Much to her chagrin, I told my daughter, Zadie, I had to see the Barbie movie before deciding if she could watch it. Thankfully, Barbie’s brand of PG-13 is mostly just grown-up jokes that would sail over my 7-year-old’s head as she lost herself in a candy-colored wonderland, so we went together on a Saturday.
I watched Zadie out of the corner of my eye to see how she would react to certain scenes, but then I realized she was watching me react, too. In one of the final scenes, where Barbie is discussing her future with Ruth Handler, the woman who created her, Ruth says, “We mothers stand still so our daughters can look back to see how far they’ve come.”
Zadie leaned forward to check my face.
“Are you crying?” she whispered.
“No . . . are you?” I whispered back.
But I had cried at that line the first time I saw Barbie, and I wondered, how did she know it would be moving to me? Just because it was about mothers and daughters?
Zadie has watched me perform the tasks of motherhood, womanhood, and personhood every day since she was born. She also loves to watch me react to the more emotional episodes of Bluey (“Baby Race!”). But really, she watches me all the time. She watches me put on my makeup, she watches me tap away at my laptop, she watches me frantically cook dinner, she watches me yell at other drivers in the car.
She watches me because that’s what daughters do with their mothers. In her book No One Tells You This, Glynnis MacNicol writes, “Whether or not we actually resemble the image we see, our mothers are our first, and most lasting, reflection of ourselves: a mirror we gaze into from birth until death.”
Of course I hope that when Zadie gazes into the mirror I offer, she sees a reflection of her most loved, most undeniably worthy self. But I know that when she looks at me, she sees other things, too. She sees my exhaustion. My intermittent grief. My longing. My sense of humor. My rage. My boredom. My quirks. She sees things she wants to be, and things that, one day, she’ll swear she’ll never become.
I wonder if she sees that there are two mothers in me: the one who wants to perform good motherhood flawlessly and puts herself last (because that’s what our culture says good mothers do), and the one who deviates from that script, refusing to let my work around the house be invisible, continuing to bring up conversations about the division of labor in the home even when they often end in a stalemate. Sometimes I worry that I’m tarnishing her image of motherhood and family life. Zadie has often said she doesn’t want to get married or have kids––is it because I make it all look like too much work? And is that a disservice to her, or is it a kindness?
Recently Zadie was sick and missed camp for an entire week. Instead of working on my projects in a quiet house, I was taking care of her. By the fourth day, I was going stir crazy and ready for a break.
“You’re tired of taking care of me,” Zadie observed.
Her words stabbed my heart. I never want her to feel like her needs are too much for me. I immediately denied her accusation, fumbling through something about how I’m happy to take care of her, but all caregivers need breaks sometimes.
Later, our parenting coach told me it would have been alright to tell Zadie she was right. When adults deny the truth a child observes, it makes the child question their ability to interpret reality. Instead, it’s important to be a clear mirror that validates their experiences and feelings, versus a funhouse mirror that has them questioning what’s true.
At the end of the movie, Barbie ultimately chooses the messy, joyful, inconvenient reality of being human over the performative and static life of a doll. She chooses to live in the real world, even after she’s warned about its many discomforts and disappointments.Maybe I am doing right by Zadie when I’m honest about my ambivalence around motherhood and being a woman in this world. I hope I am a mirror that offers her a grounding in reality and a trust in herself that says, Yes, this is real. Yes, I am human, and so are you.
Yes, being a woman is much more complex than most of our culture’s stories will lead you to believe. Yes, the world is both a terrible and beautiful place.
And yes, you are loved, you are loved, you are loved.