I had an interesting conversation with my six year-old niece this weekend. It was Sunday evening and I was taking her home with me for a sleepover. We were at the stoplight just a few blocks from my house when out of the blue she asked me "So, why aren't you married?"
Great, I thought to myself. Just when I have finally gotten my parents to stop asking me about getting married, our family has launched a new generation of people who can wonder why I am still single. Someone told me once that when you are asked a question that you are not prepared to answer it is a good strategy to respond with another question. "Well, why do you think I am not married?" I asked her.
"Because you don't want to," she said simply. For a moment, I breathed a sigh of relief hoping that my strategy had worked. But then she continued. "But why don't you want to get married? If you had a husband, he would help you take things in from the car, make a garden, plant a tree if you wanted to, clean up the house..." And the list went on and on.
I am not sure where she got the idea that husbands are so handy to have around the house. That has certainly not been a common experience among my married friends.
It's hard to explain to a six year-old why giving up my freedom and half of my bank account is probably not a good trade for an extra pair of hands when I need to bring in the groceries from the car. I would rather just save myself the hassle and make two trips.
I decided to tackle this discussion from another angle. "Well, what if I already have someone who will help me when I need it," I asked. "And we don't have to get married." My niece has met the Boy on one or two occasions, but I am not really sure whether it has occurred to her that we are dating. I figured I would float up a trial balloon and see what she thought of that idea.
"No, that's not the same," she insisted. "You have to see the person every day. Then they can be there to help you every day." Well, she certainly had this marriage thing all figured out. There was no getting past her on this one. I started to wonder if she had been watching too many Disney princess videos.
I decided to try another line of questioning. "So, do you think that people can only be happy if they are married?" I asked. "No," she replied. I was grateful that at least she could contemplate that an old spinster like me could be happy alone, without having found my prince charming.
"We will finish this conversation later," I said as I pulled into the driveway. I turned around to check her reaction and she popped her head up in between the seats, stared me right in the eye and said "But if you get married, you will be even happier than you are right now!" Then she smiled at me with her cute little gap-tooth grin.
"Come on, let's go inside." I grabbed her suitcase from the car and headed towards the house. My niece followed along, continuing with her pro-marriage agenda. "And, if you get married you will have more money to buy the stuff you need." As we walked into my newly remodeled kitchen, I explained to her that I already have plenty of money. In fact, I paid for my new kitchen all by myself. But by that point I had lost her attention completely and she went down into the basement to play.
As I put away the groceries, I thought about our conversation. These are impressionable years and I want my niece to understand that women can make all sorts of choices. But I also know that some of the choices I make do not fit within the constraints of what she sees on TV or hears about in school. I want to be myself, yet I don't want to give her the impression that my way is better or worse than anyone else's. Sometimes it's hard to walk that line.
I made our favorite macaroni and cheese for dinner and we snuggled up on the couch watching the new Scooby Doo episodes on TV. Then we went up to my room to play. My niece had brought a small sampling from her collection of Barbies, which is one of our favorite games. This time, we had a special guest at our sleepover: a Ken doll.
My sister had told me that she put all of the Ken dolls away because she did not like the way my niece played Barbies when the Ken doll's were around. My sister has some pretty strong feminist views - way stronger than mine in some ways. At the time I wondered if maybe she was being overly concerned about the Ken dolls, but this time I got to see the whole thing unfold first hand.
We started out with a mystery that was loosely based on the Scooby Doo episode we had watched that night. When my niece introduced the "invisible villain" character, I could only assume that the Ken doll would fit the role perfectly. Technically, I don't think he was a real Ken doll. He looked more like a washed up 80's pop star, dressed in a pair of blue pants and a black blazer with red trim that did not even cover his bulging plastic pecs. Last, but certainly not least, he was wearing a pair of bright red socks.
My niece was playing with the Daphne doll, complete with the purple dress and pink tights. I was using a blond frizzy-haired doll with two long braids to keep her hair in place. For some reason, I decided that my girl was from Austin, Texas and had a southern accent.
My niece announced that Ken was not the "invisible villain" and in fact she would prove that it was another one of the girls. Pretty soon, solving the mystery took a back seat to Daphne's budding romance with Ken. He came to visit her and invited her to a dance. Then he asked if she wanted to marry him. (Courtships move fast in the Barbie world.)
I decided to add a hint of realism to the game. "Come on Daphne," my doll said in her fake southern drawl. "Are you sure you want to marry a guy wearing red socks? You would have to look at those same red socks every day for the rest of your life." I chuckled to myself, but unfortunately my niece did not think it was very funny.
She looked at me and rolled her eyes in frustration. "Please stop it," she said. "If you say that again, you are going to have to sit up on the bed and watch me play by myself."
In all of my years playing Barbie's, I have never been ejected from the game. I guess something about that fake Ken doll coming in and commanding all of our attention just didn't set well with me. "Ok. I'm sorry," I told her. "I promise, I will stop." My niece proceeded to dance with her prince charming, share a kiss and then move into his house where he had a brand new wardrobe waiting for her. Meanwhile, I reminded myself that in order to play Barbies, sometimes you have to suspend disbelief.
I have never considered myself to be a role model. It always seemed like such a huge responsibility that was meant for someone much older and wiser than me. But this weekend I realized that whether I am ready or not, my niece is watching me. And she is trying to figure out how I fit into her little picture of how the world works. The older she gets, the questions will become more complicated. So will the answers.
A lot of adults seem to have this desire to impart their wisdom onto the next generation, whether it is to help them grow or to prevent them from making the same mistakes we've made. One of the things I am most proud of in my life is that I followed my own path and did what I thought was right for me. As a newly-appointed, yet reluctant role model, I don't want to share my opinions and ideas. I want to help my nieces and nephews discover their own unique point of view.
That said, I think I'll ask my sister to lock up those Ken dolls for a few more years. I am not quite ready to play that game.