The Unintended Lesson of the Bird Shoes

IMG_0564-1You know that pair of simply breathtaking little shoes you just can’t stop eyeing for your toddler even though they are too expensive to justify the purchase?

I happened upon a photo of them the other day. The photo is four years old now; the toddler has turned six. Seeing those empty shoes, I was reminded of something very smart I learned, but often forget.

Here’s what happened: the cute little soft shoes, pale sky blue with perfect Portlandia “put a bird on it” birds were something like forty-odd dollars. We have a generous hand-me-down stream, so there wasn’t a “need” for any shoes, let alone ones that cost an arm and a leg (I couldn’t help myself; never does a cliché work so well as this one right here). But I coveted the shoes. I’d go to the store where a sweet bird was perched on each shoe and I’d pick up the left then the right, and admire. And then, I’d put each shoe down. I’d walk away, slowly.

I really, really loved those shoes.

The most amazing thing happened: my friend passed a pair of them on to us when her daughter outgrew them. “These are scuffed up, so I feel bad about passing them on,” she apologized. “They aren’t perfect.”

Are you kidding me?

They were more perfect that way. “I love that they’re scuffed and loved and I love them more than you can know and I’m relieved that I didn’t have to buy them or not want to scuff them and there’s now absolutely no pressure on Saskia to wear them loads, but if she does, I’ll be thrilled,” I said, the words gushing out. “This is the single best hand-me-down we’ve ever gotten,” I declared.

I most certainly meant “we.” The perfectness of the gift had about nothing to do with my fast-walking toddler.

Don’t you know even as a toddler the precious pale blue bird shoes were not my pink-loving, sparkle-loving daughter’s favorites? She wore them plenty, but not the way I would have had her wear them—not with ardor. I often had to put them on when she had no agency over her wardrobe, like after I’d carried her to the car or stroller in her socks.

Fortunately, she wore them and I enjoyed them (to the hilt) and eventually, she outgrew them. Fortunately, hand-me-downs continue to serve as the basis of my now-six-year-old-daughter’s wardrobe. While few things have been as personally swoon-worthy as those shoes, my hand-me-down or bust mentality can be challenged by a few pricey brands with glossy catalogues that clutter our front hallway or sneak peeks via my email inbox. Inevitably, I fold every now and then for some dress that’s so adorable I can’t stand it, and rarely are the things I gravitate toward frilly or sparkly. I don’t even always go for pink.

Not surprisingly, this means that the clothes I purchase because I can’t stand not to are not necessarily my daughter’s favorites. Some, she likes fine, others less so, and some, not at all. I find myself in an uncomfortable position when I care about her clothing.

I cared, at times, about my young sons’ clothing, too. I loved to get beautiful clothes for my small boys, too. There were things I fell for, like the OshKosh overalls size six months or the smoky blue hooded chenille sweater. With my daughter, sometimes it feels different than it did with my sons. I’d call “daughter as doll Syndrome” and I’d have to admit, I am uncomfortable placing my sensibility about how she should look or dress atop hers and the pressures she already feels to look certain ways, pretty ways (not from me, but all the messages from everywhere). This place where my fashion sensibility and dress-up the doll impulses meet pit my desire not to care or covet against how much I like little girls’ cute, comfortable dresses for my girl. I’m caught between not wanting looks—or clothes—to matter and the love for the pretty object on my pretty gal.

Clothes and appearance and girls, that’s a thicket of questions to contemplate. For now, sometimes I buy the pretty thing on sale or get her a pair of shoes I know she’ll love (see, next year’s red canvas Mary Jane sneaks with a flower affixed). More often, I just look, lust a bit, and don’t buy. The tension remains. While the little shoes signify the beauty of hand-me-downs, perhaps they endure in my memory as a reminder that it’s okay to care about my daughter’s clothing—just not too much.

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This entry was written by Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

About the author: Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Brain, Child Magazine, and Salon, amongst others. Follow her on twitter–@standshadows.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

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  • http://www.hungrylittleanimal.blogspot.com Leslie Kendall Dye

    I can’t remember if I already commented on this, but I sought this post out again this morning as I related to it so much! I printed it as a reminder that I am not the only mother with this very specific feeling – and somehow about the shoes. This feeling of caring, and wondering if it is superficial or merely human, and where is the divide between our identity and our daughter’s, which can feel murky in these early years but is so crucial to find. It’s a beautiful essay, thank you for writing it!