“Why doesn’t your daughter have any dolls?” a mom friend asked, watching our toddlers wade through a morass of toys at my house—balls, puzzles and electronic doodads that played relentless tinny music that I could never get out of my ears.
“Feminism?” I said, surprised at her: She had three girls and was always posting intriguing questions on social media, like, “When should my daughter wear a bikini?” and other topics I’m sure I will need to confront one day. Yes, I was just another older, middle-class city mom trying my best to help my daughter become a strong girl, not obsessed with princesses, glitter and babies, able to choose who she wanted to be. And giving her dolls—especially those long-limbed, blond, buxom Barbies with a minuscule waist—didn’t seem to be a body-positive, feminist thing to do.
“Besides, I never had any dolls growing up and I turned out just fine,” I said.
“You never had any dolls?” she said, in horror.
American Girl dolls: Love 'em or loathe 'em? It was true. I was a tomboy. We Brooklyn kids roller-skated and biked up and down our gravelly block, used our pogo sticks and hula hoops in the backyards, and on inclement days we played jacks and Chinese jump rope indoors. One of my friends had a Barbie Dreamhouse, but I was more interested in the dusty pinball machine hiding in the corner of her room. My two sisters and I didn’t even own a Cabbage Patch Kid. Which I suppose was strange, if you think about it.
I hadn’t thought about it that much. Until now, watching my daughter play with her friend.
“Oh, Baby Baby,” she cooed at her Beanie Baby, a doe-eyed pink doggie, one of a dozen other stuffed animals that seemed to reproduce by the second. “Baby Baby sad,” she said, as I marveled at her ability to pretend. “Baby Baby hug, Mama!” she held him out to me and I embraced him. Then she grabbed back and hugged him herself. “Baby Baby happy, Mama!” and she put him in her mini-stroller, covered him with a blanket and pranced away, the other girl following behind.
My girlfriend looked at me, as if to say, “Who are you kidding?” Obviously, what we’d just witnessed was a doll-like interaction, albeit with a plush toy. My daughter was playing with dolls.
“I loved watching my kids talk to their dolls the way they saw us talk to them,” she said. “It’s about encouraging nurturing.”
Nurturing. I thought again back to my childhood and my doll-less house. My mother, a beautiful, introverted artist who gave up painting for a doleful marriage of 30 years to my father, had no real maternal knack, nor any aspirations for her daughters to follow in her footsteps. “I don’t care if you ever get married,” she said to me once in high school. Then later, “Why would you want to have children?”
No, this woman did not give us dolls.
Once, in high school, I was shocked when I slept at a friend’s house and woke up to find her mother caressing her cheek, saying in a low calm voice, “Hi honey, it’s time to get up.” Parents did that? The more I was away from my house, the more I saw what had been lacking.
In a house where no one ever said “I love you,” and only hugged us at the overnight camp bus stop when other parents were doing it, where wakeup was a jarring revile shout over the intercom and nighttime ritual consisted of the words, “Go to bed,” where we did our homework alone (if at all) while my mother watched TV in her room with a glass of Chardonnay and my dad worked so late I only heard him stomping in long after I was in bed, I don’t think I would have known what to do with a doll.
The sad truth is that I wouldn’t have known how to snuggle and cuddle and nurture a toy—doll, stuffed animal, did it matter?—because my parents hadn’t done that with me.
I wasn’t an ardent feminist. I was just a neglected child.
When I was in my late 30s, thinking if I wanted children (tick, tock), I asked myself questions like: Do I want to do it by myself? (No.) Would I want to if I found a partner? (Probably.) And would I ever feel that internal, physical yearning to have a baby? (Turns out, no.) The most prescient one was: Why would I have children? Given my family, continuing their name and genes wasn’t really a motivating factor. Nor did I believe life would be meaningless without children. But I was beginning to suspect that I would never be able to get over my childhood—no, get beyond my childhood—if I didn’t have a child of my own.
Despite my upbringing and fears of becoming like my mother, I’d done it, I’d had a baby. And now that baby was a toddler with cars and trucks and a scooter and a bike, and the thing she mostly wanted to do was push her little stroller around the house cooing to her dogs and frogs and Elmos and Raggedy Anns—stuffed animals I’d been pretending were something other than they are: dolls.
So maybe the question was not whether I would give her an actual doll, but would I be able to give her the tools to care for a doll. Would I be able to be a different parent than my own? Would I be able to teach her how to care for them?
As I watched her nose-kiss her teddy bear, tuck it into a blanket and kiss it gently on the forehead goodnight, I was hoping I already had.