By the time my daughter, Sadie, was in fifth grade, I’d stopped asking the usual mom questions—What did you learn today? How’d you do on your spelling test?—when I picked her up after school. I had more important things on my mind. Like how people responded to whatever ensemble she’d painstakingly put together that morning.
“Did you get compliments on your outfit, honey?” I asked one spring afternoon as she slid into the back seat of my Subaru.
“Yeah,” she chirped, her dark eyes dancing in the rearview mirror. “A lot of people really liked it!”
I smiled back. She had on a once plain, oversized lilac sweater from The Gap that used to be mine. It was headed for Goodwill until she rescued it from the donation bag I stash in the garage. Inspired by a shirt she saw on a TV show, she used a red Sharpie to adorn it with a pair of giant Angelina Jolie lips, transforming it from boring basic to hip fashion statement. The sweater was cinched with a wide, stretchy fuchsia belt. She paired it with gray jeggings tucked into last year’s Old Navy motorcycle boots—boots I would have snatched up in a heartbeat if they came in my size. A pink and blue plaid fedora, tilted at a sassy angle across her forehead, completed the look.
She is fond of hats. Printed scarves. And for a touch of bling, her prescription glasses with the diamond-studded, purple frames. Anything that helps her stand out in a good way at school. A place where she’s used to getting noticed for all the wrong reasons.
Sadie was diagnosed with a mood disorder and ADHD just before she turned six. With treatment, the differences between her and her peers aren’t as obvious today. She doesn’t pop up from her seat every five minutes to march around the classroom or sharpen her pencil for the tenth time. She raises her hand (usually) instead of blurting out off topic, sometimes nonsensical remarks. She doesn’t erupt if a classmate accidentally brushes against her chair. She is better at following directions.
Yet traces of the reputation she forged back in kindergarten and first grade linger. Some kids still think of her as the bad girl. The girl who never listens. The weird girl.
Though she’s smart, keeping up with her work is a struggle, even with extra support at school and help from a tutor. Problems with organization, focusing and processing information slow her down. She is all too aware that it takes her at least twice as long as most of her classmates to finish her assignments. That they can breeze through five pages of a book in the time it takes her to slog through one. That she’ll never whip through 50 multiplication problems on a timed quiz fast enough to earn a coveted spot in the Math Champs Club.
Sadie’s exclusion from such academic achievement “clubs” used to bother me just as much—maybe more. Like any mother, I want my child to have a chance to shine. I was a straight-A student for most of my school years. So was my husband. It was hard, at first, to accept that our daughter wouldn’t naturally follow in our footsteps.
Eventually, I let go of worrying about her grades and whether she’ll get into a good college. I try to focus on nurturing her many strengths instead. Especially her abundant creativity. The more she taps into it, the better her odds of finding her own path to happiness and success. I catch glimpses of this happening when she sings in chorus; writes a compelling—if poorly punctuated—story about her imaginary adventures on Rat Rock Island; or draws one of her trademark vividly-colored, saucer-eyed fairies. And, increasingly, as she experiments with expressing herself through clothing.
There’s no doubt the compliments she receives for her stylish get-ups have boosted her self-esteem. She may never look forward to school. But entering her classroom with a head-turning outfit each morning makes it a little easier.
Of course, living with a budding fashionista has its downsides, too. Sadie’s refusal to venture out of the house in anything less than the perfect outfit often leaves her room looking as if it was invaded by a hoarder: Piles of rejected pants, dresses and shoes litter the floor and bed. Tops, sweaters and socks that failed to make the cut explode from her dresser. Her obsession has also made us late to school more than once. But when she feels good about what she’s wearing, there’s a swagger to her step as she struts to the car that makes such inconveniences a small price to pay.
As she prepares to enter middle school, Sadie’s cultivating a new reputation. One I hope will buoy her as she navigates territory that can be tricky for any tween. She’s becoming known as the girl with the cool clothes. The creative girl. The girl with style. And those are labels she wears with almost as much pride as her favorite boots and purple glasses.
Dorothy O’Donnell is a freelance writer whose work has been featured in various newspapers and on greatschools.org, mothering.com and NPR. She is working on a memoir about raising a young child diagnosed with pediatric bipolar disorder.