Written By: Pauline Campos
When she was five, a little old lady complimented my daughter on being “such a beautiful princess.” We were in line at Target in the middle of any month other than October - me in capris, flip flops, and a tank top, and my daughter in a full, floor-length gown partially covering her red cowboy boots, a sparkly crown on her head. This was her normal.
Had she said nothing while the little old lady expectantly waited for a sweet-voiced “thank you,” all would have been fine. I’d have smiled politely, muttered something about my little girl being shy as an excuse - although nothing could have been further from the truth - and we’d have quietly been on our way. What happened instead was not quiet. It was loud and caused heads to turn. When the sweet little old lady called my daughter a princess, she had assumed my daughter was making believe that she was one. This is when my princess scrunched up her face, glared at the sweet little old lady, and corrected her in the same tone I’ve used when asking restaurant managers what they plan to do about my husband having a reaction from the supposedly gluten-free food that wasn’t. It was practically a growl.
“I’m not a princess. I’m a girl in a princess dress, okay? That’s different.”
Sensing this was going to get worse if I gave the sweet little old lady time to get over her shock and reply, I apologized, paid as quickly as I could, and almost ran the cart with the Not a Princess Girl to my car. Sighing, I told my daughter she was grounded from dressing up from her costume box outside of the house until she could either say “thank you” or nothing at all when complimented by elderly strangers.
She’s older now. We sometimes still leave the apartment with fairy wings and princess tiaras, and that’s okay with me. But I’m not worried about the little old ladies anymore. It’s what people - adults and kids her age and older - will think when they see a nearly five-foot tall ten-year-old dressed up in public on any given day other than Halloween. But my job isn't to tell her that she will be looked at for being different. It isn't to make sure that she gives a damn what other people think about her quirks or her style. Positive or not, when we decide to stand out, we better be prepared to be seen, because we will be.
That damn she isn't giving right now? I’m giving it for her.
I am fully aware of the fact that I shouldn’t be. I should not be afraid she will be made fun of for not blending in. I should not use that fear as the basis for shattering her confidence and her sense of self. That was my childhood.
My childhood. Not hers.
When she was five, red cowboy boots with a pink tutu and a super hero cape just meant it was time to go to the grocery store. She went to preschool more times than I can count in her Snow White costume dress. That was just par for the course. The other kids at school ignored the normalcy of a preschooler dressed up for the sake of dressing up because they themselves weren’t doing it today, they would be tomorrow.
This was our normal.
We decided to homeschool when kindergarten started. We didn’t know she is on the spectrum then, but we did know that she was melting down in class, and developing a severe anxiety that caused her to lose sleep and shut down in school. When she was diagnosed last year, our decision was validated by the developmental pediatrician that handled the evaluation. My daughter, she said, thrives in a one on one environment, and being gifted and high-functioning autistic presented a unique paradigm many schools and teachers would not be prepared to handle. She suggested homeschooling through graduation, if possible, and that’s the plan. I know what some people think; that she isn't “socialized” and that she needs to be in a public school setting in order for that to happen. Maybe that's why, I think they may be thinking, she's 10 and wore the batwings just because she could until she outgrew them. Maybe that's why she likes the music she likes and watches the television shows that she watches on Netflix. Until last year, our car radio was permanently set on Kids Place Live. She still watches Sarah and Duck on repeat. Because she isn't around other kids her age and has never experienced peer pressure to let go of that which she wants to hold onto because it’s considered “babyish.” Because she's autistic. Because she doesn't know better.
Wait. Scratch that. Because she doesn’t know different.
I stop myself when I get on this train of thought, because I eventually realize the only issue here is my own emotional baggage. I'm the one who is always hyper-aware of the fact that I wonder what other people are thinking of me. I'm the one who always felt like an outsider in school, not sure where to sit in the cafeteria or which group to approach in the hopes of being invited to play during recess. I'm the one who declined softball tryouts in high school only because I couldn't possibly wear that uniform in public if I made the team. It was too form-fitting, leaving me no place to hide the curves that made me feel so out of place. At 15, I had hips and large breasts. Male customers twice my age assumed I was older, asking me when my shift was over at the restaurant I worked at. No matter how good I thought I’d be, I could only think about my body in the softball uniform what others would see, and that was enough to even keep me from trying out.
I’m also the one with the eating disordered background, the depression, and an attempt to take my own life while in college.
I am the woman who became a wife who became mother who sometimes still doubts my own worth. I love or hate my body, depending on the day. And I will wonder what others will think of me and what I am wearing whenever I step out my front door.
None of this will factor into the childhood memories she will look back upon as an adult. When she decides what to wear, the only factor behind the final choice each day is solely what will make her happy. I’ve got an appointment with a therapist in a few weeks. I am the one with the baggage.
She’s the one with the batwings.
A few years ago, I read an essay in which the writer made fun of her homeschooled teen babysitter for skipping through the sprinklers on her walk home. I remember reading and thinking how I wished I had been that teenager and wondered why the one thing we value as adults - individuality and creative spirit and an unshakable sense of self - we try to crush out of our children. What’s wrong with skipping through the f*cking sprinklers? I wish I could stop thinking about how others see me long enough to do that myself.
But this isn't just about my kid rocking her bat wings in public because it makes her happy; it's also about making sure she understands there's a price to pay for choosing to skip through the sprinklers. My job is to make sure she understands that being her own person comes with responsibility and self-respect. You do you, baby girl. People may look. Sometimes they may point. Maybe they say something mean. Maybe they high-five you because they like to grocery shop wearing bat wings, too. Others may dance when they think nobody is watching. But not you. You create your own music and dance knowing that people are, baby girl, and that makes my heart sing. Always hold your head high and handle yourself with grace.
And never, ever, stop marching to your own beat.
Featured image: Stock photo / Other images provided by: Pauline Campos