Sage recently arrived home from kindergarten with a furrowed brow. Her friend, Max, had told her that princesses suck.
I tried very hard not to say, "Well, honey, Max is right."
My daughter has loved princesses since she was 3. I wasn't into princesses when I was a kid (but they weren't emblazoned on everything from lawn chairs to fishing rods back in the seventies). I wore a princess dress once, but only because it was a Halloween costume my mother made. In university, I studied feminist theory, and cartoon princesses, with their prince-crazed minds and unrealistic bodies, definitely sucked.
So, before I became a mom, I had a mental list of things I'd never do as a parent, and allowing princess paraphernalia into my home was high on that list. I'm learning that parenting is about crossing things off this list one by one.
First, it was the plastic princess tablecloth my cousin gave us for a camping trip. I could have been firmer and not used it, but it seemed harmless and the picnic table had been left too long in the company of seagulls.
After the tablecloth, it was a princess trick-or-treat bag my aunt gave Sage. Next thing I knew, Sage was in a princess costume every chance she got.
"Wow! It must be a special day," another mother at the park once said. "Look at how dressed up your daughter is."
I eyed Sage's bejewelled dollar-store crown, the clip-on purple earrings weighing down her little lobes, her greying satin gloves and the cascade of frills flowing from the well-worn dress she had chosen for the day.
"Nope," I said. "It's pretty much like this every day."
Another time, we shared a bench by the canal with a stranger. "You're familiar for some reason," he said.
I shook my head. "Sorry, I don't think we've met."
He looked at Sage flitting around the bench, attempting to communicate with the chickadees and wondering out loud why the birds wouldn't land on her finger like they do for Snow White.
"Yeah, that's it!" he said. "We were at the same restaurant on the weekend."
"How can you remember that?"
"Well," he said, and waved his hand toward my whirling princess, who was decked out in a shiny pink dress, silver crown and rain boots.
Sage's interests are of great amusement to my sister, who was always the girly girl in the family. She practically begs her only daughter (a sister to three brothers) to eschew high-tops and headlocks for a dress or skirt.
Sage's three-year-old brother, Xavier, is equally enamoured with all things royal. When he isn't playing the part of Prince Charming, he dons a dress and waltzes around the house to the Sleeping Beauty theme song. What I resist persists.
I've resigned myself to joining the princess craze. That doesn't mean I squeeze myself into a Cinderella dress (although this would make Sage's day). Instead, I try to focus on what is good about the princesses: Belle's bravery, Cinderella's hard work, Snow White's kindness to creatures smaller than herself.
Sage and I host royal tea parties and I make attempts to discuss Diana, Princess of Wales, and her humanitarian work. Sage rolls her eyes and says, "No, Mommy. Let's talk about real princesses." When an older girl at the park helped Sage reach the monkey bars, I said, "Wow, now there is someone with the heart of a princess." When Sage gets whiny, I ask her to use her elegant princess voice.
It still bothers me that most cartoon princesses have waists the size of real women's wrists and their ultimate goal seems to be scoring the prince. I don't like that Sage, dark-skinned herself, favours blond, white princesses. But I've learned that while I can attempt to influence my children's interests, I can't control them. I try to imagine how it would feel if I was captivated by something that my mom put down as banal. And, when I see Sage in her princess dress collecting worms from rain puddles, I smile at the freedom and beauty of being a girl in this country.
Despite my new-found tolerance, Sage's recent question caught me unawares. As she brushed her dark, bobbed hair before going to bed one night, she looked up at me and asked, "Mommy, do I look like a Barbie?"
Resisting the urge to gag, I failed in my attempt to play it cool. "You will never look like a Barbie and thank God for that! Poor Barbie has no rib cage to house her heart," I said. "How can she possibly stand tall and proud when her breasts are disproportionate to the rest of her body? And how on earth will she ever birth a child with those hips? What's more, her feet are so small she'd never be able to find fancy shoes."
When I looked down from my soapbox, I noticed that Sage had long moved on to looking for a bedtime story. But I may have scored some points on the fancy-shoe argument.
Throughout her life, Sage will be exposed to many things that are not of my choosing. What she needs most is a context to help her understand life's experiences and a mirror, mirror on the wall to help her see things for what they really are. Providing these necessities is my challenge. As I chose gifts for her sixth birthday recently, I was left wondering where I might find a Hayley Wickenheiser or Julie Payette doll.
Kelley Powell lives in Ottawa.