This morning, I woke up with a tattoo on my finger and a massive headache — which is either the beginning of a great story or an average day of motherhood.

The tattoo is a Luche Libre style Spider-Man face that covers the pad of my thumb, temporary decals that were leftover from Valentine’s Day cards my son gave to his classmates a few weeks ago. Unlike years past, I actually remembered to buy valentines for him to distribute this year, so the tattoo is an itchy little reminder that sometimes I get things right.

(It is also a reminder that a five year old can thumb wrestle for weeks on end without fatiguing, but signing his name to 17 Valentine’s Day cards causes great suffering.)

The rubbery coating on my fingertip makes my cell phone hard to use, but doesn’t seem to hinder his ability on Minecraft one bit. Since we relied heavily on the phone yesterday when I took my daughter shopping for a dress to wear to a Sweet Sixteen party, I guess this is good.

My daughter is fifteen, nearly sixteen herself. And if you’ve never taken a teenage girl dress shopping, I can assure you that it is not the tableau of mother-daughter dressing room bonding you’d expect, the kind you might have envisioned the moment the doctor said, “It’s a girl!”

No, instead it is a push and pull, a tightrope walk, a balance of checked enthusiasm, differing opinions and carefully worded feedback. It involves a lot of sighing.

Mostly, it goes something like this: you walk into a department store where there are dresses as far as the eye can see. Racks upon racks, arranged so densely that you can hardly maneuver through them (racks that, it just so happens, provide the perfect hiding spot for a five year old boy).

Since there is such a large selection, you feel confident that there are going to be a few acceptable choices. Your first thought is This looks easy!

Well, not easy, maybe. But manageable, right? You start by holding up a flouncy gray cocktail dress. Bare shoulders, ribbon-tie at the waist.
“That’d be cute on you,” your daughter says in a way that doesn’t feel like a compliment.
You move on, undeterred. You hold up a pink shift with a feather detail around the hem.
“I don’t like pink.”
“Fair enough.” You vaguely remember reading that blush was “hot” this year. A quick scan of the department floor indicates that she has just eliminated one-third of the options available.

No problem. You are in a mall with a teenage girl and a 5 year old boy — which is to say, you are feeling unflappable.

She grabs a dress off a rack. It’s backless. It looks short, with material that will stretch tightly across hips and thighs. It’s pale pink.

“I thought you didn’t like pink,” you offer diplomatically. You refrain from pointing out that it appears to be half a dress.
“It’s a different shade,” she rolls her eyes. She walks ahead, breezing by three racks with barely a glance.

Meanwhile your son has gone missing, disappearing into a fortress of beads and chiffon. You reach in between the garments, grab what you think is a forearm and pull him out. You explain calmly, through gritted teeth, that if he hides again he’s not getting a doughnut after this. In fact, you might just leave him in the store.

You smile sweetly, take a deep breath and hand him your phone, determined to make this a nice afternoon. You look up from the confrontation with your son to find your daughter holding what you can only imagine is something meant to be worn by a back-up dancer in a Rihanna video.

You inhale deeply and carefully consider how to respond in a way that is empowering, body-positive and, well, not unhinged.

Your son, meanwhile, has found a long ice-blue gown and is rubbing the beads, eyes wide. “You should get this! You’ll look just like the girl from Frozen!” he says earnestly.

So, it’s Elsa or Kim Kardashian. You feel a tightening behind your eyes, as if you’ve just squeezed a pair of Spanx onto your optic nerve. And, for a moment, you wish for the days when clothes shopping didn’t feel like navigating a minefield of dubious cultural norms.

You look at your five year old who is now taking a video of himself singing “Let it Go” and you smile, thinking about his wacky independent spirit. You look at your daughter — who has wandered into the shoe department and is slipping her foot into a sky-high wedge — and wish that the strong independent spirit that you’ve worked so hard to foster would stop manifesting itself in the middle of Lord & Taylor.

“Who wants a doughnut?” you call, because you think you really need a doughnut. Your son comes running, and your daughter looks interested in something you’ve said for the first time all day.

As you walk out of the department store, your son stops at the bottom of the escalator to rub his face against the moving handrail. You pick at the temporary tattoo on your thumb, quieting the wrestling match within. You may not be going home with a dress, but coxsackie or the flu are very real possibilities.

That tattoo is wearing off but the headache, you realize, is probably here to stay.


  • Carolyn Gaites

    Laugh out loud! Thanks, you made me feel like I was there. Beautifully written.

    • Jennifer Gaites

      Thanks! I’m sure you can picture it well 😉

  • Joanne

    This is great! You captured the essence of the afternoon perfectly.

    • Jennifer Gaites

      Thank you, Joanne!

  • Kathy

    Best ever! Love the dress shopping summary, but Bobby is simply the best!

    • Jennifer Gaites

      Thanks, Kathy! Easier to appreciate when you’re a few years removed.

  • Phyllis Provenzanp

    Perhaps trying to multi-task is more than most moms of 15+ year old female teens should consider. Teens are difficult enough without complicating these special dress seeking activities with another equally wonderful child vying for your attention in a totally different direction.. Oh yeah…real life. You are doing great!

    • Jennifer Gaites

      Thanks, Phyllis! It can go either way…the 5 yo is a welcome distraction/tension breaker, or he drives us mad! Either way, we’re always doing more than we should consider. 😉

  • jackie

    Oh my how many times I have been privy to that eye roll- I can’t even begin to guess. You too will survive. There is always wine.

    • Jennifer Gaites

      I’m sure! And you probably had the little boy in tow, as well (tho he’s not so little anymore!).



    • Jennifer Gaites

      Thanks, Maureen! Yes, mission accomplished 🙂


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