My Daughter’s Two Questions: Big, Small, Both Agonizing

Yellow. That’s a good color for a prom dress. And it must be long. Long enough to reach the ankles of a tall girl but definitely no train. Fashion forward but not overly revealing. Fancy but not sparkly. Cap sleeves or off the shoulder but definitely no cold shoulder. Asymmetric is ok, but not in that way that looks bunchy. The back can be low but not too low and not too complicated or busy. And real yellow.

Not mustard. Certainly not banana and absolutely no easter-egg. Marigold or daffodil. Not shimmery, sequined or iridescent. The list went on and on—precise, exhausting and likely non-existent. If this dress was out there, she would find it.

My daughter had two big decisions to make during her senior year and she agonized over both. (Shutterstock fizkes)

My daughter was looking for a dress that expressed her essence

Scouring every corner of the internet for a suitable gown, she was really looking for herself. The look that allowed her to express her essence, perhaps even impress classmates. Granted, the roughly 400 peers also in attendance would likely be too focused on their own outfits to care about hers. But, if she was going to attend this dumb prom at all, it would be sporting a look she owned.

Prom was the symbolic ending to a high school experience that had been lackluster at best. There was no promise of a date, not even a big group of friends with whom to celebrate. Still, here was a lane she knew well, fashion—giving her the confidence to say good riddance to her public school days in style. She never quite got her footing, never found her people. Maybe the perfect yellow dress would change all of that, or at least allow her to say sayonara with confidence.

In the meantime, here we were mid-April and she still hadn’t decided where she would be attending college. A dress…and an institution of higher education; vastly different decisions occurring simultaneously and with some interesting parallels. A frock she will wear once—if that, as she hadn’t even committed to going to prom—against the choice of a place where she will spend the next four years.

Both agonizing, precise, particular. Both causing her to focus on details that, in all likelihood, would not impact her ability to enjoy—or not enjoy—the experience when it came right down to it. Even in the perfect daffodil dress, she would most likely be let down by the experience of standing awkwardly in uncomfortable shoes with a bunch of other 18 year olds she doesn’t really like, crammed into a space where everyone was talking about post-prom plans that didn’t include her.

The search for a dress and a college seemed parallel

While she was fortunate to be able to select from several colleges that accepted her, the decision was no less paralyzing for an 18-year-old mind hard at work to embrace transition. At what school might she find her people? Would they see all that was unique and beautiful about her?

Would she learn, grow and meet cool professors? And would it make up for the lonely days of high school and the disconnection of remote learning, where old connections of middle school ran their course without replacement.

The choice of where to pursue college took on an amusing if eerie parallel with the search for a prom dress—small and picky things could land a college in the “no” column. The annoying tour guide at a school may as well have been the annoying gown that leaned more mustard than daffodil.

The college dorm that showed its age with porcelain water fountains was that dress with the iridescent sequins—ok, it’s technically yellow, but it looks pink when the light hits it. The sense of a lackluster school spirit or dominant Greek system was the tacky daffodil fabric with the too-high slit, cold shoulder and complicated back.

She quickly and for small details dismissed many colleges and dresses

Selecting the school to call home was, for her teenaged brain, much like showing up in the perfect dress. She wanted a place where she could express herself in a nurturing and creative environment where people understood and accepted her. To pursue the one subject she knew she was passionate about—dance—and the freedom to explore and grow her brain in other disciplines.

The fear of wondering if she would find it caused her to dismiss college after college for random imperfections. She would find fault with them before they could exclude or disappoint her.

In the end, her choices of both college and dress were compromises

In the end, the chosen gown ended up being, of all things, black. Sequined with a floral trim. Not what she set out for, but in the end well-priced, comfortable, and (yes, I’m biased) stunning. The college, a similar compromise. A place with program strengths in dance and other areas of interest, but not one that was particularly well known for the things she initially thought she wanted.

What carried the day was merit aid and relative proximity to home for a girl who was not quite sure she was ready leave family far behind. Maybe not the perfect color or style, but something to develop into her own. In the midst of looking for the perfect option for both a dress and a college, she went for what fit her for now.

The more gratifying development was her ability to realize that the image in her head always needs to be viewed as a work in progress, just like her.

More Great Reading:

I’m Confident About My Daughter’s College Choice But…

About Alison Ivey

Alison Ivey is a lawyer in the Seattle, Washington area. She's a mother of two and enjoys writing in her spare time. 

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