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Graduation Dress Angst

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Jennifer Ginsberg: I recently had the privilege of taking my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Haley, out shopping for her graduation dress. On the way to the mall, she gave me her list of requirements: nothing flouncy, bouncy, or poofy, no bows, no ruffles, and certainly, no pink! OK ... I get it. She doesn't want to look like a Disney Princess. But I was not prepared for the black, slinky number she picked out.


"I love it," she said, holding up the spaghetti-strapped cocktail dress to her pubescent body. "What do you think?"

"It's cute ..." I replied euphemistically. "Cute" is not the word that came to mind when I looked at that dress, which came straight from the tween "junior-hooker" line, inspired by Miley Cyrus and Ali Lohan. Dressing up a 12-year-old girl like a desperate 30-year-old woman in a nightclub is far from cute. I could only imagine what her mother and the other moms would say when Haley gave the graduation speech in that dress. "Oh, it must be something her stepmom picked out!" they would snicker in disgust.

But I have learned a lot about navigating the nuanced and fragile road of stepmotherhood over the years. Knocking down Haley's ideas and attempting to boss her around always backfires. "What about this dress?" I asked, casually selecting an adorable spring dress with a yellow floral print and white lacy trim. I hoped my redirection attempt would not be detected.

Haley made a face (I get a lot of faces these days). "I hate it," she replied, non-euphemistically.

"You never know until you try it on!" I gently coaxed. "Try on both dresses and let's decide."

Of course, she tried on the black dress first and she looked ... amazing. Haley is naturally gorgeous. She is half Chinese and has the most stunning, Eurasian quality to her beauty.

Her hair is jet-black and flows in perfect waves down her back. Her skin is bronzy and she has full lips and almond-shaped eyes. When she came out of the dressing room, she looked like she was walking down a runway.

"I love it!" Haley said, subtly striking a sexy pose in front of the mirror.

"It's cute ..." I said, once again using that ridiculous word to cover up my genuine feelings.

I had a sudden flash of her in the slinky, black dress with spiky stilettos, glowy makeup, and blown-out hair. She was sitting on a bar stool and men were clamoring around for her attention. It was a horrifying thought that needed immediate modification.

"Maybe with a little cardigan and ballet flats it would be OK?" I asked to no one in particular, hoping that my Higher Power would offer me divine guidance. "Try on the yellow one and let's compare."

Haley begrudgingly went back to the dressing room and peeled the black dress off her body. When she emerged in the yellow dress, she looked like a beautiful 12-year-old girl on her graduation day. I tried to mask my enthusiasm, knowing such a display would cause her to reject the dress on principle. "What do you think?" I asked, trying to read her flat expression.

"I like it," she replied cautiously. She twirled in front of the mirror (just like she used to when she was 6 years old and dressed up in her Belle costume) and the dress flared out into a circle. "But I like the black one better."

It was time for the truth. "Haley, you look gorgeous in the black dress. But it is so ... adult. I really like the yellow one better."

She twirled around in another circle and smiled. "Let's get it!"

As I paid for the dress, I wondered if she subjugated her own desires in an effort to please me. Despite my best effort, did I become the evil stepmother by not allowing Cinderella to wear her favorite dress to the ball?

At times like this, my role as a stepmom is difficult to define. More than a friend, less than a mother. I often question if I am doing too much, or not doing enough.

But on her graduation day, I will sit next to her biological mother and father and feel equal joy and pride for the beautiful girl in the yellow dress.

next: Heidi's White Trash Wedding
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