Last week my daughter turned three. We had a little party at home and invited four other girls to celebrate.
Hey, remember ancient times, when you were a child having a birthday party and everyone who was invited to the party—this would be 8 or 10 of your own friends, not 50 of your parents’ friends—sat around in a circle on your living room floor and watched you open your gifts? And this gift-opening was not a somewhat shameful activity to engaged in alone, after the party was over, like a drug binge, but was actually one of the party’s main events? And children exclaimed over the gifts, and passed them around to examine, as if they were precious artifacts? You remember that? Well, there was a reason why parties were like that: it was a million years ago, before the Internet, and people were dumb then.
If you are old enough to remember these times, you have probably scratched your Cro-Magnon-esque forehead and felt perplexed when you have received a birthday party invitation for your kid that says, “No gifts, please.” You have been sending your kid off to birthday parties with gaily-wrapped objets for years now. You yourself learned from your mother not to arrive at a party empty-handed. Vigilance regarding this behavior was once known as good manners; gift-giving was once a hallmark of generosity. Who are these people coming along trying to change this?
I’ll tell you who: the new people, the ones who haven’t been here long. You are not one of them anymore. You, who remember a time when all objects were mute and unresponsive, and did not know, or care, that you were alive, are now part of a past that seems almost unimaginably quaint, like people who wore tall black hats and rode the stagecoach.
The new people see things differently. Here is how they think: firstly, for American kids today, there are only five presents: Ipod, Ipod Touch, Wii, Xbox, and Playstation. Most kids have one or all of those already, and they don’t want any other crap from you.
This brings us to the second point, which is that kids do not want crap anymore, period. This is another vestige of your bygone days, when American toddlers—perhaps you were one of them—played happily with boxes, lint, bread twisty-ties, bugs, and dirt; when a plastic harmonica was an exciting thing you could blow into once and then stomp on, and then you could examine all the excitingly sharp smithereens. Kids do not want to deal with that stuff anymore. They don’t want to examine stuff that ignores them. Exploring that junk is for the kids in Africa, who live on piles of it.
American kids do not want objects at all, except for the aforementioned five. They want experiences. And here are some of the things they want to experience to celebrate the miraculous day of their birth: torturing pygmies by throwing them in volcanoes; slicing airborne watermelons with giant knives; and listening to a cute, red, retarded creature imitating their speech. They want to do all this, while sitting on the couch with their friends, in a clean, dry, temperature-controlled environment, eating Nerds and drinking red water from single-serve plastic bottles.
But my daughter is young, and I am still in charge of her parties, so her party was not like that. Her party involved multi-colored balloons, playing with the toys we have around the house, a round cake, and in an impromptu finale, several rounds of Ring-Around-the-Rosie, including the second verse, which I had never heard before, but another mom knew: “Cows are in the meadow/Eating buttercups/Thunder, lightning/We all jump up!”
It was surprising to me how the jumping-up of verse two made the falling-down of verse one much more satisfying: it made Ring-Around-the-Rosie more like The Ring, which was good; personally, I think we can always use a little more Wagner in our American childhood rituals.
And although the whole party was over in less than 90 minutes (hardly Wagner-ian, alas) and ended without a disaster (also not very operatic), it did contain a Gotterdammerung-ian moment of realization—for me, that is—which began when the first guest, one of my daughter’s friends, an adorable girl whose family I adore, walked in the door with a large, octagon-shaped present.
When I saw it, I got all excited, because I could only think of one toy that could possibly be inside, and it was one of those brightly-colored, German, wooden mosaic puzzles I have had my eye on for years now. I sat next to my daughter as she tugged at the bow. Inside were six—six—pairs of pink and white plastic high heels, each adorned with jewels and/or feathers.
I watched my girl, who rides around our apartment nude a lot on her scooter, as she toddled unevenly in the shoes, and remembered what my Russian-born, theater-director friend Yelena said when I told her I was having a girl. Yelena, then pregnant with her third boy, looked at me conspiratorially and asked: “How are you going to tell her she’s fucked?”
Now, a few years later, I realize that this is, in fact, one of the more vexing questions of my girl’s childhood, and that the usual course of events is that people do not tell this to their girl children at all.
But why not? Why should I not just tell my girl that she is burdened in a way that her two older brothers are not? To say the truth does not mean that we don’t wish it were otherwise.
So far, I have been avoiding the issue. I donated the high heels, as well as the purple plastic vacuum cleaner Grandma got her for Christmas. And I suppose I could just go on like this, trying to keep the truth at bay, telling the bemused and eye-rolling parents of my girl’s friends that if they are going to get her anything for her birthday they should make sure it’s suitable for a future physicist. And I could just continue looking for books that don’t have insipid princess themes to read to her, and then I could send her to a girls’ school, so she can hear about how girls can rule the world and all that.
Or I could just start, right now, to tell the truth, and maybe that would not be as much of a disservice as we fear—maybe it would actually helps things a little.
I could say, you know, your brothers are studying hard because they are going to go out in the world and make money someday, but you will probably end up married and having children, so why bother? Did I tell you how I spent my early 20s? I sat in a lovely wood-paneled room under the tutelage of a future Nobel Prize winner who was sued for sexual harassment. And you know what I do now? Clean up poop. And tell your brothers not to hit each other.
Or I could say, the reason you are not going to play flag football today and your seven-year-old brother is, is because you are a girl and girls are supposed to be pretty and smell nice and not clock people and say “Hey, fucko” like he does. So work on that, I have some frosty lip gloss for you to get all excited about. Girl power, yay!
And then, if she brings up that’s it’s unfair, and why is it that way, I’ll just say it’s because girls grow into women, and women have the children. So you can try not to have any children; that would probably help you. Now come here and hug me and we can bake some cookies together.
I was thinking about all this, at the party, with images of “Ring-Around-The Rosie”/The Ring in my head. The Ring has been performed here in New York City this season, and I saw Gotterdammerung the previous week. I saw almost all of it, that is. I left after the second intermission—that would be four hours into it—which, after having seen the previous three installments (Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, and Siegfried) in their entirety—is a little like deciding to stop running the NYC marathon with 10 minutes left.
I left early without thinking too much about why—I was tired—but looking back I believe there was something about seeing The Ring through to the end that was challenging in the same way that children are challenging to their parents. Unlike the power-ballad thesis put forth in The Lion King, the circle of life, especially when it starts coming to a close, is not calming and reassuring at all: it is terrifying and disturbing, the kind of terrifying and disturbing that makes you want to suddenly leave the plush chair of the theater and go for a long soothing walk down Ninth Avenue eating Skittles.
And the recognition of this fact, and the embrace of it, and the determination to see this perspective through to the end, is going to be the next big wave in parenting, I am telling you. It’s going to Ring-big, and I am going to start in church basements, giving talks about mosaic puzzles and honesty, and then slowly and surely I am going to write gigantic, Dr.Sears-size, paperback books full of advice, and in order to reassure my future audience that I am a complete and total authority on this and every other subject, I am going to hook a giant, creaky machine to my pants and hoist myself up to the rafters as a learned person, “Doctor” Amy Fusselman, pleased to meet you.
Now that wasn’t so bad, was it?
Be well. Until next time!