The Dressing Room Doors by Randi Olin

The teenage years bring lots of change, not least of which is to the nature of the mother-daughter relationship. One area mother learns to bond with her growing girl in new ways.

My 14-year-old daughter, Emily, and I had our arms filled with tribal-inspired tank tops and salmon colored shorts as we made our way downstairs, through the men’s department and to the dressing room area of Urban Outfitters. We stood in line for a few minutes, the clanging from the metal hooked hangers offering a musical interlude as we waited for a room. The combat–boot-, beret-clad brunette salesgirl led us down one row to a room. Emily looked at me with her large silver-blue eyes and twirled a piece of her curly chestnut hair. And then, she turned around and went into the dressing room, and the oak-like door slammed shut, giving a momentary echoing effect, as if we were in a narrow hallway beneath a medieval castle or fortress.

I leaned against the wall directly opposite the now closed door, my shoulders slumped. As I looked to my right, the row of closed wooden doors stood on one side, and a line of mothers, with a stance similar to my own, on the other. I thought we shared a bond or a sense of camaraderie. But when I looked over, no one seemed to look back at me with the knowing nod I was hoping for. Instead, each appeared lost in a vacant stare or kept busy scrolling through emails and messages. paper-doll

I thought back to the days when Emily was younger, when we shopped in the girls’ department at Bloomingdale’s  and Nordstrom in the Westchester mall. When I used to be inside the dressing room with her, sitting on a bench, handing her a pair of pants or a sweater while re-hanging what she had already tried on. It’s not that I want to sit inside with her now, because I know I don’t belong there anymore. But I also don’t want to stand out in the hallway, leaning against a wall, with her on one side of a solid wooden door and me on the other.

Occasionally a door opens in our row and a teenage girl semi-emerges, half in and half out of the dressing room. She twirls around in her too-short dress and her mother shrugs and gives an, “I think I like the other, longer one better,” which then the girl replies with, “I like this one so much better,” and she turns around and goes back inside the room. The slam of the heavy door followed by the sound of the metal latch sliding alerts my senses, and I stare at the closed door before me. With my daughter behind it. What is she thinking about in there, on the other side? And how can I get her to talk to me more, instead of her recent one-word responses of “yups” and “nopes” coupled with a sprinkling of eye rolls and full body turn-aways?

If I’m going to do the “stand and lean,” I wish the door didn’t go all the way up to the ceiling. Then Emily and I could hand each other different sizes back and forth over the top. So I wouldn’t have to yell “what?” over and over through the solid wooden door, in an industrial looking hallway that reverberates a harsher-than-intended tone when all Emily is trying to ask me is whether the tank top she likes comes in other colors.

We spend a lot of time these days with Emily on the inside of the dressing room and me on the outside. And I prefer those with curtains instead of doors. Just a velvety piece of fabric to separate me from my daughter. That slides over quietly on a rod rather than slamming shut. So I can ask her, “How does the coral tie-dyed shirt fit?” without yelling. And so she can easily respond, “Can you please grab me the next size?” without having to open and then re-shut a door.

When I spend time with Emily, just the two of us, I want us to have more back and forth—without closed doors. But why does it bother me now, while I’m standing outside the dressing room at Urban Outfitters? Is it because I finally have an afternoon out with my daughter and it doesn’t really feel like quality time? That I can’t hear anything she is or isn’t saying from behind that heavy door?

The familiar sound of chimes is coming from my phone and I look down to see that Emily, only a couple of feet from me, has just sent a text. A picture of her, wearing a crocheted turquoise sweater and white pants, with this note: “I like these white jeaaanns!!” The door doesn’t open. Maybe she’s going to make this decision by herself. I’m about to knock on the door but instead, pull out my cell phone. I text her back, a winking smiley-face emoticon. I am meeting her on her terms. And suddenly, I feel much better.

I lean back against the wall and stare at the wooden door. I get it, that she needs to grow up. But how can I continue to change with her, so our mother-daughter relationship adjusts with her years? Perhaps Urban Outfitters has it right. Maybe, like in her room at home, Emily can and should maintain her own sense of independence—behind closed doors, alone in the dressing room, without my ability to ask her questions, talk to her, or touch her hand over the top. But sometimes I long for that little girl from the past, with her lopsided ponytails and pink high-top sneakers.

The door swings open and out she comes, wearing her old cut-off jean shorts and worn-in Michigan tee shirt. I smile as we pass the line of mothers and daughters now standing in line. We head upstairs and towards the register. I want to grab her hand in mine and swing our arms back and forth as we walk out of the store. Just like we did years ago. But instead, I put my hands into my front pants pockets. I turn to her: “Want to get an ice cream cone?”

“Yeah,” she says, adding, “I want a vanilla one with colored sprinkles.”

“I want a vanilla-chocolate swirl,” I reply.

She holds on to the recycled shopping bag filled with her new spring clothes as we head outside. And we walk together out onto the busy sidewalk. Side by side. 

Randi Olin is a former attorney who lives in Weston, CT with her husband and two children. Her writing has also appeared in “Brain, Child Magazine” and “The Weston Magazine Group.”

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