My daycare provider and I have a pretty amazing relationship, which means that I get to have honest and insightful conversations about her perspective on modern motherhood.  Annie is in her sixties with three grown children and four beautiful grandchildren.  Being a mother and someone who deals with mothers all day long, she’s formed some pretty strong opinions about how parenting has evolved and changed.  Last week, we discussed one of her very biggest pet peeves.

A toddler who goes to our daycare comes in every day with a huge mess of tangles in the back of her hair.  It constantly looks as if the child has never seen a comb.  Everyday, Annie sits down and patiently brushes out the little girl’s hair.  Even though this frustrates her, she never mentions anything to the mother, never suggesting that the child’s hair be brushed before she comes to daycare.  One particularly busy day, Annie didn’t get a chance to fix the girl’s hair.  It stayed tangled and ratted all day long.  At 5pm, the mother shows up and says, “Hunnie, why isn’t your hair done?  We have someplace to be tonight!  We’re going to be seeing our friends.  You can’t look like this if we’re going out!” 

Annie was incensed.  “You’re child has been out all day.  She was out when you dropped her off this  morning.  But apparently, my opinion of your daughter isn’t worthy of concern.  By all means, do her hair for once so that your friends don’t realize that you only worry about your daughter’s appearance when she’s out with you.” 

I’m not advocating either person’s actions.  The mother should realize that her daycare isn’t responsible for grooming her child.  And Annie, admittedly, should have addressed the issue before it got out of hand.  But was this situation any different from my mother putting me in “Church clothes” whenever we had a big event to attend?  Or, ya know, Church.  Where is the line between dressing your child up for a special occasion and only worrying about their appearance when it broadcasts your parenting skills to your friends? 

Annie believes that the highs and lows have gotten more extreme.  And it’s very easy to demonize that mother.  Of course your child’s hair should be combed before you leave the house!  Of course I want my daughter to look as adorable on a day-to-day basis as she does for our family portraits. 

Realistically, I have a toddler.  Some evenings, we don’t get home until bedtime and she doesn’t get a bath.  Every once in a while, I oversleep and struggle to get clothes on her back and breakfast in her tummy before we leave.  Once winter hits, forget her hair looking well-kept.  After 10 seconds in a hat, it’s a mess of fly-aways and sagging barrettes.  But as women, we really do judge each other based on our children’s appearance. 

A male co-worker of mine is quite distressed about his daughter’s appearance lately.  He’s a single parent and has a hard time shopping for or picking out the little girl’s clothes.  My co-worker doesn’t particularly care about fashion and lets his five year-old pick out all her own outfits, no matter how mis-matching the get-up might be.  He never cared much until well-meaning mothers at school asked if he needed someone to take the girl shopping.  His mother-in-law stopped him on the street during an afternoon walk and told him that he had to take his daughter home immediately.  She couldn’t be seen in public is purple sweat pants and a turquoise shirt.  The whole thing left him defensive and angry.  His daughter was loved and well-cared-for, if not particularly well-dressed.

So how much does our children’s appearance matter?  Is it really a reflection of our parenting abilities?  Personally, I would say cleanliness is the important part, as opposed to trendiness.  Annie would tell us that everyday, your child’s appearance and behavior tell a little about you to the rest of the world.  It’s a growing picture of me as a mother that she gets everytime my little girl walks through her door.  And for good or bad, every perfect set of pigtails or breakfast-stained shirt communicates my style and skill as a parent.  I’m not sure if that’s fair, but its a message that I’ll remember long after my daughter stops going to daycare.

(Photo: Thinkstock)