Yesterday it was raining, and cold. I remember a Sunday like that some years ago, spent sitting in front of the fire and drinking tea; now I have two kids who are mad for splashing in puddles and twirling their umbrellas. We kit up and set off, walking the block in the rain.
Once the thrill of the wet starts to fade, the adventures begin. Yesterday it was Snow White but Cinderella is also in vogue at our house. I once wrote that living with a real princess is as testing as sharing space with the Disney kind. Now I have some experience in both and I'm starting to reconsider. And I wonder, where does this come from, and what to do to chase the wenches away?
We live in a sea of pink but we've never actually invited a pop culture princess into our home. That is, until recently when allowing Lucy to chose her yoghurt for kindergarten lead to a six pack of princess themed Nestle vanilla and strawberry milk-based product. We could have - should have? - said no but like parents everywhere we were keen to avoid a meltdown in the dairy aisle and so we forked out for some indoctrination. But I think it must have started earlier - why did she chose that particular option? - possibly around the communal kinder table, or outside in the playground when the pirate boys said girls can only be mermaids. I always assumed that I could through vigilance and firmness protect my kid from inappropriate gendered messages; turns out - yet again - I can't.
I'm tinkering around the edges of some of those messages. Snow White is a girl who is hated for her kindness, not her attractiveness and blah, blah, blah, she lives with the dwarves and plants a garden and manages their financial interests, acting as an agent and selling on the mined jewels and gold. Her post-poisoning salvation comes in the form of a prince but one who is also a doctor, so that at least some motivation comes from medical expertise rather than general heroic maleness. In the end, the doctor-prince, S.W. and the dwarves all live together, with S.W. continuing her role as financial administrator for the guys.
This is okay as far as it goes but the things about kids is, they act as a mirror to our own cracks and inconsistencies. In my story the guy still saves the girl and the day - why not a witch with traditional knowledge, for example? - the girl is still poisoned by a crone (thereby perpetuating all those nasty constructions of older women; and S.W. doesn't just politely say thanks and walk away at the end - she ends up working as an employee in the men's businesses. I bet she does the housework too. And then there's the whole issue of abusive female family members who are demonised and absent and neglectful fathers who don't get judged for failing their kids.
I am caught up in the structures and practices I critique; they shape my thinking about what's possible even as I so carefully try to create new narratives for my girls, in the stories I tell "in [my] head and [my] hands" (Lucy's words) and in their lives. I can de-construct a fairy tale, but as soon after Al moved down to live with me I stopped remembering to pay bills, lost my pin number on any number of occasions and - shamefully - I can't name our bank or our insurers; nor do I know when the rates are due. I make the money in this house but I focus a lot more on the muffins. I pretend this isn't true but of course I have my own fairy tales, and they have nothing to do with poisoned apples and tiaras.
I don't hate myself for this - I've never met a feminist whose walk always matches her talk; try as we do, our possibilities and improbabilities are shaped - sometimes obviously, sometimes secretly - by our gender. My feminist motherhood, probably like all kinds of motherhood, leads me to think carefully about myself as a person and a role model, and this can be confronting and sometimes liberating. And as part of my motherhood, I try to show my kids some of the many different ways they can be women; perhaps these examples come as much in my own failures and oddities as in my strengths.
In the meantime, I have kids who chase after the evil queen and throw a giant apple at her. They beat at monsters with 'ferocious sticks'; they describe themselves as strong and brave; they can't wait to grow up to go to work, have babies, drink beer and chop firewood with a BIG axe. Lucy told me today, "I protect little kids and herbivores. I am a really good girl." And Nell agreed in her flat Aussie drawl: "Yeah."
I have faith that those bloody Disney princesses will never have much resonance beyond the yoghurt lids. I don't really have a strong view on what women should be but if my kids turn out the way they plan, I'll be a very happy mother and a very happy feminist indeed.