“Disgusting,” I thought with glee. “Now that is bad parenting.”
I used to watch a lot of documentaries, and by documentaries I mean reality TV, and by reality TV I mean the trashiest of the trash. My favorite was Toddlers and Tiaras, because come on. Bad choices pile up in that show like so many cars on an icy freeway, and if there’s one thing that will make me feel better about my life, it’s watching other people make terrible choices.
When I was pregnant with my oldest daughter, I devoured TV. I was hoping to spend my pregnancy devouring Big Macs and cheesecakes, but what they don’t tell you before you get pregnant is that a) suddenly your diet is so important and everybody is watching it for you, and b) there’s no room in your stomach for anything more than a spoonful of peanut butter. TV is infinitely easier to consume, especially pre-kids when there aren’t any “screen time recommendations” looming over you, and consume it I did. I compared my unformed spawn to the girls on the show, compared my untested parenting to the parents on the show. Damn, I looked good.
The little girls on this show are under constant pressure to be pretty, lady-like, and feminine -- as if feminine is something a toddler should aspire to be. “Smile!” their mothers say, and “get it girl!” like that sentence means something. Get what? No seriously, what are they getting? A trophy? Doesn’t every kid get a trophy? I am pretty sure every kid gets a trophy. Makeup and spray tans and fake teeth rule the show, and, of course, every mother says “my daughter loves pageants! If she didn’t, we wouldn’t do it.” Riiiiight.
I imagined my daughter bucking gender norms, playing with worms and saying things like “high heels are really damaging to your spine. Makeup is a tool of the patriarchy.” She would tell the other little girls in preschool, “Let’s pretend we are princesses, but I don’t need to be rescued, I’ll rescue myself.”
Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
Sofia was a grumpy little thing, and one of the early pictures I have of her is when she was breastfeeding at a couple weeks old and flipping off the camera. “Fuck you, world!” I imagined her saying about all sorts of injustices. I was totally prepared to buy her combat boots and listen as she railed against stereotypes. I was not prepared for the kid that I got instead.
I bought her a tutu when she was about nine months old, to be ironic. I took lots of ironic pictures of her and laughed and laughed.
Now, almost four years later, she is awash in tutus. Open her bottom drawer, and they explode out, jack-in-the-box style, tulle and sparkles overwhelming your entire existence. She has – I think – at least ten pairs of dress-up toddler high heels, which I didn’t even know were a thing, and I swear on all things holy I’ve never purchased a single pair. Her most treasured possessions are hair bows and lip gloss and rainbows and hearts and glitter and unicorns and tiaras and basically, everything you can think of that might be stereotypically girlish.
She used to emphatically say that her favorite color was pink. No more! Now her favorite color is “colors.” All colors. Especially the sparkly ones.
I stopped watching Toddlers and Tiaras, partly because it no longer made me feel awesome by comparison, partly because I know if Sofia knew that pageants existed, she would call child protective services on me for not allowing her to take part.
The neighbor kid told her about a local dance studio, and Sofia begged for me to sign her up. We did. I sat grumpily on the side for a couple of hours every Friday, trying to be supportive. Week after week, she dressed herself in leotards and spun and curtseyed to music, tripping over her feet and uncoordinatedly shaking her hips, oohing and aahing over the other girls’ hairstyles.
I did not expect to have this kid be my kid. She wants me to paint her face with flowers and stars and braid her hair, and I’m learning. I’m learning because this is my kid, expectations be damned. Maybe she loves all things feminine because she’s internalizing messages from the world about how she should be, or maybe she just loves all things feminine. It doesn’t matter. She is who she is and my job is to help her to thrive, not force her into some wacky mirror image of myself.
Besides that, being gender-affirming does not preclude kicking ass. While I knew that in my head, it’s taken this child to help me to really learn this lesson. She adores nail polish and dressing up like a princess – she’s also whip-smart and might just be president, or a cheerleader, or a stay-at-home mom, or a scientist. Her likes and dislikes have nothing to do with her strength and spirit.
She nearly gave herself a hernia when the recital dresses - lime green getups that came with wrist-warmers and a matching hair bow – came in. She told everybody she came into contact with that she was going to be on stage. I can say without a doubt that this activity and all it entails – the music, the movement, the sparkles and makeup, the spotlight – is currently the most satisfying part of her existence.
Dancing is not pageantry, which still makes my stomach turn to think about, literally putting your child’s beauty up against other children’s beauty to see who is the most beautiful. But it’s a compromise that I’m okay with, and, damnit, it makes her so happy.
On the day of the recital, she asked me eleventy billion times if it was time to get ready yet. I bought hair spray and a curling iron, because that was required, and blush and eyeshadow and eyeliner and lipstick, which I guess I can always use again next year. Before they went on, I sat backstage with the other dance moms, whom I’d gotten to know over the past year, many of whom were similarly perplexed at their children’s pursuit of all things princess, and helped Sofia pull her besequined tutu dress up over her shoulders. The kids were buzzing with excitement.
When it was their turn, I sat in the audience, videotaping. My daughter was radiant. She’s four, so it’s not like the dance they performed was some sort of masterpiece, but what was masterful was the way she shined. Whether I expected it or not, my daughter is a dancer.
Get it, girl.
(photo: alexkatkov/ Shutterstock)