Four years ago I was a newly single mother in the middle of a terrifying, lonely journey. The events surrounding this particularly story are in the post There is a Light if You Will Brave the Tunnel. This story is one small episode from that period.
A couple months ago, I was putting my girl to bed one night and she just didn’t want to go to sleep. We’d been through the bedtime rituals in entirety, and she had initially been cooperative when I said goodnight and gently closed the door behind me. But a few minutes later she called out, and when I went in she was standing in her crib, smiling like the middle of the afternoon. I knew coaxing or reprimanding were useless. But neither did I want to encourage her by getting her out of bed. (She usually puts her arms up and sweetly says, “Let me hold you for a minute?” It’s practically impossible to say no, but she will cuddle into me for a few minutes and then try to wiggle down under the pretense of needing to close the door or turn on a light or pick up a stray piece of laundry. Once she’s off my lap, she heads straight for the toys in the living room.) So that night, I told her to lie back down and I would tell her a story. She got under the covers and looked up at me expectantly.
Once upon a time, in a faraway land… I began.
I told her a story all about a little princess who was sick with a tummy ache. Her dad, the king, put her to bed, and then went to call the doctor. The doctor told him about a special medicine that came from a tree in another faraway land, over an ocean, across a desert, beyond a jungle, way up high on a mountain. When the king got off the phone, he asked, “Who is going to get the special medicine?”
I was making this random story up as I went, and just then, just when the formula called for a gallant prince to come offer his brave services, I thought, “Whoa! What am I telling her?” And I quickly answered the plot with the entrance of a brave little girl named Meira Claire. My girl was laying there, eyes wide, hanging on my every word. When I mentioned her name in the story, and that she had volunteered to the king to go and get the exotic medicine, her eyes almost bugged out of her head and she smiled so big. Inside I was bursting with pleasure along with her.
I went on to tell how she sailed a ship, rode a camel, made friends with a flying dragon… and the ways she journeyed to get to the top of the mountain, and eventually climb the medicine tree. Then I told her about all the ways she managed to return with the medicine safe in her arms. When she finally arrived back at the palace, she and the king went in to Princess Jessica’s bedroom, gave her the medicine, and instantly she felt better. Then she got up and had a playdate with Meira Claire.
It was indescribable to watch her face and see the wheels of her imagination turning while I told her the story. When I finished, she was still wide awake, but she seemed lost in the new possibilities opened to her. It was truly magical. I felt like it was my greatest moment as a mother. I kissed her goodnight and she didn’t protest at all as I walked out.
That story has become a regular with us. We often tell all sorts of variations to each other when we are driving, or find ourselves killing time somehow. Now, instead of just telling the story, I tell a few lines, and then ask her what happens next. “How does Meira get across the ocean?” Every time she offers a different mode of transport. Riding a dragon is a favorite though.
The ability and responsibility to help shape a brand new human’s expectations and understanding of the world is almost too profound to deal with. But the joy and awe I saw in her that night, I fully shared.
Wow! I am going to teach her that she is strong and capable and clever and amazing, and it’s OKAY to be that way! I am going to teach her that she doesn’t have to wait for a prince, just by teaching her to be the full size version of herself… I am going to tell her stories where she is her own hero. That is going to be her normal.
It was as if the same new wonder had opened up and creative wheels were turning in my head.
Stories though, are one thing.
If there is anything we grown ups know, it’s that life doesn’t really resemble a fairytale. Letting the magic Happily Ever After go, is necessary if we are ever going to find our real happy endings.
Ditching the prince story line in order to empower my girl is one thing, but in the end, all fairytales must be seen for what they are. Fairytales. Of course I want her to grow up without the confusing messages of competition between the sexes. I just don’t want her to see the difference between what she may do, and what anyone else may do. I never really grew up thinking a prince would save me, I did think I was strong and independent. But somehow I still absorbed the message that I needed a man to make me okay; to give me full license to be who I am. It’s sad to unravel the absurdity of the thinking now. But that’s how it was.
At almost three years old, things are a lot simpler for her. And I am doing my damndest to keep it that way.
That’s why I say, stories are one thing. But stories aren’t enough. As they say, “More things are caught, than taught.”
Oh, the painful reality to discover that. The confusion that lives on inside when we don’t realize that we were taught one thing, but caught another. And we live by what we caught, consciously or not. In my head I thought I could do it all, be it all… but underneath, I was really always waiting, killing time until I got permission and protection and approval from someone else. Waiting to be made legit. Believing I wasn’t enough on my own. Believing I needed to be underneath someone else’s authority.
And so, now I find myself trekking through a barren desert trying to live out the story I tell my daughter. Some days I am on a little boat, tossing in wild seas of uncertainty. Some days I am okay, resting along the way, eating bananas in the jungle. But inevitably the time comes to pick up and keep moving, climbing, slashing through the underbrush.
I am determined to give her a true story. I cannot bear to tell her she can be all she can be, and then demonstrate the opposite. Tell her life is a fairy tale, regardless of who the hero is, only to have it smack her in the skull over and over later. Hopefully she will become her own heroine, and hopefully she will also meet the perfect partner for her. But the long journey between fairytale and reality and truly joyful blendings, is happening now, with a rough trudge through lonely landscapes.