Hard as I tried to prevent it, my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter learned about the dreaded Barbie doll via pre-school. Okay, I’m the only one repulsed by the thing, and not just because I didn’t have one when I was a kid and all my friends did. No, really. I distrust this toy for her culpability in teaching our daughters to objectify themselves, not to mention her incredible proportions. Plus, anything surrounded by hype is suspect in my book. If Barbie, in all her incarnations and spin-offs, doesn’t epitomize hype, nothing does.
My little darling wanted to know if she could have a Barbie. I said no, but resigned myself to the knowledge that eventually we’d end up with at least one version of the vile doll under our roof. I decided to be proactive. If Barbie had to darken my door, I would control how and when. So, in the spirit of Don Corleone’s philosophy (or was it Sun Tzu?)—Keep your friends close, and keep your enemies closer—I bought one and hid it under my bed.
And waited for the right moment.
An opportunity presented itself as an important upcoming passage loomed large on our horizon. The end of ‘mama.’ The end of breastfeeding my one-and-only child. Yes, even at age three, each morning, my darling girl climbed into ‘the big bed’ with us, and indulged in a little ‘mama.’ I didn’t want to wean her, and she wasn’t too keen on the idea, either. The end of ‘mama’ would be a big transition for us both.
We talked about celebrating in a way we’d both remember. I chose the day and tried to explain why she couldn’t nurse until she went to college. Frankly, I had trouble coming up with a good reason for that and resorted to the tried-and-true, “you just can’t.” I’d like to say I thought of an appropriate ritual to mark the event, but nothing came to mind. Instead, I let her pick out a couple of new toys. This, I told myself, would make it easier for her, but it was really to relieve my own confused feelings.
At the store, my girl chose statues of a horse and foal I thought perfect, plus we purchased a ‘big-girl’ nightgown. Princess-of-Ireland Barbie still waited under the bed to make her debut. I’d selected this model precisely because she didn’t look like a typical Barbie doll. She had wavy red hair and green eyes. Of course, from her ridiculously long neck to her absurdly pointed toes, she was Barbie through and through. When I suggested the doll also be part of our celebration, my daughter enthusiastically agreed. But while we wended our way though Walmart’s aisles, she sat contentedly in the shopping-cart seat, keeping tight hold of the big box with the horses in it, staring through the clear plastic top at the paint mare and her colt.
In the checkout line, a young woman smiled and asked, “Do you have a new horsy there?”
“Yes,” my darling proclaimed loudly. “It’s to celebrate the end of mama.”
The woman’s gaze flicked over me as if she were speculating about the potential reason for my demise and why it was cause for celebration. I groaned inwardly. Suddenly, something perfectly natural sounded sinister. Of course, I felt the need to explain extended nursing and our desire to commemorate its conclusion. My sputtering over the euphemistic ‘mama’ and how the word was a stand-in for both breasts and breast-feeding only garnered a more skeptical look. The woman not-too-subtly edged away. You’d think I’d announced we were going to sacrifice kittens at dawn.
After we arrived home, we freed the horses from their cardboard and plastic corral, and I brought out Princess-of-Ireland Barbie. My daughter’s face lit up as she took the package. She hugged and thanked me and held the box to her heart. I felt small and mean-spirited for wanting to deny her this pleasure. Surely I could counteract the influence of one Barbie? I didn’t have to like it, but maybe one wouldn’t permanently corrupt my child. Still, I insisted we wait until the next day to unleash the thing.
That evening, the darling child donned her big-girl nightgown, and to my eyes looked nearly ready to go off to college. Could it really be time for this so soon? The new horses watched over her from the bedside table, and she stationed Princess-of-Ireland Barbie, still boxed, in the hallway between our bedrooms.
“To guard us,” she said.
In many previous conversations, I’d stressed the importance that princesses—even Barbie princesses—be capable, kind, and smart in addition to pretty. After a short discussion, we concluded the red-haired doll must possess these qualities. After all, how else could she be a princess? That’s why she received the honored guard post.
Point for my side.
My girl-woman marched off to bed knowing the next morning would be the last time she breastfed. She was focused on getting Barbie when we were done, not consciously acknowledging she would never nurse again. Weeping about that was my job.
At daybreak, she asked for a little ‘mama,’ just as she did every day. I was wistful; she was eager to play with her new doll. Reluctantly, I let her go, trying hard to be the grownup of the two of us, knowing this to be only the first of many such separations that would be harder on me than her.
Two points for Barbie.
A little later, though, after undressing and redressing the object of her desire, trying the unusable shoes on a couple of other dolls, “like Cinderella,” then unsuccessfully striving to make those stiff limbs straddle a horse or do anything but look impossibly long, my darling proclaimed the Barbie princess pretty but useless—particularly her smooth ‘mamas.’
“They don’t work,” she said.
Game to me.
The horses, along with the rest of an ever-expanding herd, get played with every day. Princess-of-Ireland Barbie, in her brocade gown, velvet cloak, and gold tiara, sits forsaken on a dresser—shoeless, friendless—a lonely reminder that perfection is boring.
I pretend not to gloat.