Saturday, October 20, 2012

Retro Jessie: Life With Jessie 7: To Barbie or Not to Barbie [1994, 4 years old]

I look around my office and see the paraphernalia that surrounds my desk. The stuff that lets you know that motherhood has invaded every part of my life. Sure, there’s the computer, the overstuffed filing cabinet, and the rolodex. But there’s also the vacuum cleaner, the old diaper pail, and tacked around my planning board a number of bright bold pictures drawn by my four year old daughter Jessie.

Then, there are my bookshelves. Heavily laden monstrosities filled with novels, biographies, reference books, and, if you look carefully, stand on your tiptoes and peak behind the old copies of Ms. Magazine, Utne Reader, and Today’s Parent, you will find my Barbie collection. My Barbies aren’t kept carefully in cellophane or displayed in neat rows. None of them have been loved much and many of them are missing their slippers or shoes or combs. There Barbies are no treasured. They are the disappeared.

These are not, technically, my Barbies. They aren’t the ones I played with when I was growing up. And I do have to admit to having played with Barbies. Although what I remember most is how much we coveted the GI Joe because he could wrap his arms around Barbie and give her a real kiss, unlike Ken.

Just to show you that I’m not totally out of touch, I do know that Barbie can now do weird and wonderful things with her limbs. I just happen to have a gymnast Barbie right here I think . . . . yup, just behind Gabrielle Roy’s Enchantment and Sorrow. She can move in ways I never dreamt possible when I was eight. But I’m not really sure what to do with her. Her and the other Barbies I have stashed in high out of reach places around my office. This is where all my daughter’s Barbies end up. Disappeared.

I always swore that if I had a daughter, she would not play with Barbie dolls. Our house would be a Barbie-free and gun-free zone. Of course that was back when parenthood seemed like a great chance to do everything right. To change the world by bringing up children free of sexism, violence, cavities, and inner guilt. But by the time our daughter Jessie was ready for preschool, our lives had been permeated by a different kind of struggle: inclusion.

Our daughter Jessie has Down syndrome. In addition to her bright smile, her inquisitive mind, and her love of a good joke, she has one extra chromosome. And that one little extra chromosome has made some things more challenging for her and us. Things like walking, cutting with scissors, doing puzzles, and making friends.

And our vision for Jessie has at its core, a contingent of friends. Friends to laugh with, fight with, never speak to again, go to her first dance with, and be there when her heart is broken. But friendship doesn’t always just happen and for some kids, like Jessie, it needs to be nurtured, practised, and practised some more.

I do know that Jessie loves being with other kids. “Let’s go visit!” is a common refrain, or “We  will have guests?” And she gets so excited when asked to spend the afternoon at Tess’s or Charles’s house. I thought the biggest hurdle would be making other parents feel at ease with Jessie, so they would even consider inviting her over. But that doesn’t even seem to be an issue, because they have now come to know us so well—from spending time in the playground, on the streets, and at preschool together—and they know that Jessie doesn’t require any special care of knowledge. She’ll let you know in no uncertain terms, what she likes and dislikes and she’s a pretty tough kid.

No, the real challenge is teaching her skill and, yes, preschool finesse, required to join in. Because as much as she wants, so much, to join in, she can’t always figure out how it works. Her current strategy is to wave one of her ever present trolls in a child’s face or to grab a toy from them. At first glance, this looks like an aggressive act. But all she’s really trying to do, in the only way she knows how, is to get their attention. It works. But it’s not really the kind of attention she had in mind.

So we practice alternatives. At home, when we’re visiting, at school, in the park. We’ll stop to watch children an talk about what they’re doing. Then, with a little bit of help, Jessie decides what she can bring to enter into play. Tess and Natalie are making a cake in the sand, so Jessie brings two sticks for candles and walks over to join them. Instead of stepping on the cake, she puts the candles in and starts to sing and sign happy birthday. Natalie and Tess move over to make room for Jessie. She plonks herself in the sand, looks at them both, and says “I can play?” They pass her a shovel and the grin that spreads across her face makes we want to climb to the top of the rope tower and shout across the canal “She can play! She can play!”

And play she does. When she has a few cues and understands the game or the rules, she and her friends have a lot of fun. They play dress up an store and bear hunt. They laugh, they fight, they ignore each other, they take turns. They’re friends. And somehow, through it all, they’ve come to know and understand Jessie. They’re more forgiving of her quirky social skills than I am.

But, some of these friends have Barbie dolls. Her cousin, whom she looks us to, has a Barbie. Laura got two aerobic Barbies for her birthday and offered one to Jessie. This was such a wonderful moment, I couldn’t say no. Barbie just ended up stuffed into my bookshelf. Disappeared. I couldn’t figure out how to explain to a four year old that I think Barbie promotes a hideous and distorted version of womanhood, but trolls, trolls are okay.

It brings up an important question though. Where do I draw the line? We’ve worked so hard to have Jessie take her rightful place in the neighbourhood, amongst her peers, but we haven’t worked this hard to make sure that she also takes on all the unwanted by-products of belonging. I never thought that integrating Jessie would involve such difficult questions: To Barbie or Not To Barbie . . .

But at four year old, I think we’ll let her friends teach her about Barbie, because that’s what friends do.      

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