You don’t remember your first moments of life, but I do. I used to think it was because of the pregnancy-labor-holy-cow-I-made-a-human progression that primed me for such technicolor memories, but now I’m not sure. Adoptive parents describe that first moment with the same kind of detail and intensity, so maybe it is simply that we parents all experience a similar kind of intense imprinting.
I can still feel your inky black hair under my hand, wet and sticky. I remember the extravagant softness and frailty of your skin under my fingers as I traced along the base of your skull and down to your neck. The rhythmic swell of your rib cage was what I imagined a butterfly must feel the first time it opens its wings, alive but not quite ready to take flight.
I believe there must have been some spark of recognition that passed between our bodies after connecting for the first time as two fully distinct beings.
And after that, a constant haze of us. Comforting, diapering, feeding, playing. So much holding. You gave me a singular sense of purpose that I’d never felt before. That’s how it has been, for you and all your siblings. Until now.
Now, you’re peeking out from beneath the veil of childhood. Let me have my moment of honesty here: I don’t know whether I’m more concerned for you or for me. Part of me wants to be a selfless mother who is emotional simply out of love. I’m privileged to watch you step out, scared that you’ll get hurt, and excited to see you take flight. Of course, I do feel all those things.
As much as I want to leave it there, here is the other reality: I’m scared for you to pull the veil back and see me. Until now I’ve been just your Mother—infallible source of comfort and understanding. Even when I wasn’t doing it right, I was doing it right, you see?
You keep using all your new maturity to confront me about some legitimately flawed choices and attitudes of mine, and holy parenting-win-that-feels-like-a-loss, is it hard to hear. I feel this completely irrational urge to engage in a tit for tat argument with you, whereby I list out all the ways I’ve been a generous and empathetic and progressive parent, and therefore am completely unworthy of your criticism. But. They tell me I’m not supposed to do that with my seven year old.
You’re leaving me, daughter. We might still be breaking bread together every day and laying down under the same roof, but you’re still leaving me. You’re carefully stepping away from me, and I know that every time you look back, you’ll see me less as Mother, but as mother, the flawed human being who also happened to raise you. I know you’re still young and I know we have a lot of time left, yet I am still left with the feeling of not enough air in the room. I want to breath you in all over again like that first time, go back to that constant haze of us.
Why am I writing this? Maybe so that when you are grown, you can have proof that yes, I knew what was happening. And yes, it was just as awful and miraculous as you could imagine. And yes, I’m screwing up and I know I’m screwing up, but I’m doing my best.
Most of all, I vow now to listen to you without agenda, without judgement, forever. Except when that is really hard for me, and then I ask for grace. I’ve known you for longer than you have memory, before your butterfly heart fluttered and took off on its own. I cannot forget the time before you flew away.
Mouse has been writing a lot of stories lately. Her first story with any kind of recognizable story arc was about… A princess. Of course.
It has had me thinking quite a bit about fairy tales, and the power of narrative over our lives. It is a chicken and the egg question, of course, whether narrative informs our world or it is the other way around. A realistic guess is that it goes both ways.
At any rate, my six year old has given me more to ponder than I’d ever expected. Here is her story, with spelling corrected for ease of reading.
There was a princess. Her name was Princess Rose. Her palace is beautiful. She found a prince. He was not nice. But Rose had always wanted a prince. But she would not marry a mean prince. So she stopped looking.
After a while she looked again. The mean prince was still there. She wondered why he stayed. She said, “Do you wish you were married?” He said yes. She did not actually want to marry. She was not talking anyone, until she couldn’t hold it. They tried to marry until she said, I can’t marry. So he got on his horse and rode away.
After the mean prince left, she wondered, would she find another prince that is nice? Yes, she did and his name is Tom. They watched each other for a while. This is this a new prince,” she thought. She said, “Can we marry?” Tom said yes so they did.
So you can imagine that I was confused as to why Rose got engaged to the mean prince, fully knowing he was mean. I asked Mouse why this was. Her answer? Rose did not want anyone to think that she was mean. Not only that, Rose thought by marrying him, he would learn to be nice. Apparently, he couldn’t help that he was mean; no one had taught him to be nice. Huh.
Suddenly, a voice in my mind recited, “Sugar and spice and everything nice, that’s what little girls are made of.”
It gave me real pause to consider that my six-year-old daughter already has gotten the message that women are expected to sacrifice themselves to others in the name of being “good”. She might not be able to articulate it beyond a little girl’s princess story, but it is clear to me that the message has been delivered.
Mouse explained more of the story to me. Rose was extra careful the next time (this is why she and Tom “watched each other”), because she did not want to get stuck with another mean prince. I pointed out that if the new prince was mean, she could always choose to call off the engagement, or that maybe she doesn’t need to be with a prince at all. Mouse repeated that Rose really wanted a prince. More importantly, if Rose kept calling off engagements, no more princes might come, knowing that she was so likely to say no. Huh.
So Rose waits, protecting her reputation, and then makes the first move once she is confident. Ok, I thought, this is good. I liked that in her story, a good man can wait for the woman to approach on her own terms. I’m so weary of unreasonable fairy tales that promise happiness for women who compromise themselves. Little mermaid Ariel, change your body so you can find love. Belle, go live with the mean angry beast to please your father. Better yet, return to captivity and you’ll be rewarded beyond imagination. Cinderella, don’t make waves for your father, endure abuse and neglect and one day a different man will pluck you from that hell and all will be right. I could go on, but you get my point. You can tell I’m not a Disney fan. And don’t tell me that this stuff doesn’t matter because they’re too young. Kids are sharp, they get it more than they let on.
I have been reading the commentary around the Fifty Shades of Grey movie, and while I think both sound pretty ridiculous (I did read the first book out of curiosity and vow not to partake any further), I can’t help but think, goodness, how is this not a fairy tale all grown up? I’m not judging anyone’s fantasies. What we imagine in the privacy of our own minds doesn’t have to be laid bare for public critique. The question is more about what we choose to elevate, what grips us and why. Virgin finds impossibly seductive millionaire with violent desires to control his romantic partners. She surrenders against her better judgement yet all ends well. Fifty Shades of Grey promises to be a dark fairy tale for adults, complete with a modern day equivalents of a palace, chariots, and even a dungeon. It is the “bad boy” story that goes right. But just as I’ve never heard anyone’s captor turning into a kind prince with a magical kiss, I’ve never heard of a real life example of an abuser miraculously reforming simply because someone loved him or her enough.
I can’t seem to get Mouse’s story out of my mind, because it reminds me that my children will one day meet mean princes and Christian Greys. Men who might appeal to their sense of “good” in order to draw them into dysfunctional or, even worse, abusive relationships. I’m glad that my daughter’s princess story doesn’t end with her surrendering to the mean prince. Whether her six year old musings will carry over into her real life decisions, well, I lose some sleep over that.
You went to a birthday party today and your father’s report was… well, not great. It seems you spent most of the time being a barnacle on your daddy’s leg, despite the kind efforts of other kids to get you to play. In fact, your daddy told me you were pretty unkind to one of the kids, and that hurt my heart a bit. Read the rest of this entry »