Everybody who becomes an adult has to be fourteen once, and it’s a rough time of transition for everybody involved in that year of slamming bedroom doors. It’s a year of strong emotions, and manipulating heartstrings like one learning to play a violin: screeching and awkward until it becomes classy or even tolerable. Or maybe the better analogy is a ukulele: awkward and clunky until it becomes a happy melody you can understand.
When I was fourteen, I wanted a jean skirt. All the important people—those with social clout and influence and boyfriends—wore jean skirts. I wanted one in the worst way. I saved my babysitting dollars, and I begged, pleaded, and negotiated until my dad took me shopping.
You may think this is where things got weird, but I assure you: my dad is a classy guy with great fashion sense. I have always love spending time with my Pops, and he can pair an outfit like nobody’s business. He would load me up with armfuls of options, and then he’d often send more great choices into the dressing room via the salesclerk. “Would you deliver these into my daughter’s dressing room, please? Tell her I’d just like to see what she thinks.” Inevitably, I’d like what he put together. So shopping with my dad wasn’t a problem.
Or rather, it wasn’t the problem.
The Problem emerged when we arrived in the juniors department and began our search. We split up and agreed to meet at the entrance to the girls’ fitting room, and that’s when we realized that we had very different definitions of the skirt I had in mind.
My choices looked like what you might remember from the Gap ads of the early 1990s: vintage, distressed, fingertip-length if you tugged it down.
My dad’s offerings looked more like the high-waisted, mid-shin styles of the Mennonite variety. One even had a ruffle.
In my memory, there was a bit of a stare-down outside the dressing room.
My stare said, You must be joking.
His said, Just try them, please.
Insert all the eyerolls of a thousand emojis.
I carried my choices—and his—into the dressing room. I tried mine on first, truly with zero intention of trying on the others.
When I opened the door to show him how very reasonable were my preferred choices, there stood my dad, all hopeful and expectant-faced, standing in a half-circle of moms. All facing me. My dad had gathered everyone in the entire store who looked remotely matronly, and he invited them to join the jury in the Great Debate of the Denim Skirt: Standing Room Only.
I stood there while they appraised and assessed me, frowning at my knees and assessing my judgement.
“I mean, it’s a little short,” said one.
“Where does she plan to wear this?” asked another.
I tugged on the hem to make it as long as possible, all under the microscopic eye of a half-dozen strangers, who seemed to all be named Karen.
I closed the door to the dressing room, and I put on the outfit I came in. I left all of my dad’s choices hanging on the hook, and I walked out of that dressing room without making eye contact with anyone, including my dad. I paid cash for the skirt I wanted, touting the powerful cliché that it was “my body and my money.”
My dad and I didn’t speak all the way home.
When I awoke the next morning, I found a letter, typed and folded, on my bedside table. My dad had stayed up into the late hours of the night, penning page after page to me, pouring out his heart and the truth behind his good intentions the night before.
He explained that it wasn’t that the skirt was bad – and it certainly wasn’t that my body was bad, shameful, or should be hidden. It’s that I was his daughter, his little girl who was becoming a woman, and certain jean skirts communicated certain messages – some that he wasn’t sure I knew about, understood, or needed to send.
He asked me to please forgive his mistake.
He asked that maybe we could navigate this path with grace for each other, as we faced the irrevocable freight train of adolescence and the unique challenges of looming womanhood.
The letter held his whole heart. It was so much more than “because I said so.” I read it a couple of times before I even came out of my room that morning.
I never wore the skirt. I mean, I could have. But I didn’t want to, not now that I understood the heart inside the man who would gather a half-dozen women for an involuntary fashion show. The skirt stayed folded in my closet until trends shifted and styles changed and even I wouldn’t dream of wearing it.
My dad and I have gotten a lot of miles out of that story.
He is a family therapist, and he offers this anecdote to families in his office as evidence that:
a) even the most intentional parents can get it wrong;
b) everybody has to be fourteen; and
c) it’s hard on all parties involved.
* * *
This story is one of my darlings. Have you heard the phrase “kill your darlings?” It is a common piece of advice among writers. We “kill our darlings” when we decide to get rid of an unnecessary storyline or sentence in a piece of creative writing—elements we may have worked hard to create but that must be removed for the sake of the overall story. Even if we love them so much. (Just, like, so much.)
I turned in my manuscript this weekend, and this lovely darling – though I adore her and would hang her on a Christmas tree if I could – she didn’t make the cut.
The beauty of darlings, though, is you can give them away for free to people you love.
I’m giving this to you. it seems like a good time to give out a story that is sweet and free, not about pandemics or elections, just about love and the mutual lifelong task of seeking to understand.
May God especially bless with favor and grace the weary parents of fourteen-year-old girls.
(And boys. The mothers of fourteen-year-old boys desperately need your prayers.)