When my daughter Lily was a baby, my stepfather gave me an elaborately illustrated, pop-up version of Sleeping Beauty.
“I know it’s not exactly feminist,” he said to me.
He was right. I did not think it was feminist at all. I did not want it.
But as Lily turned from a baby into a walking, talking, book-loving toddler, it became her favorite book.
And once again, as so many mothers do, I had to take what I had been given — what I did not want — and make it part of my life, part of my mothering, even come to embrace it for the sake of my daughter.
“A baby is born,” I say to her at two, as she sits in my lap and gently pulls up the paper flap, the white eyelet covering the bassinet revealing a newborn within.
“And there’s a mean fairy who says, ‘I’m gonna get you!'”
Lily opens and closes the dark wooden door and the old hag pops out again and again.
“But there’s a nice fairy who says, ‘I’ll help you.'”
And from the crowd of well-wishers steps a lovely woman with her hands up, ready to embrace the child.
Whether or not all the fairies are invited at the birth of a baby, they will come.
Some will arrive early. The fairies who make you sick and sleepy, and slow you down during pregnancy. The fairies who upend your vision of what a birth should be.
Some will bestow wondrous gifts. The fairy who helps you with the pain. The fairy who brings your milk. The fairy who stays with you through the night, wiping away fatigue as you rock your baby to sleep in your arms.
“At first, all the castle is happy, happy, happy, and busy, busy, busy,” I say, opening the tiny doors and windows of the castle to reveal people brushing hair, making cakes, playing the piano, spinning wool.
“And then one day, they all fall down!”
Lily pulls the tab at the bottom of the page, and all the brushing, making, playing and spinning stop as the inhabitants of the castle suddenly fall asleep.
The blissful time with the baby eventually comes to an end.
A fairy arrives to tap your shoulder, point to your husband, help you see the sadness in his eyes, and encourage you to join him, in a quiet place, alone, again.
Another comes to whisper in your ear, words of solitude and grace, the longing to have a thought and ponder it patiently.
A third brings you dreams, lets you sleep through the night, so you wake with color and feeling behind your eyes.
A fourth brings back the desire for desire, awakening sex and spirit and body as they all come together in your motherloverself for the first time.
All fall down.
“Out in the forest, there is a prince,” I say, and Lily lifts the little flaps to reveal a bird, a squirrel, and a fox in the thick forest.
“And through all the branches and briars and leaves, the prince sees a castle.”
Lily pulls the tab to reveal a white stone castle in the distance, standing silent and still, all the people asleep inside.
The time of danger, what needs to be survived, comes at different times for mothers. For me, it came early — during my daughter’s infancy. In the story, it occurs when Sleeping Beauty hits puberty. For other mothers, it does not happen until the children grow up and leave home.
Then the prince comes, from outside the family, to save them.
The prince is a fairy, too. (My stepdaughter, writing her college honors thesis on transgendered sexualities, loves this part of the story.)
The fairy prince might be someone who leaves a book on your door step, hoping you’ll see yourself in it, and know you are not alone in there.
The fairy prince might be someone who models the ability to create, to paint, to sculpt, to write — to make one’s life an art.
The fairy prince might be someone who lives a life of both peace and desire and makes you believe that you can live one, too.
“The fairy prince cuts through all the brambles with a shiny sword and gets to the castle where s/he finds Sleeping Beauty and kisses her — ” I say.
And Lily tugs on the tab to the side of the page and makes the kiss happen, the waking happen, over and over again.
” — s/he kisses her and Sleeping Beauty wakes up!”
“Mmmwaa!” Lily says, smacking her lips together in a big kiss.
“That’s right,” I say, “She wakes up!”
The fairy prince kisses us and we wake up.
S/he brings love to us, through our bodies. We begin to understand that becoming a mother is about opening ourselves to great love, and that this love is not merely for the sake of our sons or our daughters. It is for us, too.
We turn the page together.
“And when Sleeping Beauty wakes up, the whole castle wakes up!”
With one pull, Lily makes cats and birds and bakers and fireplaces and laundresses spring into action once again.
“And they are very busy, busy, busy!” I say, as she points to all the actions and we name them together, “Chase, chase chase! Knead, knead, knead! Burn, burn, burn! Wash, wash, wash!”
The kiss not only affects Sleeping Beauty but also the whole community.
Our waking up as mothers need not be seen as something selfish. Taking care of ourselves does not necessarily make us self-centered.
No. A mother’s awakening can spring us into action, as together we help each other in the washing away of pain and violence, the making of the bread, the building of the world, the chasing of our deepest dreams.
“And they are so happy, they decide to have a big party!” I say, as we turn the page and a wedding party is spread out on a great lawn.
All the villagers are dressed in beautiful clothes, and there are children everywhere, along with birds, dogs, cats, and a huge cake.
“Hurrah!” my daughter cheers and claps her hands.
A wedding party takes place when the sleeping, wounded part and the waking, healing part become one.
And everyone gathers to celebrate.
And The Beginning.
This essay retells a traditional fairy tale by putting a new spin on it. I invite you to explore the psychological depth that fairy tales can reveal by writing a personal essay that retells a fairy tale in contemporary terms and reveals lessons for mothers today. Please email your submission of 1000 words or less to birthingmotherwriter[AT]gmail[dot]com by March 7th. Be sure to put “Birthing the Mother Writer: 4” in the subject line, and place the text of your essay in the body of the email. By sending in your submission, you agree that your piece, if chosen for publication, may receive suggestions for revision, and you also agree to revise and submit a new version for publication within two weeks.