The Princesses in Their Cages

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“Guess what?” I say as I approach my daughters, sitting at the dining room table coloring. Their markers strewn across the table are mostly faded and dried out. The new colored pencils, our family’s solution to the dried out markers, lay scattered around them in a mini tornado of coloring utensils. I sit down beside my daughters.

“We are going to Disney Land for my birthday. Mom is going to celebrate her birthday with her twin sister and we are going to Disney Land!” I am thrilled about my plan. When I discovered my birthday fell on my daughter’s fall break, I never booked a trip so quickly. I have never been to Disney Land and have received a giant amount of grief for this for my entire life. I will finally experience this American rite of passage on my 35th birthday with my twin sister. But then I start thinking about the details of our “vacation”. For three nights my husband and I will share a hotel room with our three tiny children, one of whom is up several times a night. We will spend our days at an overcrowded theme park. I don’t like crowds. I don’t even like street fairs. This may be my own personal hell, perhaps not a vacation at all, but rather a very expensive and rare form of torture?

“Mommy hasn’t celebrated her birthday with her twin sister in 20 years,” I tell my daughters who by this time have completely checked out of the conversation and are dreaming about Anna, Elsa, and their cousin who they adore. “Mommy has never been to Disney Land.” I say animatedly and slightly irritated by the way I am talking about myself in the third person.

My four-year-old jumps from her seat and shouts, “ I can’t wait to go to Disney Land and see the princesses in their cages!”

“I can’t wait to see the princesses in their cages too,” the three-year-old screams, mimicking her sister.

I smile.   My girls think that Disney Land is a zoo for princesses. A modern day feminist’s dream, the dangerous Disney Princesses with their svelte bodies and flowing tresses, all locked behind bars. These princesses who brainwash our preschoolers to think that being skinny and pretty is everything. The insidious belief that if a young girl is thin, pretty, and waits patiently, her prince charming will come, kiss her, and carry her to a glorious happily ever after. Some feminists blame princess culture for everything. Disney Princesses, the slippery slope that set our daughters on the path to body insecurities and eating disorders.

It would be nice if life were that simple? If banning princesses from our homes would guarantee that our daughters would grow-up with high self-esteem and aspirations to be whoever they want to be. It would be lovely if banning princesses would prevent my future adolescent daughters from obsessing over whether society/ adolescent boys find them pretty or not.

From my experience raising two daughters, three-year-olds gravitate to gender stereotypes. My daughter insists on wearing pink and purple twirley princess dresses every day. She scoffs at pants and shorts. My oldest did the same thing, but now she is five, she only wears pants, and her favorite color is green.

Princess culture is fleeting. The stereotypes in the princess books are pathetic, but this too shall pass. If my daughter develops body insecurities as a tween, it won’t be because of Ariel’s shell bikini. It will more likely stem from pop culture where the media photo-shops images of already dangerously thin supermodels.

As a child I did not own a single Disney Princess. I spent most of my time coloring my barbies and chopping off their hair. My barbies were skinny and pretty, but they were dolls. At 11-years-old, I obsessed over whether I was pretty or not. I spent hours thinking if only I was skinnier, had longer legs, or a different nose. Embarrassingly, I believed that being “pretty” was everything. The pretty girls were the popular girls and I wished I could be one. As an adolescent I wasted so much time worrying about how I looked.

I wish it were that easy. I wish I could lock the princesses in their cages and save my daughters from the masochistic adolescent activity of dissecting their looks. I wish I could save them from the monstrous teenage time suck, that is spending endless hours worrying about whether they are pretty or whether a certain boy will like them. I wish I could save them the heartache of feeling ugly, different, or less than. But alas, annihilating the princesses is not the answer. Society’s fixation with beauty is pervasive.  It sucks.

 *****

“The princesses actually walk around Disney Land,” I say to my eldest daughter. “It is not a zoo. You can even shake their hands.” I laugh out loud and kiss her soft face.

Her cheeks flush. She is embarrassed. “I know that,” she says, “Princesses live in castles.”

“Of course they do,” I say, “and we are going to visit them on my birthday.”

Life’s Trajectory & Letting Go

 

For the first thirty years of my life I followed a specific trajectory. My life was a linear graph. One could merely plug in the vertical and horizontal measurements into the linear equation to determine the slope of my life and project where I would be in two, five, and ten years. My trajectory was neat, orderly, and systematic. There were points marked on the graph for high school, college, work, law school, bar exam and then work again. In this world, hard work led to academic and professional success. As far as I knew, thought, believed, I would continue on this path forever. I envisioned myself rising to the top of my legal career, establishing a solid reputation, and receiving awards. In my mind, I would be a legal superstar.

But then, I got pregnant. People never admit this, but I was slightly ambivalent about my pregnancy. I was the first in my group of friends to become pregnant. I was entrenched in my career. My social life entailed happy hours with beloved co-workers after endless hours at work. Weekends were spent sleeping in, lounging with my husband, prepping trials, and visiting clients in jail. The pregnancy triggered something inside me. I started doubting whether I could do my job and be a mom. On some level I knew that I would have to give something up. I loved my life, my trajectory, my diagonal line aiming high into the sky, but I anticipated change.

Well into my second trimester my body indicated that my new baby and I could not survive my career path. I sat across from my boss, tears streaming down my face and I quit. I intended to return. A year maternity leave maximum, I thought as I left the only adult life I’d ever known, my office, my friends, and my co-workers. I’d be back. I loved this place.

My pregnancy was a beautiful ticking time bomb. Her birth tore me apart and ripped me from my orderly world. She blasted me off my trajectory. I was catapulted off the linear graph I’d been climbing and thrown into outer space. A world no one can imagine or be prepared for until their own baby is placed in their arms. In this world there was no line to measure my progress. No linear equation to determine my success. Analytically my choices did not make sense. Hard work would never equate to a plaque or an award.

I looked at my baby girl and knew returning to work would not be so simple. She jolted me out of my life. I threw myself into parenting and loving this little person. I missed my old world – my friends, trials, professional respect, and the fight for social justice. I missed it, but I couldn’t go back. In some sense I didn’t feel brave enough to return. Financially, I didn’t have to, so I stayed home, but I was conflicted. As years passed I thought maybe I’ll go back when my baby attends school all day.

*****

A stay-at-home mother with young kids, our house is a chrysalis, a hard shell protecting our growing family. My three children cozily wrapped together in the silk sinews we created. The walls are thick and tight. We are pressed so closely together it is sometimes hard to tell where one of us ends and the other one starts. We feed off of each other. My children’s bodies melding to the shape of their parents and siblings pressed against them. So malleable, the children grow, bending around one another, expanding any way they can until they emerge into the outside world.  

The moment the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis. It sounds romantic, but in reality, it’s slightly gruesome. The butterfly is torn from the chrysalis. It pulls, tears, and rips itself from its protective shell. There is blood. Pain. In the end, the butterfly is beautiful and free.

*****

I remember walking my daughter to the park, pushing her stroller. She ate snacks off of her tray, happily sipping from her straw cup, pointing at dogs and bikes. It was sunny. I was tired from nights spent traversing a path from her room to my own. I passed a woman, standing on the bike path with her daughter who was straddling a two-wheel bike without training wheels. The woman smiled, “It goes by quick,” she said, “Enjoy your little girl.” I smiled, a cliché often repeated to new mothers. I kept walking. My baby tucked in her stroller that woman’s life appeared eons away. I couldn’t imagine my baby speaking in full sentences, let alone a child riding her own bike. I mused, life with a big kid looked peaceful and definitely less draining. She appeared to get more rest than me.

The moment, a cliché, a mere blip on my radar … until now.

My daughter is five-years-old. She received a two-wheel bike without training wheels for her birthday. She began kindergarten. No one informs you how difficult this milestone is. I am letting innocence personified walk out of my protective shell. Her classroom brims full of twenty-five five-year-olds. I give her a kiss and drop her on the curb. I can no longer help her find someone to play with. I can no longer nudge her to speak up for herself. I can no longer protect her from the brutality of the real world.

I begin the process of letting go. The girl who blasted me out of my professional life transitions into her elementary years. Now I realize how quickly this moment will come for her sister and brother too. What seemed my forever is fleeting. Inevitably each child will leave. Parenting small children is a chapter, not a book. One day sooner rather than later, I too will extricate myself from this tight nest and must redefine my trajectory.

My oldest emerges from our shell. She begins to find her own path. Everyday I let her go. The transition becomes easier. We both enjoy our new independence. And luckily, I’m realizing it’s just kindergarten, so when she returns home I am a cascade of fierce mommy love and kisses.

 

success-graph-demetri-martin-squiggly-line Success Chart by Demetri Martin