May 25 2010

The Other Barbie

Birthdays are not to be shared. It’s the one single day you get to yourself, the day you were born – the day you opted into this planet. It’s your day. There’s no reason to be magnanimous about it.

I know this because the double birthday party I celebrated years ago with Debbie West was an exercise in being gracious, a task that was really too advanced for my consciousness at the time. Her mother made the most elaborate gingerbread house cake with colorful jellybean trimming. The sixteen candles – our ages added together – dispersed across its roof were too hard to blow out in tandem, the song lengthened uncomfortably at the point of our names. Debbie’s, of course, came first.

Most of the gifts we received were identical – the same duets of birthday wrapping paper folded around matching puzzles, coloring books and Spirograph kits. Except the Barbie Dolls that Susan Olsen brought: Each gift tag was carefully labeled with one of our names in the fine, formal handwriting I recognized as Mrs. Olsen’s, but obviously her mom must have randomly assigned the boxes which were packed with fraternal twin Barbies.

Debbie got the blonde doll. But she was a brunette. Shouldn’t she have gotten the doll with the matching hair? I opened my box in sync with her, noticing the hair color instantly. Before I could stop myself the words popped out, “but I want that one!” The doll in question, of course, the one in her hands, not the one in mine.

I’m pretty sure that everybody heard me, but it was as though each and every person – young and old – tacitly agreed to ignore what I had blurted out. My 8-year old self was too young to be gracious was nevertheless old enough to know that this was not the appropriately thankful response to a gift. I stared at the doll and pretended to love her, knowing the eyes of a roomful of good girls were upon me. But I could not contain the tears that naturally manifest after such a disappointment, tears which burst out from me at full volume.

“It must be too much excitement,” I heard my mother say, “all these girls and all these gifts.”

This is why when Buddy-roo has a moment like this, I redirect her frustration as a good parent should, but inside: mountains of empathy. I suppose if you asked De-facto for his point of view on my birthday spirit, he might suggest not that much has changed.

But birthdays are something. You gotta make them happy, or else they’ll make you sad.

Later at home, after the party, my mother placed the doll prominently on my shelf. I let it sit there, untouched and unloved, eventually letting it fall to the back of the queue of dolls and stuffed animals, neglected, rejected – the other Barbie.

Feb 15 2009

My Share

I happened upon a thoughtful blog by a mother (her name is Stefanie Wilder-Taylor) who suggests that sharing is overrated. She makes a case for avoiding the trap of relentlessly pressing our children to share:

We as a society are big on sharing. It seems that we find it to be a reflection of our own and our child’s good manners. I’m not immune to the pressure to make my children share but lately I’ve been wondering why we insist on forcing this issue when it clearly doesn’t come naturally.

It’s not that she doesn’t want her kids to share, of course she does. But she also wants them to have boundaries. As much as we try to teach our kids to be polite and generous – and I believe we need to, now more than ever – we also want to help them grow a backbone.

There are two kinds of sharing going on in this house: Short-pants (usually) doesn’t hesitate. “Of course you can take it,” she’ll say. It makes you want to cry. Buddy-roo is more calculating. She keeps track. A piece of candy shared from her stash is an investment in future loot. One child is Mother Theresa and the other is Captain Quid-pro-Quo.

Like Wilder-Taylor, I’m not immune to the “honey, you need to share it” mantra that must come to me when I tap into the collective unconsciousness of conscious parents. I do say it less often than I used to, since a friend pointed out something I hadn’t considered. “Nobody really likes to share,” he said (in his deep, occasionally officious voice), “Maybe you should try asking them to take turns.” I think he’s right. Sharing implies an indefinite and unchecked relinquishing of that favorite toy. Taking turns gives you light at the end of the tunnel.

A Shouts & Murmurs essay that ran in the New Yorker last summer (by Simon Rich) nails it by demonstrating what it might be like if adults were subjected to the same indignities as children:

Lou Rosenblatt: Can I drive your car? I’ll give it back when I’m done.
Mrs. Herson: I’m sorry, do I know you?
Lou Rosenblatt: No, but we’re the same age and we use the same garage.
Mrs. Herson: No offense, sir, but I really don’t feel comfortable lending you my car. I mean, it’s by far my most important possession.
Brian Herson: Mom, I’m surprised at you! What did we learn about sharing?
Mrs. Herson: You’re right . . . I’m sorry. Take my Mercedes.

We’re constantly telling our kids to share but are we willing to share as effortlessly or selflessly as we expect them to? Watching the US congressmen and senators wrestle over the stimulus bill last week – it’s a bit of a stretch, I suppose, but this is a form of sharing – I couldn’t help but wonder: what would their mothers say?