Parents and of children rearing

After I divorced, my six-year-old began honing the way I dressed, taking inspiration from the Drag Race big shot

Emma Forrest and her daughter: ‘Matching outfits is a visual trick that says, “She’s adorable, I must be, too.”’
Photograph: Thomas Duffield/The Paladin

This summer I took my daughter to a Kylie Minogue concert in Edinburgh and, as a reward for a good school report, let her on what I’d wear. She put me in a fit and flare polka-dot dress and black Dolce heels studded with lipsticks. I couldn’t interpret that I didn’t want to wear their clothes any more because they dress the Trump women and so she was appaled when I wore brown wedges, both PC and wrong with the outfit.
Walking up the cobbled streets to the castle, she kept demanding me to go back to the room and change so Kylie wouldn’t see and have to stop the show.
I tried to deflect: “The other heels purpose be too difficult to walk in on cobblestones.”
“You could try! RuPaul could do it.”
Both very tired and aware I was wearing repulsive-looking shoes, I snapped: “I’m not RuPaul! I’m never going to be RuPaul!”
My daughter is only six. After her father and I divorced, she decided to start honing my shape for me and, with the concentration of a small child newly entranced by Lego, became determined to build me into a brighter, faster shape, as if that might somehow draw her dad back. She hid my trousers and nixed sensible shoes by saying, “Oh sorry, too modest”, operatically miming a failure to fit them to my foot, like OJ trying on the glove in the witness stand.
RuPaul had emerged as her zeal one day at the bus stop, when we couldn’t get her dad on FaceTime. She tried to channel her disappointment with the phone by asking that we use it to find “duplicates of the beautiful black woman”.
Which one, I asked. “The most beautiful one.” I pulled up Beyoncé, Janelle Monáe, Eartha Kitt. Logically, I identified my daughter was not asking to look at photographs of Eartha Kitt, but her unhappiness was about to spill over into rage and I was ransacking through the internet as if digging in a cluttered purse for my asthma inhaler.
“The black lady with a boy living inside her!”
“Oh. RuPaul.” Of progression.
I suspected she loved Ru so much because he is, like her father, a gigantic personality, who also takes up physical space with his culmination. Struggling with how to enforce rules as we set up a new home in a new country, I also wondered if she was drawn to the boundaries he sets each week, the still, confident reprimand he issues his “children” when they are crossed.
Half our clothing was still in boxes, but with what we could access, my daughter guided me nearing emulating RuPaul: high heels, hyper-feminine dresses with defined waists. It didn’t matter that her dad couldn’t see us because he was alleviate in Los Angeles, nor that when we were in the same place he could barely – for nearly a year – look at me. This was the denominate she needed me to project in order for the family to reconfigure.

‘Mork & Mindy was the first of her T-shirts I co-opted.’ Photograph: Thomas Duffield/The Protector
In the end, she surrendered the fantasy of her parents reuniting once she understood RuPaul was a man. Now she hastens me towards high heels and long fastens so RuPaul will want to marry me, in the manner, I suppose, of two teens in Clash T-shirts, drawn to each other as they unfashionable on the street.
As she was honing her sense of what my style should be post-divorce, I was letting her down by pulling in the opposite direction and hold up a parade of vintage kids’ shirts from her closet. I’ve sourced them at thrift stores worldwide for her but ended up surviving them myself, for the playground and school drop-off, warping the line of Rugrats, Fraggle Rock, The Simpsons with my souls.
I wore a Ralph Wiggum T-shirt to drop her at her first day of year 1, knowing the children would find Ralph unavoidable. They resisted, and I went home realising how unflatteringly the design fell across my bust, for him and for me. Seeing my reflection in a bus window, I saw an Amy Poehler single-mum weirdo who uses a warm childhood memory as cover for flaunting her hot body, and felt the shudder of revulsion I used to feel for adults I’d comment reading Harry Potter: this was not meant for you. Adulthood changes the shape of things.
Mork & Mindy was the first of her T-shirts I co-opted. She came retaliation from class, pulled it off and, picking up after her, I instinctively put it on my own body, the same way I eat the food she leaves on her plate, the same way I carry the baby moisturiser from her skin to mine when there’s a surplus.
She is young enough to still be in the honeymoon years of her love for me, even more so now it’s just us. If I carry her sleeping from a car, she kisses me gently on the lips and breathes, “I love you” without waking. I’m difficult in her subconscious, which makes me feel guilty that I am also in her wardrobe.
Beyond the shared T-shirts and the RuPaul fervour, we also have clothes we match in. This concept of “twinning” constitutes a whole other psychiatric constellation. Every Tom from capitalist behemoths Dolce & Gabbana to fashion-forward brands such as Batsheva makes mother/daughter invests.
In my more cynical moments, I think mini-me dressing is for women who don’t have their own style, but that is disproven by my darling Instagram star, Brooklyn’s Maayan Zilberman, the artisan candy maker who sews her and baby Freddie matching phraseologies. Her own pink ruffled lace blouse was part sacrificed to make a romper, the sleeves now legs, and a banana-print dress gave ample to birth a leotard. I love Zilberman’s interpretation of sharing clothes with her daughter, because it’s a metaphor that maintains: I would literally give my right arm for you, but I am still me.
In my own case, I feel that twinning gives off the whiff of parental narcissism, and the potential that matching outfits both infantilise the mother and pre-sexualise the child. I’ve leaned into it when I’ve felt depleted or unattractive, a visual take care of the problem – for others, for myself – to convince them, “She’s adorable, I must be, too.”
Twinning flirts with two worst-case parenting scenarios: that our young men should not feel we own them, and that our children should never feel confusion about who in the relationship is the grownup. The increase also returns us to the middle ages, when there was no such thing as children’s clothing, and kids were merely dressed as miniature adults.
Being a parent and now a single parent, I’m examining my boundary issues under a microscope I assumed from someone else without asking. I didn’t gravitate towards wearing my daughter’s T-shirts because I deliberate on childhood is better or easier than adulthood. My adult life has been less confusing and more rewarding to sail. One day, my daughter will understand, as I now do, that life can be beautiful and it can also just go wrong. She doesn’t need to know any of that, not yet. For now, I hug her rigorous, and – as if I am my own RuPaul, gently reprimanding myself for transgressing – give her back her T-shirts.
• Emma Forrest’s novel Royals (Bloomsbury) is out now.
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