Angelina Ballerina is a young mouse who loves to dance “more than anything else in the world.” She loves the art and sport of ballet dancing, tumbling down the stairs to breakfast in a plie’ and leaping over flowerbeds on her way to school. She admittedly dons a pink bow and dreams of becoming a “real ballerina” in a pink tutu. However, you get the sense that this dancing is her own very personal and ungendered way of expressing what she loves. She does in fact become a professional ballet dancer, completing a rigorous program with Miss Lily to perform at a reputable mouse venue – the kind of achievment many of our female-gendered storybook characters never reach.
Angelina’s forgetfulness, activity and child-like play relieved my inner critic. Phew: She gets to do stuff. But the turn of a page reveals Angelina’s mother, regretfully called Mrs. Mouseling (a name based on her mouse husband’s lineage, no doubt), teaching us all that those child-like behaviors are simply not acceptable: “You’re going to be late again!”…”your dancing is nothing but a nuisance!” Why on Earth is this mother trying to squelch these playful attributes? And more disturbingly, why is Mr. Mouseling simply reading on the couch the whole time?
Mr. Mouseling then takes the approach of encouraging the dancing. He suggests buying Angelina an outfit and lessons, which results in a large, fabulous package on the breakfast table. Why does he get to be the warm, insightful, supportive parent? Is it because he doesn’t have to deal with the everyday stress of making the cheddar cheese pies and getting the kid to school on time? Why doesn’t Angelina’s talent bother HIM? Is it because Moms and Daughters are engaged in a competitive battle? Is it because Mrs. Mouseling never had the opportunity to explore her dreams, and she resents having to wash the dishes and fix the tea while Mr. Mouseling pursues all of his cherished desires?
I’m not sure why Mr. and Mrs. Mouseling are thusly divided in their parenting contributions, but it coincidentally rings true for many women in heterosexual parenting partnerships, and it rang true for me just a year ago. The endless, mundane housework numbed my endorphins; my career-devoted husband came home too tired to want to give baths and eagerly played restless games with the girls. Hence, I did the yelling and he did the fun.
We eventually discovered the imbalance we had created and uncovered the roots of our rutted dynamics. We were socialized into a division of labor where he strove to embody the image of the ideal man, who is creative and prosperous and bringing home the bacon; meanwhile, I did what needed to be done – a situation I saw mirrored in the Mouseling household. Now, as a single, happily out lesbian mom, I no longer fight to find the joy in parenting, because I have joy for myself first and foremost. I abandoned the diaper-washing to immerse myself back into the work of helping families survive better. I also faced the heartache of a family break-up to claim my true identity as a gay woman.
I cheered for Angelina in her victory as an accomplished, “real” ballerina. Her ballet experiences taught her discipline, and channeled her energy so that she was better able to focus on eating her supper or walking to school. But I worried for the other lessons she was taking into that adulthood: Don’t offend the structure your mother has rigidly created due to her own despair; Like your mother, you must control and inhibit your dreams; and Dads are much more fun and supportive than Moms. And let the boys catch you sometimes (WTF).
Countless women experience both a dry well and a list of tasks that would make any executive shrink. The gender-laden pressures for mothers in our culture may be driving us to stifle our girls’ playful natures and rue their talents and dreams. Now that’s scarier than any children’s book.