Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Princess and the Pea

Hi folks.  I am recovering physically from preparing the house for Passover and cooking for our Seders.  Last night we had three toddlers and a four-year-old (in additional to 11 adults), so we needed to go past our usual tidying to actually dealing with the piles of crap that had built up in the corners as we have been rearranging, acquiring and purging furniture to make the house efficiently serve our family values of hospitality and baby-raising.  Also, I didn't want the crawler to go home with dirty knees so some major deep-cleaning needed to be done.

Jacob is an amazing partner: taking direction, using initiative and showing understanding when I need to stop and rest.

Yesterday, I made homemade gefilte fish, a huge brisket, homemade horseradish sauce, matzoh ball soup and what feels like a bazillion other things. 

So, after my midwife appointment this morning and some errands, I have plunked my ass into my new recliner in the baby's room (where we did have to pile up some crap that we didn't have time to put away in their forever homes), letting my body rest.  I am discovering that in this last trimester, physical exhaustion manifests itself as emotional instability.  So, as much as I do not like the lack of productivity that sitting in the recliner forces onto me, I vastly prefer it as a preventative to weeping.

I will need to get up eventually and make a fresh batch of matzoh balls, as well as slice the brisket to warm it and prep the asparagus.  However, until then, I want to talk to you about princesses.

One of my favorite t-shirts right now was a Christmas gift.  At the time I thought, "This is so huge!" but now I am grateful for the roominess.  I don't have a picture of it with me in it but I can show you the catalog picture. 

Normally, this would not be my style at all.  The generic arabesque font and design elements, the glitter, the rhinestones and the fact that it is pink would all mark it for the Salvation Army bag.  I am a terrible elitist and the acrylic nails with the French manicure on the model only confirm that I am not the intended market for this product.

However, I have a strange relationship with my title as a Princess.

I grew up as the only girl among three brothers and approximately 75% of the time, when people learn this, they say, "Oh, so you were the princess, right?"  I agree with them good-naturedly but I know that their definition does not actually match my experience.

I think most people picture a girly-girl in patent-leather shoes, Shirley Temple-style, who had her parents wrapped around her little finger, getting whatever gifts and attention she wanted because what she wanted was so special when compared with the rough-and-tumble nature of her brothers.

Yeah.  Not so much.  I don't know how to distance myself from that image without sounding full of denial but I'll try.

My dad and I fought constantly.  Ours was a complicated relationship.  I was totally unaware of the power I had over his affection because I was so angry with his attempts to get me to do . . . well . . . anything.  As a family, we have all come to acknowledge that many of my father's parenting requests were often arbitrary and tyrannical, but many of them were also pretty reasonable.  Bike safety, manners and respect for other members in the family are, in fact, lessons that good parents teach their children with a variety of methods.  Still, I resented his attempts to guide me and the power he had to coerce me when I dug in my heels too far.  Also, I'm pretty sure that the force of my personality and the depth of his love for me allowed me to win more of those power struggles than a parenting book would say that I should have.  Just because I was totally unaware of my power doesn't mean that I didn't use it unconsciously.

See?  I let him love me sometimes.
Did we have fun?  Yes.  Did we laugh a lot?  Yes.  Did his struggle to teach me skills that would make me successful pay off in the long run?  Yes.  Does my cell phone bill show that he is the person I spend the most amount of time on the phone with per month now that we're both adults?  Yes. 

But, as a kid, whenever my father addressed me as "Princess," it was usually sarcastic.  He did not hold me in the air and playfully ask, "Who is the prettiest princess?"  At least, I don't remember it that way.  It was usually something like, "Well.  Princess.  Did you want that?" after I had barged in somewhere to take something that, yes, I did want.  I remember being 19 years old or so and sitting in on a meeting he was having with a donor to his organization.  I wasn't at the conference table but nearby on a couch, waiting for them to wrap up.  However, they said something that, in my 19-year-old hubris, I thought I could shed some light on.  I don't even think I turned around to look at them; I think I might have just spoken loudly so they could hear what my thoughts were.  Because I never doubted that they would be interested.  To break the awkward tension this must have created in their business meeting, my father said, "Well. Princess.  Did you have an opinion on that?"  I was totally oblivious.

This story is pretty typical of my entire childhood when it came to telling other people what I thought I knew.  I remember learning about feminism in high school and reading about how many girls don't raise their hands in class because they believe that boys won't like smart girls.

I was blown away.

I had never made that connection.  As much as I wanted the boys to like me, it had never occurred to me to change my behavior that way to get what I wanted.  I liked being smart so much that my sub-conscious must have just made that decision for me without bothering my pretty little conscious mind about it.  Like I said, oblivious.  And, Princess.

But this is not the image that folks have when they ask if I was the princess in my family.

One of my favorite outfits.  The buttons had a picture of Annie and Sandy on them.  My grandma made it.
Additionally, my mom did not model girlie-girl culture to me.  For example, when I was 9 or 10 and wanted to grow out my pixie hair cut, she warned me that she wouldn't be able to help me put it into pigtails or braids because she didn't know how.  We shopped a decent amount together, which is typical of the mother-daughter transmission of princess culture but I remember a lot of helpful conversations about whether I really needed things and about my allowance/babysitting money that were tempered with indulgences. 

My little brother got full-sleeve tattoos when he was 19.  Coincidence?
I wore precious outfits whenever I would let my mom put them on me and often wore matching outfits with my younger brother (who was even worse about letting my mom dress him).   But I was not demanding frothy pink gowns and tiaras.  I think the closest I came to that is when I wore a flower girl dress to play in constantly.  I have no memory of this. 
Seriously.  These pictures are better for how they depict my brother's knees than for illustrating my personal fashion history.

Aside from the clothes I wore when we were getting dressed up to go somewhere, I mostly remember wearing clothes like the clothes my brothers wore.  Maybe they were hand-me-downs?  Maybe not. 
Baseball helmets, Luke Skywalker underoos, overalls, my babydoll George, and a wooden tripod.  I can only imagine what we game we had dreamed up that afternoon.
If I had wanted a princess costume, I'm sure my grandma would have made me one.  She was a horrible woman but I think she was trying to show love in the only way she could when she made doll clothes and actual clothes for me.  She certainly would have indulged a princess dress request if I had thought to make it.

Queen at Medievalfest my junior year.  The fabric came from the calico section at House of Fabrics.
When I got older, I do remember longing for medieval and Renaissance-type costumes.  This longing would be especially strong after I finished a novel by Marion Zimmer Bradley.  When that would happen, I would pull out my stack of catalogs that I had written a letter to the company in order to get on their mailing list that sold Ren Faire costumes.  Many were mom and pop outfits but I remember getting the Folkwear Catalog once a year and Jacob and I bonded because we both got Museum Replicas Limited at similar ages.  I was well into high school at this point and soon made my own costume from cheap cotton, which escalated to getting a job at the actual Renaissance Faire several years later. 
In later years, I was told this was called the ice cream dress.  Blessedly, I was not told this until I had grown out of my innocence gently and at my own pace.
However, I think that fantasy is a little different than the princess persona that 5-year-old girls currently experience.  Which is why I'm a little embarrassed to be wearing my Princess and the Pea t-shirt.  I feel like I'm representing an identity that I don't actually claim.  When I object to the spoiled dog being called Princess or my niece taking my title, I am defending something other than pink plastic high heels and purple feather boas.

I just finished reading Cinderella Ate My Daughter.  This is the second book by Peggy Orenstein that I have read and it was exactly what I needed to help me think in a more focused way about gender typing and this baby I'm about to put forth into the world.  We do not know whether we will have a boy or a girl but, either way, I want this child to have a broad range of experiences open to him or her.  I know that Jacob and I will not be the only influences on this child's sense of what is possible but I want to limit how much corporations (and their minions, the other children at pre-school) tell my child what they can and can't do because of his or her gender.  This includes the pink/blue stranglehold we'll have to dodge when shopping for clothes and toys. 

I'm haunted by this blog post that shows the colors of corporate logos.  It's titled "The Most Powerful Colors in the World."  It has a whole bunch of charts showing the most popular and financially successful colors and charting them according to the color of their logo.  Regardless of whether their choice of color contributed to the success or whether the success reflects on the color choice when others make it, can you guess which color is barely represented?  (Click to enlarge.)

Orenstein presents some persuasive evidence that our kids do seem to make gender-differentiated  choices out of instinct.  (She points out that as parents, we can broaden their horizons, as well.)  Preferring the color pink is not one of them.  This seems to be a purely social construct and when I look at those graphs, I can't help but think that we're unwittingly contributing to the status quo that believes as truth that men belong in business and women to softer pursuits.  Long-time readers kno how much I hate being part of systems that oppress people, even people who are far removed from the direct consequences of my actions.  Can you imagine how much more I hate the idea of enlisting my child - boy or girl - as an accomplice?  If I only buy thrift store clothing to avoid rewarding companies that use sweat shops, if I buy organic meat, dairy and produce whenever possible with the money I saved from the thrift store, if forego the salary my fancy degrees could get me in order to pursue justice professionally, how to I do fight gender inequality in the choices I make on behalf of my child without actually damaging my child by making him or her an outcast among his or her peers and/or totally antagonizing the kid to the point that I've sacrificed years of family harmony for the sake of the larger cause?

I have no idea.

Reading the book helped, though.  Acknowledging that my own princess experience was different from the one my own daughter will experience helps, too.  Being able to sew and craft also helps ease my mind that I do not have to deny my child completely when I deny her corporate crap.  (Have you seen some of the costumes Amy Karol makes her daughters?  Here, here and here.)

I also know that it will be a phase that we'll weather like any other phase.  I'll ask a lot of leading questions and make a lot of safe space to encourage conversation about thoughts my kid will have as he or she engages the world.  I will also not beat myself up if I give in to corporate temptation every once in awhile.

At least I think that's how it will go.  The only thing I'm sure about when it comes to parenthood (6 to 10 weeks left at this points, folks) is that it could go any which way it wants and the best way to make God laugh is to tell her your plans.

1 comment:

Kate said...

I have a male friend who is the youngest of all boys. His mom decided that he was going to learn all the things she knew. As he puts it "He is the girl by default". He is one of the best cooks I know as well as an amazing crafter. He learned a bunch of stuff from his dad too, which makes him one of the most well rounded people I know. I forsee this for your child as well.