Column: Fiction from the Front Lines
By Rebecca Meacham for WOMEN = BOOKS
Posted on January 18, 2010
With this post, Rebecca kicks off her column for WRB, “Fiction from the Front Lines,” in which she reviews her own life and the literary world “from the perspective of a writer, mom, professor, Midwesterner, and fan of reading.”
“No, Mama,” said my three-year-old daughter as I held up a fire engine. “That toy is for boys.”
It was the moment I’d dreaded, a moment perhaps common to the mothers of my generation— women born as the first issues of Ms. magazine hit newsstands, who watched Sally Ride blast-off, who got into the groove, boy, with Madonna. For my school projects, I wrote to NASA. My sixth birthday present was a real tool kit, complete with hammer and saw.
My girlhood had been filled with a sense that I could do anything. Now, my first-born was shaking her head at a truck.
It was her first act of self-denial. But who had denied her first?
As usual, I blamed her peers at daycare, those ruffians. She often comes home with preferences that seem, well, socialized. “I want the pink one,” she asserts now, as never before.
I knew I hadn’t restricted my daughter’s choices. I try to offer many options and deny only those that endanger or offend. My own mother, one of those first subscribers to Ms., had done the same. Christmas would bring art kits along with a football. In this way, I developed an excellent spiral pass and crafted décor, including doughnuts on a plate (Cheerios on a quarter), for my dollhouse.
Years later, my husband and I would argue about the activities of our hypothetical daughters.
“No cheerleading,” my husband declared, dreaming of soccer kicks.
“But I was a cheerleader,” I said.
Now, I know that sounds bad. But truthfully, what I liked most about cheerleading was not having to plan outfits or social events on game nights. Yet, because I had options and the freedom to pursue them, I wrote a book at age six (“All About Rocks”) and cheered throughout high school. To me, prohibiting daughters from traditionally “girly” activities seems as bad as steering them from traditionally “boy” ones.
So I couldn’t be blamed, right? Stories of saying good night to the moon—as well as landing on it—overspill my children’s bookshelves.
But, truthfully—and I shall be telling this with a sigh—there are also the princess books. There are the princess figures, princess castle, princess backpack, princess shoes, and princess movies. Yes, the fairy wings and tutus didn’t flutter into our home unaided. I opened both window and wallet.
And despite his cringing, my husband brings home the books, too. For two literature professors, this feels shameful. But for a woman raised on Free to Be…You and Me, it also feels dangerous—more like complicity.
For a while, watching my three-year-old throw parties in the castle confirmed my anxieties. She would sit in place, making the princesses talk, never taking them anywhere. Whenever we joined her, we’d create action: her father’s dragons would stomp and menace; my Cinderella got thrown in the dungeon.
Even my younger daughter wanted something to happen. She’d toddle over and pick up a castle bench. “Choo-choo,” she’d say, moving it around.
Then, just after Christmas, I began a tale of two princesses, sisters, who were about to have big adventures. My older daughter interrupted, “Where’s the prince?”
“This is a story about princesses,” I said. “Why do we need a prince?”
“We need a prince to rescue them,” she told me. Even at three, the “Duh, Mom” rang loud and clear.
Before I knew it, I’d found my original copy of Free to Be…You and Me from 1973. “This was Mama’s book when I was your age,” I said. My daughters could choose princess stories, but darn it, we’d put all the options on the table.
Together, we read of Atalanta, pictured first with a telescope, then running in a race. In a compromise with her marriage-focused father, Atalanta races against all her suitors. She ties with John, and in the end they decide to see the world, independently.
It was a moment I’d hoped for—passing down a lesson from my favorite book— and it seemed to go unnoticed.
But later, for the first time, the princesses left the castle. They lined up on the roof of the parking garage as cars zipped by. Then my older daughter held the newest princesses, bath toys with skirts, in each hand.
“They’re going to race now,” she said, placing them at a starting line.
“Race?” I asked.
“Yes,” she answered. “But they go fast. So first I need to take off their skirts.”
Rebecca Meacham, a regular reviewer of books for WRB, is the author of the award-winning story collection Let’s Do and an associate professor of English. She lives with her husband and two daughters in the woods of Wisconsin.