Put that dress on, now! I mean it!" said Sara, one hand on her hip, the other shaking a finger at me. "I don't want to have to tell you again!"
My four-year-old daughter was helping me select my wardrobe for the day.
"But Sara, I don't want to wear a dress," I whined. "I want to wear jeans - like I always do."
Sara sighed in exasperation.
"You don't dress like a girl, Mommy," she told me, not for the first time. "You're a girl. You need to wear girls' clothes."
With that, Sara tossed her ponytail, spun around once to make her skirt swirl, and stomped down the hall in her black patent-leather Mary Janes.
There is little about me that meets my daughter's criteria for femininity.
"I love that nail polish," Sara says admiringly whenever she comes across a "real" woman with colored varnish on her fingernails. My own are perpetually bare, much to her embarrassment.
"Can I try your necklace?" she asks my bejeweled friends, frustrated that I usually dash out of the house sans trim.
"Mom, when will I be old enough to wear earrings?" she wants to know, coveting the small dots that her friend Avery, whose ears are pierced, sports on her little lobes. My standard reply - when you're a grownup - only fuels her frustration.
The truth is, I don't know when it's appropriate for a young girl to wear jewelry or polish her nails. I tend to do neither, owing to a lifelong preference for a more unadorned look. But while I don't feel the need for Sara to follow in my fashion footsteps, I must admit that some of her other ideas about womanhood are beginning to concern me.
"I want to be a mommy when I grow up," she says.
"That's great, Sara," I reply, "but you can be other things in addition to a mommy. I'm your mommy, but I'm also a writer. So what else do you want to be, in addition to a mommy?"
Sara thinks hard. "A wife!" she exclaims gleefully. "I'll marry Daniel. He's so handsome!"
Five-year-old Daniel is handsome, but I wouldn't want my daughter to base her whole life around him - or any other man. But Sara seems to think that it would be just fine to live atop a pedestal.
"We're Daddy's princesses," she tells me. "Daddy takes care of you and me because we're his liiiiiiiiiittle princesses."
'A WOMAN doesn't need a man to take care of her," I find myself saying. I'm spouting feminist dogma to a three-foot-high "total woman." "I can take care of myself, and when you grow up, you will be able to, also. And for your information, Daddy has never called either of us 'princess.' " But Sara has already gone to bathe her dolls and put her stuffed animals to bed. She has eschewed the cars and trucks that were my son Josh's childhood toys, just as she dashed my fantasies of dressing her in overalls and work shirts.
I fear that, unknowingly, I may be contributing to Sara's warped ideas of womanhood. Is it wrong for me to acquiesce to her requests for nightgowns instead of pajamas, for Barbie dolls instead of action figures? But I know from experience that if I insist on less stereotypical toys and clothing, Sara will refuse to have anything to do with them.
Regardless of how hard I try to portray a non-gender-specific lifestyle, Sara seems to have a knack for ferreting out my feminine side.
"Can I use some of that?" she asks, as she watches me apply blusher to my cheeks. As I dust her face with my makeup brush, her pleasure is palpable.
"Let's make cookies," she'll suggest, knowing that, in our family, it is only the women who enjoy baking.
And sometimes I find myself unwittingly providing fodder for her fantasies.
"Sara, I have a special treat for you," I said recently, as she sat watching me cut her toenails. "Sometimes, when people have their toenails cut in a salon, the person cutting their nails also rubs nice lotion on their feet. Would you like me to do that?"
She nodded, giggling with anticipation as I showed her my (unisex) peppermint foot lotion.
"Oh, it smells so good, Mommy," Sara said, as I massaged the soles of her feet.
"Yes, it does," I agreed, making sure I rubbed each tiny toe.
"But do you know the best part?" she continued, a dreamy smile on her face.
"No, what?" I asked, imagining that she will comment on how nice it feels to have her feet rubbed, or how much we love each other.
"The lotion is pink!" she exclaimed. "Just for girls like us!"