By Meg Thompson
My daughter clicks into the kitchen wearing sparkly, low-heeled shoes, a witch’s costume dress from Halloween, and a fairy crown. She uses both hands to hold onto a yellow plastic purse that one of my sisters played with 25 years ago.
“I’m getting married today,” she tells me, her voice even, calm, and I realize she has practiced this.
“Yes,” she says, clicking away. “His name is James.”
My daughter is five years old. When I put her in a dress for the first time almost three and a half years ago, she looked down at herself, then up at me, and announced Mae is a girl. I felt something start to change: the shift of my grip on her. She wasn’t a baby anymore. How long would I be able to fall back on calling myself a new mom, laughing off the mistakes I made, hoping they were as impermanent as her baby teeth?
I wore a dress on the first day of kindergarten, and that was it until Homecoming. On picture days I wore pocket t-shirts with dress pants, sometimes seated crosslegged in the front row with the boys. I kept my hair short until seventh grade, when I grew it so long that my science teacher told me I had to keep it back in a ponytail because we were doing an experiment the next day. I stayed awake in bed that night, staring at the scrunchy on my desk across the room, agonizing over how to wear something so feminine.
I had no idea how to be a girl, and my mother didn’t either. The only dress she owned was her wedding dress, which she kept in a box under her bed. My sisters and I used to play around and try it on, laughing hysterically as we slid inside the yellowed fabric that had stiffened so much over time it could almost stand on its own, like a ghost in the middle of her bedroom. When my youngest sister, Rachel, was planning her wedding a few years ago, she asked our mom if she still had it.
“No,” she said. “I burned it.”
I have heard the story many times that my mother’s wedding was not what she wanted, but rather, what her mother wanted. As a gift to me, she played little to no role in my wedding, except to warn me not to listen to anyone else.
I used to try to keep everything sparkling and frilly out of my house, but it was a demanding task. Every time I opened the door, it felt like a Disney Princess was there, ready to take my daughter’s hand and whisper that a man was out there, waiting. It was my fear: that my daughter’s ultimate goal would be to find a husband. I wanted so badly for her to want nothing to do with it, but how could she resist? Lush dresses, glittering crowns, people crowding around to tell you that you are beautiful? She wanted it all.
I didn’t want her to be a princess, but I also didn’t want my daughter to fear femininity. Once, when we went shopping, I tried to suggest that she get a plain purple toothbrush, and not one with Belle on it from Beauty and the Beast, the princess that liberal moms cling to because she is often pictured holding a book.
“I want Belle too!” my son shrieks, and it occurs to me I don’t care if that was the toothbrush he had. In fact, I almost preferred he get that toothbrush. Where was the logic in that?
As parents we try so hard to make our children good, but too often we actually get caught up in just making them into our own idea of good.
My mother didn’t set out to teach her four daughters to explicitly reject femininity. Mostly she was practical. A farmer. Herself. There is no point in wearing dresses to the sheep barn. She still bought us Barbies, and I played with them like they were small versions of myself, dreaming up elaborate narratives as they lived their best lives on the floor of my closet. I also watched Aladdin and The Little Mermaid on VHS. And I played with Legos, read every book in The Boxcar Children series, and practiced drawing portraits of Darkwing Duck. I did not think about being masculine or feminine, which I realize now is an unbelievable privilege. I was just myself, without worry.
So I go to my five-year-old’s wedding to James, who turns out to be the mixed-traffic engine friend of Thomas the Train, relying heavily on my mother’s age-old parenting advice: Don’t make a big deal about it. There is nothing inherently wrong with a princess, but rather it is what we did to women and the role of a princess. The English language is full of misogynistic terms that we invented to diminish the critical role that women play. As a stay-at-home mom, how many times have I been told I need to find a mom job with mom hours to help navigate my mom guilt? No one has told my husband he needs a dad job with dad hours for his dad guilt.
To reject the princess is a form of misogyny in itself. What a princess, we might say, tsk tsk. What, precisely, is it that we fear? Why do I assume a princess has no agency? Um, have we witnessed the badassery that is Princess Rhaenyra, in the new HBO series House of Dragons? When I watch Aladdin through the lens of a mother, I see Jasmine in a — forgive me — whole new world. She does precisely what she wants, defies convention, and is in complete control the entire time. And while I don’t like seeing my daughter in shoes with heels, mostly because she is five and I just want her to be innocent and carefree without foot pain, I clap for her, and James.
I hope that she gets to do whatever it is she wants, without anyone telling her what is best, just as I did. I got married in a courthouse after all, wearing a clearance sundress from a department store. It’s still hanging in my closet.
Meg Thompson is a writer and stay-at-home mom in Northeast Ohio.
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