Ah yes, good old Barbie and her dream-house, and her dream-life with her dream-man with his well-tailored suit and his great head of hair. What else could a girl want?
Answer: a LOT.
The other day I played “Barbies” with my little daughter. I call them “Barbies” (with the quotation marks) because the dolls we have are not actual Barbies, rather they are dollar store Barbie-type dolls—you know, the ones that are made of hollow, cheap plastic, and when you shake them you can hear some sort of after-market plastic piece rattling around inside, and their limbs fall off with alarming regularity, and they don’t really bend in any normal, human ways, and if you take out their ponytail you will reveal a surprisingly large bald spot in the middle of their heads, and also they are garishly made-up, and they cost a dollar. So, “Barbies.”
So there I sat, on the floor of her room, wielding an armless, rapidly balding “Barbie” in a poorly made polyester tube-top, some very unflattering jeans, and a pair of mismatched plastic boots. My daughter informed all of us “Barbies,” including my character (whom she christened “Ungyless”), that we were having a party. And then she proceeded to announce which of the characters were “in love” with which other characters, because it was a “girls and boys party,” and “a love party” where all of the girls “had to be in love.” Before she made this little announcement, I had been preparing to share that Ungyless was considering which college she might like to attend, and that she might like a shopping trip to acquire some more professional-looking attire, but this comment threw me. I began to question this premise: “So … what if the girls don’t feel like being in love? Or what if they don’t love somebody? Can they just be friends?”
“No,” announced my daughter, “Because this is a LOVE party. The loot bags are all about love, and everybody has to be in love to be at the party. It’s a love party.”
“Oh …” I said. “Well, when they leave the party, can they stop being in love?”
“No, they have to be in love FOREVER.” She said, matter-of-factly.
Huh. I began to question this more, to the tune of: “You don’t think all girls or boys have to be in love, do you?” I also began to make some very good points (in my opinion) about how not everyone HAS to be in love, and listed some very good friends of ours who are single, successful, wonderful, happy and fulfilled people. Finally she turned to me, exasperated: “Mommy! I have to fix this box right now, AND I have to put this on your head (holds up a small parachute man). I DON’T have time to answer questions.” And with that, she carried on, putting the parachute man on my head as promised, tinkering with a toolbox, dressing some baby dolls, announcing that she had to go to work for “a minute,” and cuddling her babies. I watched this, somewhat proudly, realizing that I had, indeed, successfully shattered at least a few female stereotypes for her. Here she was, confidently bustling around; a mom who could balance tinkering with tools, going to work, and cuddling her babies.
And yet I was troubled. Here was one I had missed—a sneaky one that I think pervades our culture so often without challenge: the idea that girls should, and will eventually, be in love. Ours is a love-obsessed culture—the princesses who are my daughter’s heroes are so often “saved” by the love of handsome, rich princes—there are exceptions to this, of course, but there has always been this oft unspoken, deep-seated idea that a girl isn’t complete without someone to love.
I always catch myself telling my single friends, “You’ll find someone! I just know the right one will come along!” Etc, etc. But the truth is that this isn’t guaranteed to happen, no matter how amazing and beautiful I know my single friends are. I want to be hopeful with them, because I know that the majority of them long for the intimacy and shared experiences, the family, and the romance that coupling can bring. But as a grown-up I know that the world is not perfect, and I do not believe that there is one person, one soulmate, for everyone, no matter how much the little girl in me longs to believe that. And I know that there may not be someone for my perfect, sweet, sparkling little girl, no matter how lovely and worthy of love she is. But whether she finds a someone or not, I long for her to believe the truth that she is complete, whole, enough, all on her own.
But I wonder how much she absorbs this idea that everyone will, or should, attain coupledom—from the oh-so-common promise of a happy, romantic ending in the movies and TV shows she sees, from witnessing my hopeful encouragement to my single friends to “keep on’ keeping on” in their search for the perfect mate, and even in the fact that she knows that I have the love of her dad in my life. I myself am a big fan of love, and I would love to believe that for even the armless and garishly made-up Ungylesses of this world, there is a perfectly suited “someone” out there.
But do real people always find “true love” in the end? No. Does everyone need to be part of a couple to be complete, fulfilled, and happy? Absolutely not. And even for those who find love, will it definitely have a happily-forever-after ending? No. We all know that single adults, whether contentedly single or not, are much more common than happily married princes and princesses in our world.
We kept playing, even though I was lost in thought, and then the “love party” took a weird turn when a “lego ninja” arrived and started shooting holes in the roof. It jolted me out of my somber thoughts, and I laughed. And I looked at her and said, “I love you, S. I’ll always love you. You’re my girl.” She made a goofy face—mouth twisted to the side, one eye closed, still holding up her lego ninja—and said, “I love you too, Mommy.”
In the end, maybe I was reading too much into the thought process (or lack thereof) that went into my four-year-old’s spontaneous “Barbie Love Party.” Probably I was. I also know that this is just the beginning of this conversation, and that raising her will involve many, many more of these conversations. I only hope this: that if one day she does encounter heartache or alone-ness instead of the Prince Charming she perhaps will have expected, that the forever-love of her old Mom for her very loveable self will be enough.