Monday, July 17, 2017

Rainy Day Blues

On the morning of the fourth day of our vacation, the sky outside the tent was heavy with the coming rain. I pushed our bedding into the center of the tent and piled on top the two dozen stuffed animals who had accompanied us to New Hampshire. Then we walked through the drizzle to Don’s sister’s camper, where three of his siblings and his parents had convened for a mini, mid-summer reunion.
We had planned to drive to the White Mountains that day; instead we crowded into the camper to watch E.T. When it was over, we looked outside hopefully, ready for bocce ball and swimming, only to find that the surface of the lake was still dimpled with rain.
“Want to read Wings of Fire?” I asked. The kids and I settled sanguinely on the floor of the screened-in porch, water dripping through the roof into pots and bowls around us, and imagined ourselves hiding behind a waterfall with the dragonets of Pyrhhia.
But what at first had been cozy soon became claustrophobic. By early afternoon, my voice was hoarse and the book’s cover was limp with humidity. Clayton had fallen into an immutable funk, which even a walk to the camp store for ice-cream did little to dispel; after four days of intense sugar consumption, one meager fudgsicle had no chance of producing the same high.  
“Roller-skating?” I suggested, casting around for some fun, indoor activity.
The rink was closed until four.
“Bowling?”
“Not if Granny and Papa aren’t going!”
Finally, desperate to do something, Don and I mobilized the troops for a hike at a lake a few miles down the road. Clayton slumped in the back seat, determined to be miserable.
At the trailhead, my spirits rose. The path leading into the woods was verdant and picturesque, with patches of delicate grass growing on the trail and a light mist among the trees. It was exactly the kind of long, lush stretch that, horseback, would have invited a canter. I immediately knew just what I would have done had I been there as a child without a mount.
“Come on!” I called to the kids. “Let’s ride our horses!”
The girls hardly missed a beat before swinging a leg over their own steeds. Gathering up the reins, we took off at a gallop.
I had done it for Clayton. I rarely share in my kids’ imaginary play anymore, but the old adage is true: you’re only as happy as your least happy child. Clayton’s funk was dragging me down, and I’d hoped a healthy dose of make-believe and an invigorating gallop might snap him out of it.
It did not. Despite my pleas, he refused to mount his own horse, but plodded mournfully after us, holding his father’s hand.
The girls, though, were in the spirit.
“What’s your horse’s name?” Dee Dee asked me eagerly.
“Midnight,” I said, forgetting that name was already taken by our one black chicken.
“Mine’s is Forest!” She paused, considering. “Is Midnight a girl or a boy?”
“A boy,” I said without thinking, even though as soon as I said it I suspected that she might actually be a mare. It was as if I had sensed where this conversation was going, and some old heterocentricity had flared up in me: Dee Dee’s horse would be a girl, so mine should be—
“Momma, how do horses get married?”
“They don’t, actually.”
“Oh. So how do they have babies?
“Um, well, they have sex. Like the chickens.”
Sylvia perked up, eager to show off her new knowledge of the birds and the bees.
“So they put the penis in the—”
“Uh-huh.”
“Momma,” said Dee Dee. “Can we make Forest and Midnight do—”
“No!”
This conversation had proved impossible at a gallop. We had slowed to a walk and were suddenly being swarmed by mosquitoes.
“We’d better check in with your dad, girls,” I said. Don is driven so mad by bugs that mosquitoes were my number one worry about our wedding: it had been all too easy to imagine him slapping and cursing through the entire outdoor ceremony.
The girls and I trotted back along the trail, the air around us thick with bugs. By the time we reached Don and Clayton, it was obvious that continuing any further was out of the question. I looked at Clayton, expecting to see that his misery had only been deepened by the swarming bugs.
Instead, he was pounding his father on the back, cheered by the little black smudges left on his t-shirt— evidence of all the causalities he’d inflicted on the enemy.
“Die!” he cried, slapping yet another. Clearly battling a mosquito army had done what an imaginary gallop had failed to: Clayton was animated once more.
“Run!” I cried. Unfortunately, it turns out that it is far easier to gallop with a full bladder than to run. On the bright side, clearly nothing cheers a bunch of kids with the rainy day blues like their mother wetting her pants a little.
“Wait!” Dee Dee said, laughing. “I need to pee too!”
Since staying still for any length of time was treacherous, I tried my best to hurry the process along.
“But Momma! I have to wipe!” she protested, stubbornly reaching for a nearby green leaf.
“No! That’s poison ivy!”
I found a crumpled piece of paper towel and handed it to Dee Dee. Then we all climbed into the car. When we finally stopped laughing about Momma’s accident and Dee Dee almost wiping with poison ivy, I asked, “Dee Dee, what did you do with your toilet paper?”
“I threw it at your back,” she said matter-of-factly,  launching us all into giggles again.
With our hilarity came a new-found optimism. When we passed a playground on the way back to the campsite, Don swung the car into a U-turn. Maybe there’d be fewer mosquitoes here? Given the rain, I had assumed it would be deserted, but a half a dozen kids, faces smeared with icing, were scattered about the playground. Their moms stood by, deep in conversation near a discarded Dunkin Donuts box. As our three kids climbed on the carousel, a little chocolate-faced boy rushed up.
“Can I ride, too?”
“Sure!” I said. “Hold on tight!”
I began to push the carousel, faster and faster. Suddenly the little boy flew through the air, landing in a heap on the wet mulch.
His mom barely looked our way. “Oh, he’s always falling off of stuff,” she called.
Then an older boy tried to persuade Clayton to join them for hide-and-seek, and he politely assented, even though playing with unfamiliar kids is decidedly not his cup of tea.
After one game, though, he sought me out.
“Can we go now?” he said.
But as we began walking to the car, the boy came after us.
“Hey dude!” he called out to Clayton.
“Yeah?”
“Want to be friends?”
“Um, okay,” Clayton said.
The other boy nodded, as if— hide-and-seek or not— at least that was taken care of.
“I’ll probably never see him again,” Clayton said quietly as we climbed into the car.
“No, probably not,” Don agreed. “But at least now you have a friend in New Hampshire!”
We were giggling again, and kept at it all the way home.

“Oh, he’s always falling off of stuff.”
“Hey dude! Want to be friends?”
“What’d you do with your toilet paper?”
“I threw it at your back.”

When we arrived at the camper, the kids rushed inside, busting a gut to tell their grandparents and aunts and uncles that their mom had peed her pants and Dee Dee— “Clayton, no, don’t say it!”— had almost wiped with poison ivy.



Sunday, May 14, 2017

Mother's Day Love

                    

                  Today's post is by guest bloggers Clayton Witsell, Adella Witsell, and Sylvia Witsell, all three of whom have made today so very special. A huge thank you to my three sweet children for making me feel so very loved! 
                  
            First, a fable by my son, Clayton, written for Mother's Day. 

A Love Tale
by Clayton 








               Next is Adella's list of reasons... 



                    Last, but definitely not least, is Sylvia's jar of lightening bugs! 





Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Road Trip

The afternoon I left, Clayton said, “I don’t want you to go, Momma,” and a tearful Dee Dee jumped into my arms and wrapped her arms and legs around me. My own separation anxiety rose in my throat and suddenly the whole trip seemed like a bad idea. How could I miss four sweet bedtimes, four mornings of waking to Clayton climbing into bed to snuggle, the girls’ dreamy morning faces? Plus, Don was clearly stressed from a hard week at work, and it seemed cruel to leave him flying solo while I flitted off to Florida by myself. Not to mention the fact that we were only four chapters from the end of the last Harry Potter book, and nobody— including me— wanted to wait four long days to find out if and how Voldemort met his end at last. The car was packed, the GPS was set, but suddenly nine hours and twenty-eight minutes seemed far too long a drive for a weekend, far too many miles to put between me and my family. Could I still change my mind?
I didn’t, of course. The miles rolled away easily as I cruised down the mountain, Robert Siegel’s voice dissolving into static on the radio. When Marketplace was over, I opened the case in which, two summers ago, I had stored my modest collection of CDs, forcing myself to discard all the cracked plastic cases. This was some of the same music I had listened to over thousands of miles two decades ago, when gas was ninety-eight cents a gallon and my Triple-A map could have been a dot-to-dot. First, Florida to California and back again, when college graduation had cast me into the world with few marketable skills and even less sense of purpose. Four months later, I was back on the road to California, ashamed of the months I had spent at home, waiting tables and generally making a mess of my life while my worried parents looked on, dismayed. If I was going to be a fool, better to do it in the privacy of a vast and distant city, where only I and my unlucky boyfriend would know my folly and my loneliness. I was already twenty-three, after all, and had to start a life somewhere; going West felt like both a rite of passage and a  tried-and-true part of our national heritage.
By the next winter, I’d shaved my head and planned my escape to Ecuador, where I’d relearn Spanish and work as a volunteer for a cloud forest conservation organization. But first the boyfriend and I drove to Texas for one last adventure in the winter desert, then north to Colorado, where we boarded our respective planes, both relieved that we had managed to part with some modicum of grace.
Six months later, the drive from Colorado back to California felt like nothing, a skip and a jump, and there were the sea lions lounging on the beach again, the dry hills of Berkeley like the answer to a prayer. Suddenly California smelled like home and even if I hadn’t quite found myself, at least I had a better idea of what I was looking for. I settled in for my real life, got down to the business of growing up at last. I found love and then lost it, was consoled by the few true friends I’d mined like jewels from the city’s throngs. I found my calling and had the sense to follow it, first to the South Bay and then to the South. There was one last trek to make out of California, all my belongings piled high in the back of the old pick-up I bought for three thousand dollars from an elderly Korean man who insisted on paying for the registration that was coming due.
“It’s like the Grapes of Wrath in reverse,” my parents laughed when I stopped again in Colorado, seeing my truck piled high. My father bought yards of bungee cords and helped me tie down the tarp that had come loose before I’d even made it out of Sacramento County. I had no air-conditioning, so I drove east in the early mornings, a hundred miles under my belt by eight o’clock, Hal Ketchum on the tape deck urging me along.

Now I have power-steering and air-conditioning; all my cassettes are gone except for a few sentimental mix tapes stowed away in a drawer somewhere. I listen to an old Hal Ketchum CD and sing along, overcome by nostalgia and a sense of loss I didn’t expect. By any measure, I am far happier now than then. Love has long since ceased to be a fragile, transient thing to be watched closely for signs of wear; home is no longer a restless quest but a haven shared with my best friend and my children.
And yet as I drive, the sense of loss persists. I listen to the Indigo Girls, but I’ve got no map to get out and lay my finger on. Now the GPS tells me how to go and where to stop if I grow weary. There is an ease in this, but it has its costs. For a moment I allow myself to miss the olden times, when the roads were mine to choose as I wished, not dictated to me by a disembodied voice. I’d stop at dusty rest areas and spread my map out on the burning hood, scanning it for its little squares of green, eager as a pirate for whatever out-of-the-way treasure I might find there. At night, I spread my sleeping bag on the couches of friends of friends, the piney ground of National Forests, the gravelly tent pads of lesser-known state parks. I never set up my tent if I could help it, but fell asleep with eyes heavy from star-gazing, the sky stretched out above me with its endless map of stars.
One cold February morning, I woke at the Grand Canyon, the ground around the tent dusted in snow. I’d left my boots sitting in the vestibule of the tent as if this were any summer trip, and sliding my cold toes into them, I felt like I’d been put on notice. Ready or not, the seasons turned; summer didn’t last forever. Eventually, even the highway would come to an end, and how long would I keep driving?  In that moment, it seemed I’d been reminded that the time for recklessness and foolishness had passed, that this was the life I had and I’d better get on with it, that home was waiting if I could only find it.

Monday, February 20, 2017

I Just Felt So Loved

In the wee hours of the morning on Valentine’s Day, I heard Clayton crying quietly on the other side of the bed. He had woken up with a sore throat and a fever and had climbed into bed beside Don, who had wrapped his arms around him but hadn’t opened an eye.
I fetched the thermometer and the Tylenol, while Clayton despaired of being sick on Valentine’s Day, what with all the valentines to give and to receive at school, and a Valentine’s Day party to boot.
“Well, at least we’ll get to spend Valentine’s Day together,” I said, casting around for some small consolation.


In my heart, I wasn’t sure how consoling it would be. It’s not exactly that I sense Clayton drifting away from me these days. We have our clogging classes together and the hours of Harry Potter on the couch. He says, “I love you,” every night when I tuck him in, and when I leave for work or fun, he lets me know he would rather I was home.
But when he’s hurt or sad, and I try to pull him to me, he wriggles away almost immediately. The girls I can still cradle in my arms; I can still believe that the mere fact of my body is a comfort to them. When I pull a weeping Sylvia into my lap, her face nestled against my chest, the effect is immediate and obvious: her body goes slack against me and her sobs peter out. But Clayton’s tears are both more defiant and more private. He’ll go into his room and lock the door, and even though he lets me in begrudgingly and tolerates my hugs, he doesn’t crumple against me as he used to.
And, of course, I am not his father, who plays basketball with him in the driveway and chase in the yard. I don’t show him funny videos on my phone or play chess with him at the kitchen table. Increasingly, in fact, Clayton’s and my ideas of a good time are at odds.
On the weekends, I want to do something. Go swimming or roller skating, to the zoo or for a bike ride. But Clayton wants nothing more than to stay put. He’ll happily pass the day at home, content with his books and the trampoline. He’ll tidy up the living room and the kitchen, and then head outside, pausing at the door to remind me, “Keep the house clean please!”
Always orderly with his own things, Clayton has become the enforcer of tidiness in our home. He neatly stacks the helter-skelter of library books on the coffee table and admonishes his sisters to put away their shoes, their pajamas, their toys. If I can’t find something I had just a minute before, I immediately suspect Clayton; more often than not, he has already tidied it away.
But this perfectionism only extends to household order. When I comment on his backwards “ds” or misspelled words, he bristles defiantly. As someone who brandished my eraser to excess, I cannot relate to this laxness, this lack of passion for putting things right. When Dee Dee devours the homework she has expressly requested of her teacher, I can relate. When Sylvia pours diligently over her dozens of sight words or insists on reading her night reader three times— because her teacher told her to!— I can relate. But when Clayton groans about his meager homework or works himself up to tears over some simple second-grade assignment, I despair, imagining how much worse it will be when it’s algebra or English essays that he doesn’t want to do or can’t be bothered to do well.


On Valentine’s Day morning, Clayton rallies to read his cards, then collapses on the couch. He doesn’t protest when I pull him onto my lap and hold him. After his sisters go to school, he lets me put him back to bed, and then later we read picture books together on the couch, just like in the olden days.
I’ve made an appointment at the doctor for mid-day, and I can sense Clayton’s reluctance, as always, to leave the house. But he goes uncomplainingly, and it’s almost fun, watching the fish tank together in the waiting room and hypothesizing about the crying babies as we wait for the doctor to come in. Afterwards, I stop to buy him a bagel— he has eaten next to nothing all day— and then we head to pick up his prescription. As we wait at the drive-up window, we watch the people bustling out of the store with their bouquets of roses and baby’s breath, red envelopes clearly visible through the thin plastic of their shopping bags.
“I’ll bet you a dollar and a donut those are for Valentine’s Day,” Clayton observes, borrowing his father’s stock phrase.
On the way home, he tells me again and again, “At least we get to spend Valentine’s day together,” and “It’s kind-of fun, running errands with you like this.” He sounds so sincere, my heart glows. It’s been so long since we’ve had a day, just the two of us.
Clayton is cheered by the image of his medicine attacking his strep throat germs like a miniature army; he is propped up with ibuprofen. But when his sisters get off the bus with their arms full of valentines and their tales of cupcakes and juice boxes, it is too much.
“I know we had a fun day together,” he tells me tearfully, “but I didn’t want to miss school!”
By the time we get home from the bus stop, the ibuprofen’s magic has worn off. Clayton slumps on the couch again, his face pale and gray rings around his eyes. Again, I get to hold him to me, while the girls sort through their valentines and dive into their homework by themselves.


The next afternoon, Clayton is buoyant when he gets off the bus. It seems his classmates were happy to see him again and let him know it.
“I just felt so loved,” he tells me as we walk home. “It sort of made me want to miss more days of school! And they really liked my Valentines! And that made me feel so good.”
I am struck, once again, by how astute Clayton is at discerning his emotions, how unabashed at giving them voice. Last week, when his less-than-perfect state reading test led to an afternoon of tears, he confessed to me, “I’m just worried you won’t think I’m smart!”
Then, too, my heart had gone out to him, and I realized in that moment that I cared far more that he could discern his own emotions so perceptively than that he could find “two details from the text to support his answer” on the test.
I don’t doubt Clayton and I will clash again soon, probably the next time he mewls about his homework, or provokes his sisters, or throws a wet blanket on my plans for some activity away from home. But all that seems insignificant when compared to the enormity of our bond. He is my son— loving and sensitive, discerning and kind. Plus, our house has never been so tidy. What more, really, could any mother ask for?  


Sunday, January 8, 2017

All I Want For Christmas is a Good Night Sleep


The week before Christmas I hardly slept. Every night I would wake up between 12:30 and 1:30 and that would be it; I wouldn’t fall asleep again until close to five, and then there would only be a sliver of time before it was time to get up for good. I went through the days in a daze of exhaustion, constantly calculating the hours until I could go to bed, only to wake up again in the wee hours of the night, unable to sleep.
The night of December 23 was the same. In the morning, I woke abruptly before six and immediately began to add up all the hours I might possibly have been asleep. It was the same thing I used to do when the kids were infants; if I could convince myself that I had managed six or seven disjointed hours―forty-five minutes between one and two could be added to the fifteen minutes I managed after the alarm had gone off— I couldn’t possibly be as tired as I felt.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, however, the calculations seemed futile. No matter how I added them up, the sum was simply not enough. But there was no point in dawdling in bed. I was awake now, my mind already racing down my mental to-do list, and anyway I was sick to death of being in bed.
It was the to-do list that saved me. Each task I completed— make up the guest room, clean the house, make the dinner—  seemed to keep my weariness at bay. Again, I was reminded of having a newborn, when exhaustion is so entrenched that you shouldn’t be able to function at all, and yet you do: you have no choice. You change the diapers and get up at three in the morning to nurse and haul the babies to their appointments with the pediatrician because you have to, and if you get a black eye from walking into the bedroom door in the wee hours of the morning or scratch the side of the minivan because you forget to close the mailbox, well, it’s hardly surprising, is it? But still your exhaustion is of no account: your children need you.
Christmas Eve presented the same kind of exigencies. Part of me wanted nothing more for Christmas than a night in a motel room— a quiet bed with no scratching dogs or thumping children, a bed with no memory of insomnia lurking in its sheets. But this was Christmas, the zenith of the holiday anticipation that had been building for more than a month. My kids were beside themselves with excitement; it felt unpardonable to damper their Christmas spirit with even the merest mention of how tired I was.
Is this just what mothers do? My own mom felt the first symptoms of diverticulitis on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. “My stomach is a little upset,” she merely said, and then proceeded to elaborately cook for and serve countless guests for five days. If anyone noticed that she herself hardly touched a bite, I was not among them.
I do not share my mother’s stoicism; I was not trained in the British stiff upper lip of silent fortitude. But still I knew enough not to darken my children’s day by harping on my exhaustion. Instead I told them I needed help.
“Can you three please sort those baskets of laundry?” I asked.
“But that’s not our job!” they protested indignantly.
But if ever there was a day to be good, this was it. Surely Santa must be watching as they sorted the laundry and cleaned their bathroom.
“Boy, this house has never been so clean!” Dee Dee said proudly.


Miraculously, by the time Don’s family arrived in the afternoon, we were ready. The house was tidy and mostly clean, the dinner prepared, the presents secretly wrapped. With only hours to go, I felt myself in the homestretch of an endurance race. I could make it! I coasted the last few hours. Christmas Eve dinner went off without the hitch, and then we all sank onto the couch to watch the Grinch and open the final windows of our advent calendars. That evening, the kids were almost as eager for their beds as I was for mine. I barely waited for them to be asleep before Santa came. My exhaustion had caught up with me and was pulling me under.
“We did it,” I told Don as I crawled gratefully into bed. Even to my ears, it sounded like Christmas was an ordeal to be endured, but that wasn’t what I meant. It was that this Christmas was a reminder to me of how hard we are willing to push ourselves for our children— for their survival, and for their joy. My first Christmas with Clayton, I was overjoyed simply to find that I was capable of keeping him alive. During those early days of motherhood, too, I lived life under a patina of exhaustion. This year, for one week, that feeling returned. Of course giving my kids a magical Christmas rich in tradition is a far cry from the treadmill of diapers and breastfeeding of their infancy, and yet the feeling it left in me was the same. My children need this; they deserve it.  I have no choice but to do it. I’m a mom; it’s my job. I’ll sleep later, or not.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Calico Critters

It is the summer of the Calico Critters. Gone are the days when the children demanded our attention the second we woke up, demanded our attention even before we woke up. Now they hide out in their rooms playing with their animal families until hunger drives them out in search of breakfast. If the long stretches of Calico Critter play were dashes, and the dips in our tiny swimming pool were dots, our days could be read in Morse Code. And what would the message be? This is summer. This is childhood. This is joy.
As with anything, there are bumps in the road. Dee Dee and Clayton inevitably clash at least once during the day. Most recently, both ended up in tears because Dee Dee had insisted on making a rabbit fly, a magical feat to which Clayton had strongly objected.
“Momma,” he asked me seriously later, “when you play with Calico Critters, is it supposed to be realistic?” Clayton is so determined to follow the rules, he looks out for the ‘supposed to’ no matter what he’s doing.
“You can play with them however you want,” I responded.
“Yeah, but are they supposed to be realistic?” he insisted.
“Well, they are animals that wear clothes,” I said, and we both laughed.


“I need a job,” Clayton told me dejectedly two weeks ago. He was sitting at the kitchen table, browsing the Calico Critter website and looking discouraged.
“Why?” I asked.
“I really want the Hopscotch Rabbit Family and I don’t have enough money in my piggy bank.”
In general, I am a proponent of my kids not getting everything they want (although I do find it hard not to spoil them, hence the Calico Critter double stroller I secretly ordered for them on Amazon). But at that moment I was cleaning blinds, with the prospect of scrubbing all the doors in the house still before me.
“I’ll pay you to clean the doors,” I offered.
“Okay!”
For two days, Clayton stood on a stool with a sponge in hand and a bucket of soapy water at his feet. He scrubbed and scrubbed until his hands were sore and the doors gleamed.
“I feel like a servant,” he said happily. It was the first time I had really witnessed his work ethic. If I found a spot he had missed, he didn’t complain. He just soaked the sponge and went at it again. He did the math endlessly: “If I’ve cleaned eight doors and I need to clean twelve, that means... I just have four to go!”
If the objects of my children’s imaginative play were something else--army men, or transformers, or cars-- I think I would still look on it tenderly, but I doubt that it would wring my heart in quite the same way.
“Come on, Mom!” Clayton tells me. “I’ve got to show you something.” And then he leads me by the hand to the dollhouse, showing me how all the Calico Mommas are sitting on the couch, nursing their babies, or how Momma Dog is giving her son an especially sweet hug. Other times, he and his sisters load all their families up in a little car, those who don’t fit trailing behind on foot or in the double stroller, and then, here they come, out for a drive through the living room. My throat aches with the sweetness of it.
And then, of course, there is this: I have a seven-year-old son who would rather play Calico Critters than just about anything else. The dollhouse, a gift from Santa Claus several years ago, is in the girls’ room, but it is Clayton who sets it up so carefully, tucking the babies into their cribs, arranging the grown-ups around the table or on the couch. It used to be only Clayton’s room I had to worry about when we had other kids at the house; he lives in fear that his carefully arranged toys will be “messed up.” But now I see him keeping an eye on the doll house, too, and as soon as the guests are gone, he races to set it up again.
When we were at my parents’ house at the beginning of the summer, my mother ordered each of my children a Calico Critter family for them to keep in Florida, to play with in the old dollhouse my sister and I had as kids. Clayton’s family arrived in the mail a day or two later than the girls’; he spent the interim in barely contained excitement.
“My Calico Critters are coming today!” he told me as soon as he woke up on the day of their arrival.
But by the time his dog family arrived in the mail, so had his older, out-of-town cousins, both boys. He tore open the brown packaging eagerly, but as soon as the Calico Critter box was revealed, he immediately put it in his sister’s hands. The box was edged with pink, with a border of pastel-colored flowers. It looked, in a word, too girly; Clayton didn’t want his cousins to see him claim it.
In our family, we have a lot of conversations about marketing, gender marketing in particular. Years ago I read the book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, by Peggy Orenstein, which offers an insightful, critical look at the ways the culture of childhood has become increasingly gendered. Fresh in my mind is the “Aha!” moment I had when I read how simple the marketing ploy is that lies behind it. A ball is just a ball, and yet make one ball blue, for boys, and another pink, for girls, and you have engineered demand where there was none: girls can’t play with just any old ball, they need a new ball for girls.
These days I worry less about how the girlie-girl culture will “eat” my girls and more about how the strict gender delineations of toys impacts my son. What makes an animal family something for only girls to play with? Aren’t men part of families? Aren’t boys? Clayton has yet to ask,“Are Calico Critters just for girls, Mom?” and yet I feel the dreaded question there, lurking in the background.
I have suggested to Clayton several times that we invite a friend from school over to play, but he has been reluctant. “I just want to stay at home and play Calico Critters with my sisters,” he has told me more than once. That’s all he has said, but I am afraid that he feels that having a boy at the house would cramp his style, would make him feel that he has to disavow the dollhouse and his beloved critter families.
There is another conversation I think we need to have. The Calico Critter families are meant to be old-fashioned, with their suspenders and their aprons and their, well, calico. And they are old-fashioned. As we scroll through the dozens of families available on the Calico Critter website (the kids already have their wish-lists for birthdays and Christmas), it is glaringly obvious to me. While no one would deny that the “traditional” family in America is changing (a Pew Research Center analysis in 2014 stated that fewer than half of American children live with two heterosexual parents in their first marriage), it is clear that the paradigm of the traditional family persists in our children’s toys, and thus, I would argue, in their worldview. Until kids see alternative families populating their world of toys and books, they will continue to see such real-life families as oddities.
Equally dangerous, if not more so, is the way such a strict definition of family limits both their imaginative play and, ultimately, the way they imagine their future lives. Remember the uproar when Teen Talk Barbie said, ‘Math class is tough!’? No one wants a toy to prescribe the sphere or the scope of their children’s dreams. And I, for one, don’t want my children to get the not-so-subtle message from their toys that a family must be headed only by a mom and a dad. Because who knows what kind of family they themselves will one day want? It’s one thing to tell my kids that they can marry anyone they want, boy or girl, but how much do those words mean when not one of the families with which they spend hours playing gives any weight to that assertion? When I finish this, I think I’ll write a letter to Calico Critters and politely suggest that they get with the times.
Still, one thing is for sure: all stereotypes die hard. The other day Clayton rushed from where they were playing Calico Critters to find me in the kitchen.
“Momma!” he told me excitedly, “the Calico Critter moms are having a mom’s night out at the beauty shop! You know, they’re getting covered in mud! With pickles on their eyes and stuff!”
Ah, the epitome of feminine pampering: pickles on our eyes and stuff!