Friday, October 18, 2013

A Stellar Girl

I've been following a group called Toward The Stars on Facebook.  Their mission is to "empower little girls all over the world to grow up healthy, happy, self assured and educated allowing them to achieve all their dreams."

They share a lot of photos of cute girls dressed up in superhero costumes with captions such as, "you don't need a prince to rescue you."  They offer inspirational quotes from parents about raising their daughters to feel strong and smart and confident.  It's a chicken soup for the feminist mother's soul kind of thing.

I also recently came across this BuzzFeed post, 24 Badass Halloween Costumes To Empower Little Girls, featuring adorable girls wearing non-traditional costumes.  It's super badass.  But one thing about the article annoys me.  Under the headline the article states, "No Disney Princesses allowed."

I get it.  Our culture is crazy.  Our girls are drowning in a sea of pink.  But I let my daughter watch Disney Princess movies if she wants to.  A big part of being a feminist to me is the concept of not-restricting access.  How is my telling a girl she can't like Disney Princess movies going to empower her?  I think feminism is about giving women the opportunity to make their own decisions, and teaching young girls how to think for themselves.

Katie's favorite video to watch whenever she's sick is "Snow White".  It's a comfy movie.  But she's not one of those kids who is stuck in some kind of pink glittery princess trap.  She likes pink, girly stuff in small doses, but she likes other things too.  When she's feeling well, especially when she's feeling boisterous, her favorite DVD is Nickelodeon's TV remake of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  She's obsessed.  That is why I must remember to show her number 20 on the list of badass Halloween costumes: Tiny Michelangelo, the girl dressed in the half TMNT shell/half tutu costume.  I wish that girl lived around here so I could quit hearing Katie complain that there are not enough girls at her school who like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles too.

Katie's favorite is Donatello, the inventor.  When you ask her why he's her favorite she doesn't hesitate to tell you it's because he's "the smart one."

"Donatello: The Smart One" by Katie Carleton, age 7

Last night we were driving to the local high school's "Safe Trick or Treat Night."  High school students host games and activities for young kids to enjoy, handing out candy galore.  It's really sweet to watch the teenagers interacting so well with the wee ones.  This was our third year attending the event.  On the car ride there we talked about all the different costumes Katie has worn for Halloween.  

3 months old: A pumpkin

1 year old: The Itsy Bitsy Spider

2 years old: A Bee

3 years old: A Bee (The same exact costume as the year before.  She was going through a not-liking-change phase.)

4 years old: Buzz Lightyear

5 years old: A Princess (she got to wear the gown she wore when she was in my niece's wedding)

6 years old: A Candy Corn Witch (a really cute outfit handed-down to us from a co-worker with older girls)

And this year, at age 7, she's Donatello:

"Donatello" as played by Katie Carleton, age 7

We didn't do it intentionally, planning it out to be gender-neutral or switching off from "boyish" to "girlish" and back again to "boyish" each year, but that's what happens when we let Katie decide what costume she wants to wear.  Well, I admit, the first two costumes, the pumpkin and the Itsy Bitsy Spider were my idea, but since she's had the cognitive ability to make up her own mind, Katie's Halloween costumes have all been her idea.  I'm impressed with her decisions.

As soon as we walked through the door to the high school and figured out which table Katie wanted to stop at first--it was crowded with kids in costumes everywhere--we approached the "make your own Halloween cookie" station.  It was there that we saw through the crowd another girl dressed in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costume.  As we walked closer toward her, the girl saw Katie, pointed, and called out to her mother, "Look!  Another girl Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle!"

Katie and I winked and nudged each other.  There wasn't enough room for us to both sit at the cookie making table so I stood back and let Katie take a seat.  The two mutant ninja turtle girls sat across from each other, silent, but beaming.  If I were closer I would have whispered into Katie's ear a suggestion--tell her you like her costume-- to spark some conversation.  Katie feels shy around people she doesn't know.  Even kids, now.  She's always been leery of adult strangers, but it's sad to see my baby grow up and lose the "all kids are my friends" attitude she used to have.  When she was younger, whenever we'd be out and about and Katie would see another kid she would approach them and ask them to play.  Not now.  Now she sits back and observes until the other person makes a move. 

The girls sat there smiling at each other for a few minutes until Other Girl Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle's mother announced it was time to move on as she was being tugged on the sleeve by her other child.  Other Girl Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle shoved the rest of her cookie into her mouth, but still managed to smile, got up, and waved good-bye to Katie.  I looked over at Katie to see if she had disappointment in her eyes.  I'm certain I did in mine.  I was hoping Other Girl Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle could stick around long enough for her mother and I to exchange phone numbers for a future playdate.  But all I saw was Katie waving back at Other Girl Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle with one hand while trying to remove her mask so she could eat her cookie with the other.  I wanted to rush over and help her take off the mask, but I knew she'd holler, "Mom!  I can do it myself," even if I could manage to make my way through the crowd to her.  

I want making friends to be as easy for my kid as reading has been.  Maybe it's that way for many librarian mothers.  Other mothers compliment me on Katie's affinity for reading.  I shrug my shoulders and claim I did nothing more than read to her every day, which, to me, is like bragging that you fed your kid that day.  Big whoop.  Sometimes, if I'm talking to the mother of a more gregarious child, I'll compliment her on her child's gracious social skills.  She'll shrug her shoulders and say something like, "Yeah, that's what happens when you have to share a room with your brother."  I'll wonder if she pities me my sub-fecundity.  Will and I both wanted a large family.  We joked that we wanted six kids when we first got married, but with my PCOS and my advanced maternal age, we knew we'd be lucky if we had one.

And we were right.  We are so lucky.

But, I wonder if Katie would be luckier if we were able to have more kids.  Give her someone to practice her social skills with on a more intimate level than one can attain at a playground or on a playdate.

It's hard not to butt in.  When Katie was learning how to read and she'd get stuck on a word I'd immediately sound it out for her until I read a note from her teacher suggesting that I let her sound it out herself.  It pains me to watch someone struggle.  When I was in second grade my own mother was told by my teacher that I hurried through my own work and jumped in to help my neighbors, whether they asked me to help them or not.  My mom told me this and laughed like she was proud of me for being such a "good helper".

Overfunctioning is the big girl word I learned from reading Harriet Lerner books.  I tend to overfunction in my relationships.  (Will is the exception.  He's one of the few people I feel comfortable enough to allow him to take care of me as equally, if not more, than I take care of him.)  I tend to make suggestions for ways they can handle the situation to people who just want to vent.  I worry more about making everyone around me feel comfortable that I sometimes ignore my own discomfort until later when it's been stored up so long I feel overwhelmed and anxious and like I just want to be left alone in an isolation chamber, away from questions and requests and needs.  And when people do come to me with their problems and they don't take my advice, it drives me insane.  I am a control freak.  Obviously.  I'm a writer.  I manipulate stories.

So I have to watch it with Katie, my only child.  I don't want to overfunction with her too much or she'll become one of those smothered only children who get restraining orders for her parents when she goes off to college.  But being a parent automatically puts me in a role of authority.  It's hard for me to separate my desire for control from my ability to parent effectively.  

But as I thought about all that, the crowd kept me back anyway, so my worries were moot as they often are.  So I stood there and watched Katie and said nothing.  She didn't look up at me.  She finished smoothing the frosting over her cookie and then added some sprinkles.  Again, without looking up, she took a huge bite of her cookie, happily chewing away.

When she finished the cookie she found me standing there waiting.  We walked together to the next activity table.  I bent down to get close to her ear so she could hear me without embarrassing her with a loud question everyone around could hear.  I asked, "What'd you think of running into another girl dressed in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles costume?"

As much as she's been complaining lately about how hard it is to connect with her peers, I expected her to mention it's too bad she got away from us before they got a chance to talk.  But instead she smiled and said, "It was great!"

And that was all.  

She went to all the activities she wanted to go to, never once suggesting we try to find Other Girl Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle like I would have if I were her.  Maybe I'm overthinking this whole I-need-to-socialize-my-kid thing.  Maybe I need to back off and let her friendships happen naturally.

As Katie sat down to have her face painted--a purple mask over her eyes so she could be Donatello without even having to wear the plastic one--I remembered another time I had to tell myself to back off.

Katie was about four.  I had taken her to the local playground after I got off work "to socialize her," I explained to Will.  Like I was informing him I'd be back in a bit after I took the dogs to the dog park.  The playground was full of kids.  It's right next to an apartment complex, so there's nearly always someone for Katie to play with when we visit this playground.  I took a seat at an empty bench and watched Katie run around, climb, slide, swing, and run around some more.  I kept expecting her to approach one of the other kids, to ask them if they wanted to play tag or something.  The way I had instructed her to do so when she was much younger and I had to explain to her that you go up to someone who looks about your age and ask them to play tag, then you run around and chase each other and laugh.  But this time, instead of asking one of the many fun-looking kids to play, Katie eventually wandered off to the side of the playground, onto a patch of grass, and laid down.  

I immediately ran to her.  "Are you OK, Sweetie?" I asked, my heart racing.

"Yeah, Mommy.  I looking at the clouds.  You wanna look at clouds with me?"  She shielded her eyes a bit so she could see me standing above her.

"Oh.  No, not right now," I said, relieved she wasn't hurt.  I turned and walked back to the empty bench.

I sat there, watching my kiddo, wondering if she was going to get up and play with someone else, worrying if she was starting to become a loner, questioning whether or not Will and I had made the right decision to not put her into preschool more than just one hour a week, feeling like an incompetent parent.

But someone broke my anxious internal monologue.  A person.  A stranger.  A stranger was approaching the spot next to me on the bench.  Oh crap.  I hate small talk with people I don't know.

The person sat down next to me, smiled, and said hello.  I smiled back, as I've been trained to do, and looked away dramatically as if I were searching for my child, even though I knew she was still lying there, looking at clouds.

I hopped up and began walking back toward Katie.  I giggled at myself as I crouched down to lie next to her.  Not because I was embarrassed and worried about what the other parents would think of me like I had been when Katie first invited me to look at clouds with her.  I giggled because I realized that it's ridiculous of me to worry about my daughter's introverted decision to enjoy the clouds, away from the crowd, when I myself get uncomfortable having to sit next to Humans I Don't Know and Who Might Want Me to Carry on a Dull Conversation with Them.

"Back off, Mama!  Enjoy the clouds with your daughter," I told myself that day.  

As I watched my child at the face-painting station transform into Donatello, I thanked my lucky stars that some days I remember this lesson.  

I wanted to name Katie "Stella" when I was pregnant with her.  It seemed like such a stellar name.  But Will talked me out of it, convincing me that she'd spend her entire life having people yell "Stella!" in their best Marlon Brando voice, which he's right, would be annoying.  But it doesn't matter.  No matter what name we chose for her, it's certain she's a stellar girl.