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.
***HEY, YO. There are some spoilers in here. Just sayin’.***
I like you. A lot.
My early childhood was spent in stuffy computer labs, arguing about Oregon Trail. Somehow, we all knew that those five pixels were supposed to be a bear. I can still feel the suspense, watching that one pixel move towards the five pixels, wondering if we had successfully shot the bear and wouldn’t starve. I am that generation, who learned now to program games into a T-91 calculator (yeah, I was a math nerd) and still remembers Atari. Now, it seems like every kid has an iPad and video games give me the jitters with how realistic they look.
You, Pixar, were part of that change. I was 14 when Toy Story came out. You took the graphic animation game and went next level. I was still young enough that Toy Story actually made me feel badly about all the toys I no longer used. I was busy kissing boys and stealing cigarettes but still had my cabbage patch kid on my dresser. Ok that is a lie, because I already thought it wasn’t cool to have toys out, but I had Karna Diane somewhere, I swear. Since then, I’ve watched every single Pixar movie and pretty much enjoyed them all. You’ve kept me happy thinking that there were some people out there who could still really imagine the shit out of things, you know? I’m under no illusions that you aren’t a big company with big company issues, but I like that you’ll touch topics like class struggle, environment and capitalism.
I’m adulting now. I have four kids and, surprise, they really like movies! They especially like your movies, Pixar. It is like you are aiming for their demographic, or something. So I took my kids to see Inside Out last week. It was good. Until it wasn’t.
There I sat, at the peak of the story arc, watching Joy and Sadness hang on for dear life while their buddies inside headquarters tried to figure out how to break open the glass and let them in. It was tense. Would they make it in? Would Riley get back in touch with all her feelings? Disgust had a righteous idea when she made Anger so mad he broke the glass open. Clever.
But why, Pixar, why???
Why did you have to make her call him a moron and then make that mocking impression of him saying “duuuuh”? Why did you have to make people with intellectual disabilities the butt of the joke? I know it is supposed to be all very haha because of course Disgust is Anger’s friend and doesn’t really think he’s like that, but don’t you see what is wrong there? In such a seemingly well thought out movie that seeks to remove stigma against mental health issues, couldn’t you have thought that scene out more carefully?
Look, try a little test. If Disgust had turned to Anger and started making fun of him for being effeminate, and then did the stereotypical limp wrist gesture, would that seem right? Or, what if Disgust had started to talk about how crazy Anger is, how irrational, how unhinged and how he just probably forgot to take his meds that day? Or, what if Disgust had started going on about Anger being short and unattractive, about how no one would ever want to spend the rest of his or her life with such a little, red, stubby dude?
Feels wrong, doesn’t it, Pixar? I think you know this, but let me just be clear: It is wrong to use one group of people to signify and embody what is supposedly is lesser or undesirable. That kind of humor steps on groups of people in order to elevate another and creates stigma and discrimination.
There are actual, live people who can’t help saying “duh” when they speak and sometimes have their mouths open. They are not doing it to be amusing to others, they are doing it because that is how they are. There are real human beings who will score below average on an IQ test. You made a joke at those people’s expense and left that joke completely unexamined.
All across this country, parents are fighting to have their children with disabilities included in classrooms with their peers. Kids are bullied and hurt. Adults are passed over for employment, or paid pennies on the dollar simply because of their disabilites. People are denied life saving medical treatment.
Pixar, for that one moment, you helped make that stigma and discrimination happen. When words moron and idiot are thrown around like nothing, kids learn that it is ok to insult someone’s intelligence. Young kids learn that a good way to make someone mad is to call them stupid and pretend to look like someone with an intellectual disability, because of course it is awful to be that. If brains were really like you depicted in Inside Out, every kid who went to go see your movie would have had a little glowy memory stored that they might bring up the next time they heard the words “special ed” or tried to talk to someone with a speech impediment. And the memory wouldn’t help the kid be kinder or more inclusive, trust me. What Disgust said to Anger was the basic equivalent of using the r-word, simply without uttering the word.
And you know what? I bet in every theater in which Inside Out plays, there are probably multiple kids watching who are getting special education services, or some kind of therapy. What are you saying to those kids, Pixar? That someone should rightly and understandably (literally) blow his top when told he was like them? My son with Down syndrome was sitting right by me that day, thank goodness he’s not old enough to understand, but his sisters were.
You could have done that scene a hundred different ways. You could have had Disgust outright ask Anger to open the window and if he said he couldn’t, had Disgust get all over him about not even being able to perform his one function—getting angry. You could have had Disgust provoke Anger by telling him that it was his fault they were even in that predicament since it was Anger’s idea to run away. You could have had her go after some characterization that was a choice like being unkind, lazy, or rude. Shoot, you could have just had her make fun of his style.
These moments are little, I admit it. It isn’t like the punch to the gut that I feel when I hear short bus jokes or see that stranger stare at my child like he’s contagious. Instead, jokes like the one you made in Inside Out are like little paper cuts. Little stings that remind me that the world thinks that my kid’s existence is something that no one wants. In case I forget, you know. Wouldn’t want that.
Let’s not break up, Pixar. You seem like a decent force for good. After my son was born with Down syndrome, I had a whole new appreciation for Finding Nemo. There are clearly folks over there who have given some thought to what disability means or doesn’t mean (I even personally know of some). You messed up this time though. I loved Inside Out but that scene was a little slice that bled.
So please, create more dignity for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities, not less. Don’t let me or my son die of a thousand tiny paper cuts.
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.