Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Why I will buy my daughter Barbies...but probably not Monster High

When my dad was here in May he suggested going ahead and buying Juliette her birthday present.  It is this month, in fact, and he figured he could let her choose then and enjoy while he was there.  At first I suggested a chocolate baking kit made for kids but when we saw it in the store it wasn't quite what I had imagined.  She didn't seem as interested in it as she when she'd seen the ads on TV. So my dad, wise as he is, said, just let her pick out what SHE wants.  And she recalled seeing a Barbie whose hair you can dye in rainbow stripes.  So we found that and my dad bought it for her.

She enjoyed dyeing the hair and washing it and combing it.  "Isn't Barbie beautiful?" she'd ask me as she combed that incredibly blonde hair.  "Yeah, she's pretty," I'd say but felt like adding, of course, brunettes with glasses who aren't statuesque are lovely, too.  Six-year olds aren't quite ready for that kind of talk though.

I couldn't fight it, nor should I.  Girls like Barbies.  My sister and I sure did when we were little.   One of my fondest memories is coming home to find that my mom had sewed cute little jackets and skirts for our Barbies and set them up in their chairs, as if they were on a talk show or something.  My little sister and I spent many an afternoon making up Barbie conversations.  I also remember us beating up Ken in the backyard and clobbering his head against some wooden tool.

There are still moments I look at Barbie and say, in that judgemental way I have, I don't think I could be friends with a girl who looked and dressed like this in real life.  But why?  Because she takes good care of her hair and make-up?  Because she dresses to her advantage and isn't afraid to show off her feminity?  Because she can walk way better in stiletto heels than I ever will?  Maybe I'm being the catty one here, just assuming Barbie is an airhead because she cares about her appearance and is always flawless.  Who knows how many nights girls like Barbie go home feeling lonely because the girls diss her and talk behind her back, and the men who approach her are only interested in her looks.  Poor Barbie. 

But at 41, I've reconciled with Barbie.  She's not as shallow as she might seem.  And she's been growing up.  Here are some reasons I will let my girl play with her.
1. Because it's not Barbie I need to be afraid of.  It doesn't matter if Juliette never owns a Barbie.  She will see plenty of images of girls and women on tv that are way more damaging than a pretty plastic doll.  Some of the tweens and teens on those Disney shows are more harmful for girls to watch than Barbie because they are often extremely thin and a little too obsessed with fashion.  And just look how Miley Cyrus turned out.

2.  Because Barbie can be whatever she wants to be.  The new generation of Barbies may still love their clothes but they are also equal opportunity. They can be doctors and business women and vets.  They can be astronauts and moms, too.  Then there is Super Barbie.  Good role models for girls!

3. Because Barbie really IS a nice girl.  Yes, she's gorgeous.  This is no Cabbage Patch ugly cute.  But she's also a good friend, sister and girlfriend.  I've been watching the cartoons Life in the Dreamhouse on youtube with Juliette and they actually have some good messages and portray Barbie as a kind and hard-working, even intelligent (!) person.

4.  Because Barbie can poke fun at herself.  In these same cartoons, there is a lot of tongue in cheek humor about how Barbie spends hours picking out her clothes or the problems of getting sand in plastic joints.  Mattel has evolved and Juliette's generation sees Barbie as a girl who doesn't take herself too seriously.

5. Because little girls need to dream.   No, not ever girl will turn out to look like Barbie.*  But as long as girls know that Barbie is just a doll, like Rapunzel and Barbie mermaid, then she fits perfectly in their world of imaginary play.  Juliette now tells me matter of factly that mermaids don't exist.  So I think she will be able to tell the difference between dolls and people.  And all too soon she'll abandon Barbie for fashion magazines, which send more messages than Barbie can.

So, Barbie, you are welcome at my house.  We'll sing along to Barbie Girl by Aqua and brush your hair, because girls will be girls, and Barbie is a girl of her time.

*It's pretty rare to have those magical measurements, though one girl has tried.  We saw her photo in a magazine at the doctor's office and Juliette was transfixed by it.  But I told her that girl put herself through painful surgeries to look like that.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Inside Out taught me about my brain and even mental illness

Another Pixar movie, another episode of crying in the movie theater.  That's me, the forty-one year old mom asking her husband for a kleenex and being comforted by her almost seven-year old.  "Don't look, mommy," Juliette said.  No doubt it was a little embarassing for her with her best friend being there as part of J's pre-birthday gift.  Oh, well, she'd better get used to it.  She's got a sensitive mom.

But to be fair, it was also a sweet and slightly emotional movie about, well, emotions.  If you're not familiar with this film, it's about the five vying emotions in a young girl's head: joy, sadness, disgust, fear and anger.  Most of the time joy wins out, especially when the character is a very young child.  But her family has moved across the country, she has no friends and even their furniture is stuck in transit.  And she's also 11, an age where things get more complicated.

In the movie we go on a journey into the girl's brain and see just how hard it can be to let the joy come out on top.  And also that we are a complex mix of feelings that are not as compartmentalized as it might seem.  We also get a glimpse of how adolescence is making the heroine a little less pleasant with her parents.  And maybe it was those moments where I could see the girl changing and evolving away from the little child she used to be that made the tears flow.

However I also found it an enlightening movie that could help me understand my own brain.  The way they personify the emotions, especially Joy, makes you want to root for her.  She is slightly fuzzy around the edges, perpetually glowing with a pixie hair cut and green dress.  It makes you think about how there are times we've got to work hard to find the silver lining and get the happy back on track.  But the other emotions all have their important role, like Disgust, voiced by Mindy Kaling in the English version.  Without her, we'd eat any old thing that fell on the floor, as this clip shows.

In the end (and I'm not spoiling it for you!) we see that all the emotions are important and work together.  Joy is probably the driving factor in the film and the one we also need to focus on, but moments of sadness are normal and have their purpose, too.  Sometimes they bring us together as a family and then we move on, stronger than before. 

But I also took away some more serious lessons from the film.  It made me think about depression and anxiety, and how these can be caused by an excess of those emotions of Fear and Sadness.   I knew this already, having had some moments in my life where these emotions got the better of me despite my efforts to turn things around.  I know that there are clinical causes to these conditions and that there is absolutely no shame in talking about them and especially getting treatment for them.  But seeing the emotions portrayed in the film, each thought or memory having a color corresponding to its emotional state, brought this message home to me.  I hope it will make children and adults alike see that the brain is a complex structure and that some people are struggling with a tidal wave of emotions.  And that it's nothing to be embarassed about and shouldn't be mocked.

Robin William's recent death brought serious depression into the spotlight.  I hope films like Inside Out will keep the dialogue open with kids and adults on these subjects.  And that we will help Joy to find her place in our days!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Stop Drop and Relax

My mom says I can't sit still. When she comes to visit me lately she says I never stop.  I come home, sweep up the grains of cat litter on the floor, start dinner prep (yes, I washed my hands before!), put laundry in the machine, take laundry out, put Juliette in the bath, water the plants, etc. This is not to say I never goof off and do time-wasting activities like Facebook (oh, and I seemed to have crept up from one to two or three FB checks per day again), chilling a bit in front of mindless tv or just staring off into space.  And I try to always put some useful free time in there like playing with Juliette, too.  But my mom is right that I don't give myself a lot of downtime.
Life is not a sprint.

Even when I'm on vacation, the very definition of relaxation, I find that I am always wondering and worrying about the next step.  Where will I park? Will the hotel be decent? Will I find my way back to the highway easily?  Will the e-tickets be acceptable or should I have printed them?  Sometimes I find myself anticipating the end of the day or even the end of the vacation because then all my "challenges" will be accomplished!

This is no way to live.  Just like taking a whole bunch of pictures without really taking the time to enjoy them at the moment, I seem to be rushing through life in general.  I know that it's the journey, not just the destination.  But how can I get off the hamster wheel of mild worry and constant cleaning up only to have the house dirtied again in two seconds.  Lather, rinse, repeat, as my friend Crystal likes to say in these moments.

You might remember the old stop, drop and roll from fire prevention videos.  It's still the best thing to do in case of fire, by the way.  But why not stop, drop (whatever you're doing, as long as it's not breakable) and relax.  It could be the remedy for letting everyday stress go.  And it could prevent that drive for unattainable perfection from getting in the way of savoring life.  Or letting too much technology spoil enjoying the moment.  Sometimes I feel like saying to myself, put down the phone and no one will get hurt.  I know I'm on it too much.  But isn't everyone?  It's the acceptable addiction today. But maybe it gets in the way of unadulturated free time.  If I am always in the middle of a texting or email correspondence, it feels like I'm always in suspense.

So as my own vacation approaches, I want to be mindful of my tendency to overachieve around the house or want things just so.  The world keeps on turning even if my closet isn't organized.  And maybe life is still fun when things aren't planned out to the last detail.  Maybe it's even more fun.  It's ok if we get a little lost on our road trip.  Doesn't that make for a great memory after (as long as knock down-drag out fights don't ensue)?  And I will try to put down that darn phone and FB in favor of face-to-face interactions.  People, not just pixels.  Ok, a few pixels, too.

Let's stop racing and let's start living.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

My country or yours?

It happened the other night.  And unfortunately it wasn't the first time.  It was Sunday July 5th.  I told Juliette to try the watermelon.  I reminded her that it was part of the July 4th menu (since we had missed it the day before) and that's what people in America often eat on this day. She replied in the withering way that today's pre-tweens do, that "We aren't in America."  And to add insult to injury she said it in French.

I quickly replied that she is half-American and I am American.  I didn't push the issue too much, but inside my American soul I was feeling a little wounded.

Sometimes I'm not sure I'm going about this bilingual bicultural family thing quite right.  I only speak to her in English, even in front of her friends.  I will sometimes say something in French to her and them to make things easier.  However, this year my little girl has really played the part of the French first grader to the letter.  Like coming home with new schoolyard expressions and "I know it all" attitudes that just seem that much snarkier when spoken in French.  I find myself asking her (pleading, sometimes) to speak to me in English.

"But you understand French!" she'll say with a sigh.  And she's right.  But I tell her it's easier for me to speak in English and I do understand it better.  When I don't understand her because she's mumbling in French, she gets exasperated with me.  And I can't always play dumb and pretend I don't understand.  Sometimes I put on an exaggerated American accent and say something in French to prove that I'm not French.  Abit like the dog Pollux in this cartoon who pronounces his "r" like an Englishman.  At least we get a good laugh about it.

I'm learning to back off and let her respond in French but I keep on talking in English.  I have noticed some encouraging signs though.  She likes watching her Disney shows in English and will often revert back to English for bathtime or when we make the Playmobil characters talk.  Bedtime stories are usually in English and at this calm time of night she tends to speak more English.  And when she wakes up and I come in her room she will invariably say, "Carry me!" in a sleepy voice and in English.

If it sounds like I'm keeping score, it's because I kind of am.  And I know it shouldn't be about one language or culture "winning" but I feel it's my duty to make sure she has that exposure to the English language and my heritage (which is hers, too).  I think I would be remiss not to give her this side of her origins.  I suppose it doesn't matter if every word coming out of her mouth is English, as long as she can understand it and communicate with my family.

As far as culture goes, she is part of the French education system and so can't help but be influenced by it.  She's growing up here, visiting French historical sites and soaking up this architecture.  It's not such a bad thing.  But I want her to know there is another part of her background, another country and set of traditions that make up her personal history.

Which brings us back to July 4th.  This year I guess I didn't do my own American heritage much justice either.  I bought watermelon but rushed out after our hamburger and rice dinner that night to meet with friends.  That's why I didn't eat it till the 5th.  I spent part of the evening of the 4th on a sidewalk cafĂ© next to cobbled streets sipping some daquiri type drink and laughing with English-speaking friends.  There were no fireworks and I didn't wear red, white and blue.  But I still wanted to hear all about what my family and friends did back home.

I guess I'll have to let Juliette pick and choose which parts of her two cultures she wants to celebrate.  That's sort of what I do, after all.