Dear Sister of the Heart,
Recently, my oldest (since-age-four) friend Anne and I were talking about our formative experiences of clothes shopping with our mothers. It all went well enough for me until my teen years. That’s when my mother and I started to have pretty intense conflict over budget and style. My mother could just not manage the conflict that came up when we went clothes shopping, and invariably, she lost it.
My mother was able to be the mature and measured adult with me in other arenas, but not with clothes shopping. In retrospect, I think that she had experienced some trauma around money growing up during the Depression. Her family had to be incredibly frugal to just get food on the table and shopping for clothes was out of the question. There were hand-me-downs of course, but never anything that was new, her own, and in style; something that an adolescent girl could get so much pleasure from.
Anne’s mother had also grown up during the Depression, but for whatever reason, clothes shopping with her mother was drama free. Her mother could remain the adult in the relationship and teach Anne to set a budget and even plan her clothes creatively so she could mix and match the few things they bought for her. Their clothes shopping initiation was creative and productive. Most importantly, they had fun. Her mom was able to successfully navigate this mother-daughter rite-of-passage that is clothes shopping and pass down a positive and pleasurable experience for her daughter. Anne recalled their delightful ritual of stopping at the soda fountain of the department store for a treat, before they headed home, bags in tow.
The clothes shopping initiation with my mother didn’t go so well. Picture this. I am 13 years-old and we are cramped into a dressing room together. I am wearing a bra that I don’t even need yet and trying on a mini skirt. I so desperately want to be cool and accepted by the popular girls. Mini skirts were a radical departure from the norm and my mother just couldn’t handle it.
The tension is rising in the dressing room which gives way to a desperate kind of release as my mother starts crying. I had been pleading, and she is exhausted. I am more scared by her tears than mortified. I feel desperately alone, clinging to my hope for acceptance in peer culture and feeling so distant from my miserable mother.
I know now that my mother was living out a kind of a nightmare as she recreated with me some version of what she had had with her mother. In that dressing room, my poor mom was stuck in her own adolescence and she did not have the wherewithal to make our shopping experiences be an opportunity for connection.
It would take a few decades for me to find clothes shopping easy and pleasurable, but I got there. And I was able to pass that experience on to Eliza. She was initiated into peaceful mother-daughter negotiations in the dressing rooms at Marshalls, H & M, and The Gap.
Last weekend, my friend Kimberly and her 12-year-old daughter Cece, went clothes shopping while they were visiting me. They had recently moved to the East Coast from Southern California, and with winter approaching, they were in need of wool socks and layers. Spontaneously, they decided to go to the local mall. They returned home three hours later, elated, and eager to give me a fashion show.
What struck me most when they shared about their clothes shopping initiation, was how Kimberly had set the experience up for success. She made sure they talked about how to make their adventure fun and productive. In the car, on the way to the mall, they set some parameters about how much time they were going to spend at the mall, the clothes that they needed to get, and they even negotiated which stores they were going to go to. They had remembered a few other clothes shopping experiences that hadn’t gone so well because they were either went on too long and or they weren’t communicating well, or both.
So, there we were- splayed out on the king size bed in my guest room- oooing and ahhhing over color and fabrics and great deals. As it should be among women who love this kind of thing!
In my day, generation gap was the idiom most bandied about: mine and my parents’ generation disagreed on the Vietnam’ War, sexual mores, style and well… the definition of freedom. I remember that the clothes store The Gap- the original purveyor of blue jeans- was named for this very generation gap. The name of a very successful clothes company was born out of the differences in styles of two generations: definitely my mother’s and mine. And the Gap store successfully called me and millions of teenagers in, to dress down (as my mother would say) which was our kind of cool.
In an earlier Love Letter, I mentioned Deborah Tannen’s book, You Wearing That? Mothers and Daughters in Conversation. It has helped me to know that my mother’s criticism of my style was her attempt to protect me from a world that she feared would reject me. I see it now and have compassion for her.
A few days ago, I jumped in my car to drive an hour to my favorite outlet store’s annual sale. It was a sunny day and my inner mother was taking my inner adolescent daughter shopping. Just the two of us. We were happy to be together. We had a plan for what we wanted to buy, we had a budget, and we were communicating well. Gone was the inner strain and tension. I had set money aside. I had done my research. This was a spontaneous, joyous and even practical adventure. I met a few wonderful women on the line that formed before the doors opened. And I returned home with a few beautiful tops- just what I was looking for. Better yet, they were incredible deals and I celebrated in front of the mirror as I gave myself a fashion show.
Once you’ve gotten a chance to listen to the Love Letter, leave a comment below —