While breastfeeding the eldest, I read a lot of books. Given that she took forever to eat, and I didn’t have an older child constantly jabbering at me, it was not long before I coopted your dad’s Kindle and learned to love the one-handed ebook. I also got a lot of hardback books from the library, because they were heavy enough to lay open on my lap unassisted. It was all about logistics for me.
One of those library books was called Cinderella Ate My Daughter, a journalist’s well-researched discussion about early childhood gender formation in America, and the way, in particular, young girls learn the narrative of what it means to be a woman from media, marketing, and culture. Despite the title, it’s not just about princess culture (or American Girl culture or modesty or Disney movies, though all of that is in there), but about the messaging and potential concerns about the differences in the ways boys are marketed to (as explorers, geniuses, adventurers, tough guys) and girls are marketed to (cute, sassy, pretty, glam, even bratty).
It’s not that most of this was new to me, as I’d researched early childhood gender socialization as an independent study while a sociology major during undergrad. Gender socialization and how we learn to be well-rounded human beings in our communities is a topic that is important to me and has been for some time. It’s one I’ve spent a lot of time reading about and thinking about. I rarely talk about it, though, because it’s something other moms don’t particularly want to talk about.
So that’s a little bit of background.
Recently a friend gave us some hand-me-down princess dresses—and plastic heels, and a necklace, and fancy gloves.
You two love to wear these dresses.
I took a picture of you on that first day we opened the bag of hand-me-downs and sent some of my friends an accompanying text: “And so it begins…”
It’s been pretty cute that you don’t really know how to “play princess” because you don’t have context for it. (To the extent you know the names of the princesses, it’s from books and your friends at preschool.) So for now, “playing princess” is very similar to “playing family,” which means you basically assign roles to everyone and then set up the area where you are playing into a house. And then you move on to playing other things while wearing your princess dresses and clunking around in the plastic heels.
You call the shoes “tap shoes.”
A few months ago, a woman stood beside me in a very long line at a consignment sale as we watched a little boy being silly. Very silly. Goofball silly. Rambunctious and active. This woman turns to me, sees that I’m holding girls’ clothing, and sighs, saying that girls are so much easier at “this” age, but once they are teenagers, well, she’s heard that reverses itself.
While I was pregnant the first time, so before I knew if I was having a boy or a girl, more than one of my boy-mom friends said they preferred the crazy and chaos and rambunctiousness of boys who are “all boy” to the “drama, drama, drama” of teenage girls.
I hear “he’s ‘all boy’” all the time, by the way. And there is a general understanding about what “all boy” means—rambunctious, loud, active.
And I hear all the time that boys are so much easier than girls in the long run.
One of my best friends—who is a mother of boys and a girl–has said in a joking voice that one thing about raising boys that is preferable to raising girls is that with a boy, you only have to worry about one penis; with a girl, you have to worry about all the other penises.
I mean, it’s funny, right?
On the surface level, it is. I get that. It’s funny.
But all of these conversations about what boys are like and what girls are like make me uncomfortable as a mother of daughters but also as a woman and as a human being created in the image of God.
This cultural myth of the dramatic teenage girl who is such a handful and can’t be controlled and doesn’t get along with her mother?
I just don’t get why that’s the dominant narrative we continue to tell ourselves and expect in our families.
It’s like the terrible twos.
We expect it, we label it, and as it turns out, we embrace it. We are resigned to it.
I’m not saying middle school and high school aren’t rough. They’re tough years. They’re hormonal years. They’re the years children learn to be adults by figuring things out for themselves.
But I’m not dreading those years with you, girls. I’m not.
I think it’s foolish to assume we can’t get through it with grace. Yes, of course it will be hard in ways I can’t even imagine now, but I will not assume you will be unmanageable. I will not assume you will be disrespectful. I will not assume that the drama, drama, drama will come.
That’s not fair to you.
The thing is, I wasn’t a dramatic teenager. And I have plenty of friends who never got sassy and bratty and dramatic. I don’t ever remember slamming my bedroom door or wishing my parents would just die. That’s a trope.
And you know what? Even at your preschool, I know boys who are not rowdy and chaotic but serious and gentle.
I don’t mind that you wear the princess dresses around the house. (Though we do have a rule that they can’t be worn outside the house—none of this princess dress to the grocery store nonsense.)
Your dad pointed out that the littlest reminds him of Monica from FRIENDS in the episode where she cleans her apartment in the wedding dress. It cracks us up.
I don’t need to go on a rant about princess culture generally and the Disney princess movies in particular. I’m sure by the time you’re reading these letters, you’ll know where I stand on those things. I think they are troubling, but lots of things are troubling. It doesn’t mean you can’t wear the dresses. As long as princesses are just one thing you play among other wonderful and imaginative things, I’m okay with that.
I will say in brief that the main problem with the whole princess thing to me is the way it becomes the dominant narrative through which some little girls can see the world.
But you are not those little girls.
You walk around in Cinderella’s dress with yellow plastic heels, and you’re still growling with your hands up as claws, saying you’re a big, scary bear.
You wear your dresses while you’re putting together a puzzle of the Amazon rainforest, or while you’re building a tent with the old king-sized sheet hanging off your bunk-beds, or while you’re coloring with markers in a coloring book that is not princess-themed.
Yesterday, the littlest put a canvas bag over her shoulder and said she’s a mommy dinosaur going to the grocery store. Because of course mommy dinosaurs need to go to Kroger.
We have a small princess figurine who gets carried around with Daniel Tiger and Katerina and Miss Elaina. It’s pretty great because the princess is usually a stand-in for Teacher Harriet. I’m good with that.
Yes, as long as princesses are just one narrative among others, just one story among others, just one game among others, I’m good with that.
So, go ahead and wear those dresses.
Wear those tap shoes.
Heck, strap on fairy wings.
I don’t care what you sport as we read Rosie Revere, Engineer, and Ada Twist, Scientist, again and again and again. Those your favorite books at the moment.
I’m good with that.