. And my grown-up little girl closed the car door and headed into school.
Maybe she isn’t the one confused about growing up. Maybe I am.
It is late October, which means only one thing in this house: what the *&%# are my kids going to be for Halloween?
Every year, I vow that next year will be different. I will not wrap myself up in their crazy. I will not cotton last-minute schemes. I will not enter Party City on Oct. 30th in search of “medium-blue socks and a small bag of feathers.” Instead, like the well-behaved family that I know we could be, we will make early plans. We will select costumes and wear them. Or we will let the chips fall.
I really thought that this was going to be our year.
In July, both girls had wanted desperately to be Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. I was jazzed. We would have no simpering princesses. No sequins, pompoms, or lace. Instead, we would show off two strong heroines. With easy costumes to boot. Wear black, braid hair, carry an arrow, and call it done. But our oldest daughter is going through a bit of a tween phase, and said she would not be caught dead in a costume that matched her baby sister, who in turn, seems to be going through a bit of a copycat phase, and will only be Katniss if her older sister will match. So now neither one will volunteer as tribute.
My friends seem to eliminate this waffling and tomfoolery with the popular household theme costume. I’ve known families who dressed as minions or superheroes, Star Wars personalities or characters from Scooby Doo. My neighbors transformed themselves into the cast of The Dukes of Hazzard a few years back. Baby Boss Hogg and teenage Roscoe P. Coltrane were particularly on point.
I floated a theme idea to my own family this year, and the only notion upon which anyone could agree was that I would portray the Wicked Witch. That theme was jettisoned, however, when everyone else in the family fought over Dorothy. For a few moments at the Science Center, we were committed to being a family of astronauts. Space Team Harbaugh. Our costumes would be both empowering and STEM-appropriate. But the rockateers disbanded at the gift shop when I saw the price of one single spacesuit. Astronomical! Out of this world! They must have been using the proceeds to fund actual space exploration.
Without a theme, we quickly became untethered. Costume notions have entered and exited the house with the breeze. Already, our six-year-old has vetoed the fireman, dinosaur, bumblebee, ballerina, and ninja. I really thought we had a winner with that last one until her sister reminded her it was “lame” to wear the same costume two years in a row. I wanted to kick her.
I complained to my husband about the kids’ failure to commit, but he adopts a “not my circus, not my monkeys” attitude about this holiday. Give him his way, and we would skip it altogether. He does not like candy. Or pumpkin lattes. And he once told me he would rather “scrub a toilet than wear a costume.” To be fair, he has begrudgingly dressed up whenever I have insisted, though that has usually meant putting on a Hawaiian shirt, carrying a beer, and calling himself Jimmy Buffett.
I suppose yearly costume failure is in my lineage. Growing up, most years, I was either a pirate or a gypsy – which both looked pretty much the same. My father came from a long line of hobos. And my brothers alternated their pirates with various sportsmen: pirate – golfer – pirate – baseball player – pirate — quarterback. My sister was often a witch. None of us won many awards for originality, but we had full candy buckets at the end of the night, which, as far as we were concerned, was the whole point.
I have never subscribed to the notion that a Halloween costume is an extension of your soul. I like a heavyset male in a tutu claiming to be Tinker Bell as much as the next gal, but I’m also fine with ghosts and black cats. I do not equate costume proficiency with winning at life. People with basic get-ups can still be complex humans. Especially if they pull it off without spending any money. Last year, Lizzie’s preschool teacher became my new hero when she whipped up a turtle with some green paper and a stapler. That was my kind of cheap.
Of course, there are other forces getting in the way of my frugality. In addition to believing her costume is an extension of her soul, my oldest daughter fears this might be her last chance for trick-or-treating. I have tried to convince her that she’ll eke out a few more candy-grubbing promenades. But she’ll start middle school next year. Maybe she is right. I distinctly remember my last year as a costumed participant. My girlfriend and I dressed in robes and face cream and claimed we were “moms” – as though either of our mothers had ever looked that way. Neighbors humored us, but we knew. We were old enough to walk into a store and purchase our own candy. It was time to hang up pumpkin buckets, and put the pillowcases back on the bed.
Which is why I will probably drive my daughters to Party City tomorrow afternoon. And why I will pay Amazon.com to rush ship a different costume to our house next week. For a young girl, October 31st is a chance to be anything she wants: a painter, the President, a doctor, an astronaut, a rock star, a superhero, or the commissioner of the NBA.
The world sometimes disagrees. But on Halloween, blessedly ridiculous, frequently last-minute, Halloween, I want no limits. On that night, I want my girls to have all of the options, and all of the opportunities.
If only to help me reinforce this idea every other day of the year.
The NY Observer ran a version of this piece on Oct. 27, 2015.