My neighbor stopped in today. She was carrying a message from an anonymous third party who wanted me to know that she had observed my daughter looking less than put-together, and felt that she was being a little bit neglected. Not emotionally. Not spiritually. But fashionwise. She just didn't seem as put-together as the other kindergarteners in her class.

I heard this criticism for what it was. A slight on my mothering. Another stab in the heart to the girl who didn’t have a mother herself, and now can’t quite get it together for her kids.

My mother was mentally ill. Prone at times to violent outbursts, she was best left undisturbed. She didn’t have time to make ponytails and braids, especially not the kind that had a ribbon at the ends. She couldn’t be bothered to check whether my shirt matched my skirt as I sailed out the door. And apparently I fall short in the same realm. Not for lack of caring. I am guilty of failing to recognize the importance of these little touches.

It is not for lack of time, or attention, that I have allowed her freedomI am guilty of allowing her to go to school without a ponytail. It seems that she is expected to appear in school each day with a ponytail, which is taken as a sign that she has a good mother. And I have foolishly allowed her to choose how she wishes to wear her hair, have even allowed her to brush and style and assemble for herself those precious ponytails.

My daughter is confident. She is happy. She is a sunflower basking in the glorious freedom of her childhood. But she is different. And already in kindergarten this difference has made itself known, in comparison to the carefully tended and pruned roses that are her classmates.

My daughter has chosen her own clothes for years. And I have failed to recognize that, even at five years old, it would be counted against her when her clothes didn’t match. It is not for lack of love. It is not for lack of time, or attention, that I have allowed her freedom. But it seems that it bothers some people for little girls to have the freedom to assert their own identity.

A psychologist I know once got a call from her daughter’s nursery-school teacher. “Are you aware that your daughter is wearing three shirts and two skirts to school today?” the teacher inquired in reproach. “Of course I am,” replied the psychologist/mother. “Who do you think gets her dressed in the morning?”

There are days I have felt like pinning a note on my daughter as she left the house that says, “She dressed herself today.” But I have refrained because I recognized that in the end, this is not about me. It’s about her having the freedom to experiment, to choose, and ultimately to define for herself a unique expression of self.