“You don’t need my permission… I always hoped for you, like I hoped for her. We mothers stand still so our daughters can look back to see how far they’ve come.”
Ruth Handler, the literal creator of Barbie, says this when Barbie asks her for permission to become human. The idea seems silly—a doll asking its maker for the chance to live a normal human life. But how many daughters have essentially asked this of their own mothers?
When I was in high school, every aspect of my life was planned out by my mother. I wanted to take a pottery class, but she said, “No, you’re taking band so you can possibly get a scholarship.”
When I wanted to sleep over at a friend’s house, she just shook her head and said, “I’m not letting strangers take responsibility for my daughter’s well-being.”
When I wanted to wear shorts and jeans, my mother somehow always bought me dresses and skirts. It always felt like we were complete opposites, which I grew to resent.
For the last 15 years, I’ve tried to put up a wall between us to protect my own hopes and dreams from being dunked on by my mother. There have been many battles, periods of radio silence, and outright ghosting. But we always seem to make our way back to each other—even if it’s a temporary ceasefire.
Flash forward to 2023, where I’m now a mother to a two-year-old baby girl. When I was pregnant with her, I’d lay in my bathtub and pour cups full of hot water over my aching belly. I’d tell her, “I just want you to be happy and to be a good person.” During that time, I often thought about how I was going to do the opposite of what my mother did to me. I was going to treat my daughter as an individual and not as my plaything to order around…
I don’t let her choose her outfits, as I always have them planned out the night before. I choose what she eats and what toys she should play with. She’s not even in kindergarten yet, and I already have ideas swirling in my head of what she can achieve (with my help, of course). The lessons I want to instill in her are tremendous, but my hopes are even higher. Every day she grows a smidge older, making me brace myself for the days ahead of us.
When we become parents, we’re essentially shaping this tiny human into the best possible version of ourselves based on our past mistakes and triumphs. It’s ironic that our children need to be their own people, yet we hope they take the best parts of us with them. We “stand still” because we want our daughters to look back and see what we’ve given them. But we also want them to see just how far each generation has transformed with every maternal passing of the torch.
I’m able to look back and see that everything my mother did or made me do was out of love and fear. She wanted me to have the best possible future, even if her methods were a bit extreme. She had hopes and dreams for what my life would be like and for all the things I would do. For all the failures or mistakes I could have avoided if I had just taken her advice.
But therein lies the lesson I took with me from this movie: Mothers can teach and mold their children into whatever version they believe will make their daughters’ lives successful—and it can still be wrong.
It’s our job as mothers to instill in our daughters the essentials of having a good, happy life: being kind, helping those in need, doing your best, and never giving up on the things that matter. The illusion of control is strong, but it’s all smoke and mirrors. Ruth knew this when she told Barbie, “I can’t control you any more than I could control my own daughter.” When it’s time to stand back and watch our daughters make their own decisions, we need to remember that it’s not our duty to control them. It’s our responsibility to build them up and set them free.