The Princess reigns still, but for how long?

I heard of ‘Cinderella ate my daughter’ by Peggy Orenstein from a friend, a mother of a ‘princess’. The title caught my attention, although, being the mother of a non princess, the book wasn’t particularly relevant to me.

Sahana watched her share of Cinderella, Ariel, Belle, Snow White movies but when she was taken to a toy store, she always gravitated towards motorized scooters, magic trick boxes, spy kits and such like. From a very early age, given a choice, she chose a book store over a toy store. She wore a Snow White Halloween costume to her kindergarten Halloween party. I believe she did that to conform to the collective consensus on princess costumes among her girl friends in class, not from her heart’s desire. First grade Halloween party saw her as a ghost with a simple, home-made costume, the subsequent years were lady gansta, warrior Xena and so on. Now in middle school, Halloween means an orange shirt and a swagger.

In the book, Orenstein raises the question ‘how dangerous is pink and pretty anyway – especially given girls’ success in the classroom and on the playing field?’ ‘Does playing Cinderella shield girls from early sexualization – or prime them for it? Could today’s princess become tomorrow’s sexting teen?’

Personally, I think it boils down to what mom and dad are telling their daughters when they hand them their princess dolls or buy that ultra expensive Disney princess alarm clock for their pink room. If the message to the child is clear that the princesses and their lives are make believe fairy tales and reiterate that playing in make-believe world is ok as long as one is using one’s imagination. I haven’t seen many women walking around in their Cinderella costume, or being affected for life by the impact of helplessness portrayed by the Princess stories. It would be wrong to blame the Princess doll, a child hood playmate, for the insecurity or helplessness that certain girls grow up with. The root cause for those afflictions go deeper. In the stories, Belle changes a beast to a Prince with her kindness and love, Ariel sacrifices her voice for love. Maybe I am not feminist enough to see these acts as a submission of a woman to get a man, but as gestures of kindness and love for another human. That is how I interpreted the story to my daughter. The fact that the girl feels the love and makes a change is a positive, pro active move – for me. But I understand, my interpretation of these stories is debatable. What I find annoying is the fact that the damsels are being constantly rescued by a prince! It is always a man saving a woman, I wish once in a while a woman would save a man – if not for anything but to maintain that precarious balance in nature! But then again, these stories were written long ago, when the fabric of our society was different. The world was ruled by men. The world now is PREDOMINANTLY ruled by men, the women are making their niche slowly yet steadily. There is a difference.

Orenstein concurs with my thought on page 16 where she says ‘I have never seen a study proving that playing princess specifically damages girls’ self esteem or dampens other aspirations. And trust me, I have looked.’ She says that there are ample evidence that the more mainstream media girls consume, the more importance they place on being pretty and sexy. There is also ‘reams of studies show that teenage girls and college students who hold conventional beliefs about femininity – especially those that emphasize beauty and pleasing behavior are less ambitious and more likely to be depressed than their peers.’

She makes another interesting point that was relevant to my life and my children. She wondered which sex has greater freedom when it comes to choosing toys? Girls get to choose sequin dresses, baby dolls or spy kit, both are acceptable. But a boy, due to imposed masculinity, primarily by the dads and also by society, would rather die than be caught with a tutu or a pink bicycle. One of Ryan’s preschool friends came for a play date and teased Ryan for riding his sister’s hand me down, pink scooter. After the friend left, Ryan refused to get on it – ever again. I held my ground and refused to buy him a blue scooter because I didn’t want him to give in to peer pressure over the gender differentiating colors. He gave up riding scooters altogether and moved on to bicycles. He chose a blue one, at age four.

My husband proudly wears pink shirts saying ‘real men wear pink’ and points out the pink cleats worn by professional football players (breast cancer awareness) when my son talks of the color disdainfully. It was somewhat enlightening to read in Orenstein’s book that according to Jo Paoletti, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, children were not color coded at all until the early twentieth century. Babies wore white before the advent of washing machines, since the sure way of getting clothes clean was boiling them. In fact, pink was considered more masculine since it was a watered down version of red – a color depicting strength. Blue, on the other hand, was associated with Virgin Mary, constancy and faithfulness and symbolized femininity. I was curious if ‘real men wear pink’ idea emanated from that concept of red being the color of strength.

She made a few other interesting observations which I think are worthy of mention here. She made me see the character of Bella Swan in the notorious …errr I meant famous Twilight series. Like Orenstein, reading the book ‘makes me grind my teeth until my jaw pops’, yet she made me see the heroine in a new light. What a contrast Bella Swan is from the other heroines that main stream media churns out with perfect skin, perfect teeth and perfect body for the teenage girls to emulate and fret over. Bella Swan is a regular, run of the mill girl. She isn’t particularly pretty, nor is she the sharpest tool in the shed. She is not the most exciting girl in school yet the most enigmatic, handsome boy falls head over heels in love with her. Orenstein says ‘Twilight lets a girl feel heat without needing to look hot’. I may not turn up my nose in disgust at the mention of Bella Swan from now on since she may have given girls what they needed – find their love on their own terms.

The other issue that the author raises, which I found interesting, is the separation of cultures which results in an us-versus-them mentality between males and females. According to experts, typically girls, around age two, move away from playing with boys who are too rough and rowdy. Shortly after that, the boys follow suit, avoiding the girls as much as they can. By the end of the first year of preschool, children mostly play with other children of their same-sex. This segregation continues till middle school when children start finding the opposite sex interesting but for different reasons altogether. Studies show that same-sex play in childhood MAY lead to less relating to the other sex and can cause hostile attitudes, lack of empathy and lack of understanding, leading to increased rate of divorces and domestic violence.

I was never interested in dolls or make up, although I love the color pink, mainly because I look good in it. I was considered ‘one of the guys’ growing up and I am still ‘one of the guys’ among my friends. But I love to see a woman made up immaculately and looking gorgeous. I just lament the fact that I lack the skill to put on make up tastefully. My daughter has followed my footsteps when it comes to make up and pretty dresses. She buys comfortable shirts, sometimes from the boy’s section in the department stores, she likes prints and designs that are labeled by society as ‘boy’ prints. And she stays far, far away from anything pink/flowery and paisley. Oh, and no glitter either, please. Orenstein writes, in her zeal of steering her daughter away from pink and princess, she created a little girl who looked disdainfully at her peers who actually liked to play with princess dolls. It is difficult for a child to decipher her mother’s dislike for the idea behind the princess stories rather than the color pink as such. Her daughter had interpreted her aversion to the princess culture differently and misdirected her disdain to the ‘girlie girls’. Sahana’s dislike for pink and floral motif made me curious about how she felt about her friends who were into pink and make up. I asked her if she looks down upon girls who make choices which will be labeled girlie by many. She said “I don’t scorn make up and girlie designs on my friends if they put it on and if it makes them feel good about themselves. I don’t feel the need to put make up on my face. I do, however, draw a line, when the desire to put make up becomes an obsession and girls constantly whip out mirrors to check their mascaras. To me, that’s annoying.”

The book was interesting, well researched, well written. Did I agree with all she said? No, I didn’t. But I was happy to read her perspective that she presented so well. Certain aspects of the book was relevant to my life and my children, which I mentioned earlier. I do, however, agree to everything she says in the last paragraph of the book about preparing our daughters to thrive in this world:

‘…staying close but not crowding them, standing firm in one’s values while remaining flexible. The path to womanhood is strewn with enchantment, but it is also rife with thickets and thorns and a Big Bad Culture that threatens to consume them even as they consume it. The good news is, the choices we make for our toddlers can influence how they navigate it as teens. I am not saying we can, or will, do everything “right”, only that there -is power – magic – in awareness. If we start with that, with wanting girls to see themselves from the inside out rather than outside in, we will go a long way toward helping them find their true happily-ever-afters.’

Not an easy task, teaching our girls to see themselves from inside out, given the media frenzy environment they are growing up in. But we have to try – what other choice do we have?


When the game got boring…

Baseball aficionados, I know the above statement is akin to blasphemy – mea culpa. We took the family to see an Orioles vs Tigers baseball game last evening to do something fun for them. Fun in our household is a very complex commodity these days. What is fun for my seven-year old son is extremely ‘unfun’ and most boring for my almost 13-year-old daughter. We watched a movie of her choice recently, so we decided to go to a ball game for Ryan this weekend. Gotta balance the ‘fun’. She made it amply clear to us by words, gestures and facial expressions that she was going under protest. I told her that her displeasure has been noted, we understand she is unhappy about the situation but can we please move on and make an effort to have a good time? Give ‘good time’ a chance, maybe? Stony silence.

We entered the beautiful Camden yards and five boxes of Jimmy Palmer’s statue were thrust in our hands before we could even say a word. I was almost waving the lady away who was offering these boxes to spectators frantically, but my pack rat husband, who loves freebies, nudged me ‘take it, take it’! A rumor followed this gift by the ball park, that these statues were selling for $50 on eBay. The cloud lifted from my mercenary (in a good way) daughter’s face. She suddenly got very interested in making sure we were holding our boxes securely. She pooh poohed my annoyance at having to carry the clunky box around with ‘MOM, think of all the money we are carrying around! I am going to sell these on eBay!”

We found our seats, did the usual Tan ta tan ta taan CHARGE..thing with the rest of the crowd, clapped when players made good catches, shouted “YEAHs” and “GO ORIOLES” with the crowd, participated in Mexican waves. I almost threw the ice in my cup at my fellow spectator in my enthusiasm to raise my hands and stand up to continue the wave in our section of the stands. Then things started cooling down, for me. My eyes started wondering, I started getting into my serious ‘people watching’ mode. I love going to the ball park, 30 percent of the love is for the game and 70 percent love is to watch the people around me. Good folks of Camden yards did not disappoint. There was a very quiet, relatively well dressed group of young people sitting on my left, who were drinking moderately, and holding a quiet conversation. They weren’t clapping or seemed remotely interested in the game. The Orioles were winning 4 to 1 and the Detroit Tigers were striking out and going back without much fanfare. In the last inning, the Orioles made some errors. The quiet crowd on my left erupted in cheer, swishing their beer. They were Detroit fans trying to blend in with the Orioles crowd but showed their true colors (which also seemed orange like the O’s) when their team came back. The sneakiness! Oh!

Put your beautifully pedicured feet up and watch a ball game.

In the front row, some young folks had probably come on their first date. There was a lot of giggling, lots and lots of it. It could have been all that Nati bo (National Bohemian beer, I later found out) that they were buying from the vendors. And the girls kept getting up to bring food for the men, or use the restroom or whatever. No matter what they did, they made sure everything was followed by a sharp pitched giggle.


There was a little boy, about 3 years old, who danced on his chair almost the entire time, much to our amusement. The parents held on to the chair for dear life since he swatted their hands away when they tried to hold him. Nobody was allowed to come between him and his wild moves!!! Step way back mom and dad!

The Camden yards has this tradition of Kiss Cam. When the camera shows you, you have to kiss the person next to you. When the Kiss Cam came on, Sahana pushed Sean and I together and longingly looked at the big screen hoping they would focus on us. It didn’t, but we kissed anyway. Ryan, in the midst of all this, was completely focused on the game, except when he was hungry.

Talk about a nail biting finish!

His father promised to buy him some food after 10 outs. So he started counting outs irrespective of the team. Point to be noted here is, he is a fanatic Orioles fan. Yet, he started celebrating their outs at that point as each out brought him closer to the promised food. I teased him about his solidarity with his team. Hungry stomach and teasing don’t go well together, I found out.

Beer flowing.

There was a very rowdy, beer guzzling group of men sitting right in front of us. They kept the scene interesting by pushing and shoving each other. The beers kept flowing and their transformation from men to kindergarten kids started hastening exponentially. They were ribbing each other, slapping each other’s faces playfully, play acting to snatch their neighbor’s beer and food as they went by them, eyeing some pink and purple haired girls on the other side and exchanging flirtatious comments. Then, to make the transformation to kindergarten age complete, one started naming a male private part for no apparent reason or necessity while his friends burst out laughing. Once the gentleman saw that he was eliciting so much amusement among his friends, he kept repeating the word. My son, finally, turned his head from the game to give these grown ups a strange look. I, at this point, was getting seriously concerned about how many drunk men and women will be unleashed into the city and behind the wheels going home or wherever. These men were clearly very drunk and in no condition to drive. As the game stretched on into overtime, I overheard one of my drunk friends saying they needed to get to a club and they should get going. Another commented they can go if their designated driver was ready. Designated driver? I saw an older gentleman, who, I didn’t think was with the group, rising up to escort them out. The responsibility they showed just raised them in my eyes. They had come to have a good time. Their drunkenness was not malicious in any way. Apart from the unnecessary use of the name of the private part, they didn’t bother any of the other spectators. They helped Ryan cross over some seats so he could go to the front row, AND they had thought about bringing a designated driver to take them back. I waved them goodbye cheerfully and wished them “Have a nice evening!” They were going to a bar, so I assumed more alcohol in their systems. But one less group of people to worry about, phew! These guys are drinking responsibly! Pedestrians and other drivers are safe from this group, at least for one night.

We saved two baby birds…or tried to!

While we were sleeping one night, a storm came and turned our world upside down. We woke up to a backyard filled with leaves, branches and sticks. We also woke up to an eerily quiet house. The hum of the refrigerator and white noise of the air conditioner were unhappily absent. We had no electricity. The thermostat was already at mid seventies in the early morning, threatening to rise above hundred degree Fahrenheit as the day progressed. The calm morning belied the devastation that nature wreaked upon us the night before.

While picking up sticks and leaves from the yard, Sahana and Ryan discovered three very young baby cardinals in our yard. One of them lay still, the other two were fighting to stay alive. Both the children being avid animal lovers, turned to us in tears, “What can we do? The babies will die if we leave them here!”

We had no answers, of course. Nature can be harsh, sometimes these calamities take lives, those babies are beyond help, sorry but we have to accept their fate – these sort of reasonings were blown away by the tender hearts and streaming tears. Both cried harder, pleading to their ‘all powerful’ parents, “No please! Don’t say that! We can’t give up on them! We can’t let them die. We can bring them in, feed them and give them water!”

The birds had just hatched out of the eggs, their eyes weren’t open yet. Sean and I stood there watching the laboured breathing of the babies and listening to the tearful pleas of our human babies. I looked up to see the daddy cardinal, in all his red splendor, fluttering around from one branch to the other. The unassuming brown mom twittered in agonizing helplessness. At that moment, I could relate to the helplessness of the bird parents. They were helpless against the harshness of nature. I was equally helpless in shielding mine from the harshness of this world where death, agony, pain, suffering are very real.

Sean and I slowly headed back. Hearts were heavy, we failed the children. Despite the sass and attitude we get, both the children still turn to us to find a solution to life’s problems. Their confidence that mom and dad can figure out a way to save the baby birds, and our failure to do so, touched us both. Then Ryan came running in, tears streaming down his face, “Please, please help them mom. The ants are biting them, they are suffering. Make their suffering stop!” I simply had to try to do something, for the faith he has in my abilities to ‘stop the suffering’.

We got a flower-pot, filled it with leaves, picked up the surviving cardinals with other leaves, careful not to leave our scent on the babies and put them gently in the make shift nest. The parents were still watching. Sean balanced the ‘nest’ securely on a high branch. We stood below with fingers crossed that the parents would take over.

Ryan insisted, much to the amusement of his sister, that we should have fed the babies some ‘ketchup’! Why ketchup? Well, ketchup is the only food that he could think of that has the same consistency of the regurgitation that the birdie mom and dad feed their babies. He also told us somberly that saving baby birds was much more important in the scheme of things than going to a picnic when we urged him to get ready to go to Sean’s office picnic. He stood there for a while keeping an eye on the nest up on the tree, turned around and said he was going to offer a prayer at church for the long life of those two birds.

For Ryan, I still have all the answers. That is not the reality, it is his perception of his mother. For Sahana, I still have the answers to questions that matter – again, her perception of me. Their faith truly overwhelms me with gratitude and love and at the same time, scares the living daylights out of me. I am sure the day is approaching soon when I will NOT have all the answers. I sincerely hope that by that time, they both will have learnt answers to some of the questions and more importantly, they will  have learnt to explore the right resources to search for those answers.

Their grieving at the imminent death of the birds reminded me of Gerard Manly Hopkins’ lines:

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;

Sahana and Ryan will not cry their hearts out for fallen baby birds for very long. Even if they don’t shed tears, my hope is, they will still turn around to look at the fallen, bend down to pick them up,  give them a shoulder and never ever stop trying to ‘stop the suffering.’

A little humility….please!

Nothing traumatic happened to me in my childhood to make me the way I am, when it comes to humility. It is somewhat cloying, for want of better words. It is one of the lesser attractive traits in my character. My parents taught me the usual mantra ‘let the world tell you are good, you just do the right thing’. I try to follow the second part of the dictum, I try to do the right thing. But when the world tries to tell me I am good, I fight it. I posted a picture recently which attracted very generous comments from friends and relatives. Instead of gracefully thanking the kind people, I got into my usual habit of telling them why I look good in that picture – ‘the sun was on my face’, ‘Sean is a good photographer’, ‘the camera is good, makes anyone look good’ etc. The folks who commented on that photo must have thought, ‘Oh dear, what did we get ourselves into?’ My children, however, are completely on the other end of the spectrum when it comes to humility.

I want to write a few incidents that show the humility, or lack thereof, in my children. The first one was when Ryan was five years old. He was in a swimming class, the instructor was lining them up to swim a race. Ryan was waiting next to a little girl, whose dad was taking this 5-year-old swim race a little too seriously. He kept advising his daughter how she should move her arms, kick her feet with all her strength, how she should charge the wall at the end of the race. The girl had tuned the dad out long time ago,  but dads don’t pick up on these signs as moms do. There, I said it, now accuse me of stereotyping!! The poor dad was going on and on about focus, determination etc. If I wasn’t getting a kick out of the speech, I would have tuned him out as well. Now, since both my children are crazy competitive, all I say to them before a race is, ‘try your best and have fun’! That particular day, I didn’t even say that. I didn’t need to, Ryan was listening intently to all the dad was saying. Once, when he found a break in the dad’s lecture, this is what he said to the poor man, ‘You know, I am going to beat her!’ First, I couldn’t believe my ears, then I felt a heat emanating from my reddening face. I believe I hissed at Ryan to be quiet and listen to his instructor. The dad was quiet, I was quiet also, debating in my mind whether I should apologize for my son’s nonchalant rudeness. I have felt embarrassment  a few times in my life. This incident is somewhere there at the top of the list.

Couple of weeks ago, Ryan hit a triple in a baseball match. He swaggered back to the dugout, took off his helmet and told his teammate sitting next to him, ‘Go out and hit a triple like me!’ This incident was narrated to me by the other boy’s dad. I was at a loss for words, yet again. Finally, after some mental gnashing of the teeth, I managed to say, ‘Yes, we need to work on modesty!’ The dad was a good sport, he said, ‘Well, Ryan certainly backed up his statement, he went out and hit a triple – a second time!’ He hit two triples in a game. That is a big deal to a seven-year old. While walking back home, I congratulated him on his good performance and then broached the subject of humility.

‘Ryan, it is wonderful that you hit a triple but don’t tell others to go and hit a triple like you! You can wish them good luck and say hope you have a good hit!’

He looked up at me and said, ‘Why? If they hit a triple our team will win!’

“Yes, but don’t say LIKE ME!”

“Why? I hit a triple!”

I gave up at that point. His words were not laced with malice, the innocence was precious. I thought I would make some other time a teaching moment, and let him savor his success.

When Sahana was younger, I found her standing in front of the mirror singing ‘I am awesome, I am awesome!’ in different tunes and intonations. I told her I thought she was fantastic, but I would really like to know why did she think she was awesome? She said, ‘Because I am!’

Sahana, a couple of years ago, was talking to a girlfriend, when I called her. She didn’t hear me, I called her again, saying, ‘Sahana, you can’t hear me?’ Her girlfriend turned to me and said, ‘No, she couldn’t hear you because she was talking to ME and I am awesome!’ I was dumbstruck by the comment of this 10 year old. When I got my wits back, I thought in my mind, ‘Poor child, we need a reality check here. I fervently hope the world thinks you are that awesome, or else, you will have to deal with a lot of mental baggage when you grow up!’

I love the fact that my children have a strong sense of self. I am fortunate because some parents have to bolster the sense of self in their children. But I worry that this ‘strong’ sense of self doesn’t become ‘inflated’ sense of self. Sahana and Ryan are confident, young people and I love that. But I also worry that failure at something may crush them. It may sound terrible coming from their mother but I want them to taste failure once in a while. I feel it is important to learn that failure at anything does NOT mean the end of the world. It DOES NOT mean one is worthless. It just means you work harder and do it the next time, or the next. I strongly believe it is important for every individual to know and appreciate their worth. I am working on it. At the same time, it is also important for us to know what we need to aspire towards, to become truly awesome. I wonder if we are teaching our children that lesson? With participation trophies for everybody, everybody is a winner. But in reality, there is only one winner. When they reach adulthood, will they be able to deal with NOT necessarily being that winner? Will they have it in them to pick themselves up and TRY to be that winner? And if they can’t, will they move on to other things and win other battles in life, even if there aren’t medals and trophies waiting for them, only joy and satisfaction?

We need to strike a balance where we tell the children they are fantastic and special. Every single one of them are unique and the grown ups – parents, relatives, educators, counselors, coaches have the responsibility to nurture their uniqueness yet keeping them grounded to reality. We have the responsibility of teaching them that they can work on the qualities that they already have to BECOME their best! They have their whole life ahead of them to learn, practice, experiment, fail, learn again and WORK towards who they want to be in life.