Well, a few reasons. First of all, I AM TERRIBLE AT THIS. It’s a good thing I haven’t needed to actually report to anyone in charge of anything yet because I am really, really bad at keeping track of Margot’s “educational” activities. I think in future weekly reports I will break our activities down into categories instead of just a daily report? I don’t know… anyway, reason one is that I am bad at this.
Reason two is that when Margot was taking photos at the concert last weekend she dropped my camera and busted it and now all my photos look like this:
Reason three is that we leave in less than 12 hrs for our 8-night Halloween on the High Seas Disney Cruise, so, this week has mostly been me freaking out (from anxiety), Margot freaking out (from excitement) and not much else has been accomplished in light of all the freaking out.
Margot did go to the monthly Lego mini-build at the mall, so… STEM? That’s the early childhood education buzzword, yeah?
Anyhow, that’s why you’re not getting a weekly update… but stay tuned for a recap of our AMAZING DISNEY VACATION!!
(If I scream it loud enough on the internet it will come true, right??)
What does it mean to be successful at homeschooling?
So often when we tout the benefits of any style of education (be it conventional schools, alternative schools, home schooling or unschooling) we rattle off the ways that the children educated in that way are exceptional. For schools they might boast their college acceptance rate, or for home educators the fact that their child started reading at age 3. Unschoolers might boast about their child starting a successful business while their peers were stuck in a brick building all day. But, it’s not very often that someone says the education model they chose resulted in a totally average and unexceptional child.
I mean “Unschooling: Make your children ordinary” would be a terrible slogan, but… chances are unschooling Margot isn’t going to turn her into a child genius. That’s not at all the point of it. But… it feels like a lot of pressure to say it will turn her into a child genius, or to say that she already is a genius and that public/private school would never be able to meet her needs.
If we sent Margot to school, she would very likely do well there. She might be an average student or slightly above average. But, it’s not likely that she would be at the top of her class. I think that if she followed the prescribed educational track she might go to a middle of the road university and continue to be an average student there. Then she might graduate and find a job working in a cubicle somewhere, peaking as middle management.
I like to think that by unschooling Margot, she will be able to tap into some deep cleverness that would have otherwise been stifled by the public education system and she will follow her own path, possibly go to college, and then end up in some fascinating career where she will be interviewed for the NY Times and will credit her awesome success to her mother’s devotion to student-led home education.
But, the much more likely scenario is that she will end up in that same cubicle in that same boring middle management job.
She hasn’t begun to read at any early age. She always skips straight to “fourteen” when she counts past ten. She loves science and music and art but has yet to discover a new species of bug, write a concerto or draw a person without a giant bubble body. She might be behind her schooled peers in certain areas and ahead of them in others. We think she’s very clever and exceptional, but we are her parents and we are supposed to think so. The truth is that she is a neuro-typical kindergarten-aged child who is really pretty average. (Oh, it pains me to even write that! Future Margot, if you’re reading this, whenever it is you learn how to read, I THINK YOU ARE SO SPECIAL!!!!)
And yet, when we talk to our families and friends about our decision to home educate we say things like “You know Margot, she’s so clever! She’s so smart already! She’s so wonderfully exceptional in every imaginable way!! Did you know that many unschooled children actually start college EARLY?? AND THEY ALL GO ON TO BE INCREDIBLE HUMANS!!!?!?!?!” We scream into the void, “WE ARE GOOD PARENTS!! WE ARE MAKING GOOD CHOICES!!!”
All this pressure to “prove” that unschooling is better and my child the better for it makes me incredibly anxious*. By what metrics can we ever prove such a thing? Will people be convinced that we made the right choice only if she is a wildly successful adult? And what even is success? What if she has an interesting job but doesn’t make much money? What if she makes loads of money but works in a boring field? What if she falls somewhere between those extremes? What of her happiness?? What if she is unhappy with her life? What if she is a kind person? What if she is the kind of person who honks their horn when the light has just turned green? When will we know that we made the right choice? When will we know that “unschooling” was a success? When will others see that?
I have no answers for these questions. But, I think it’s important to ask them. I think it’s important to examine what we consider “success” and to remind ourselves that the point of life (for schooled and unschooled humans) isn’t test scores and college placement at all.
Sometimes I think that 90% of my “blogging career” has been spent writing blog posts that say “I know I haven’t blogged in a while… but I’m back!” See the last post I wrote, in September, about how I was going to try to write on here more often. That didn’t go very well, clearly.
I’ve been on sort of a journey with my digital life. A few years ago I gave up Facebook, then I took an Instagram hiatus last year and never fully returned. But, the most recent development has been that my smart phone stopped working and I just never replaced it. Also, around the same time that my cell phone abandoned me there was an election that happened (maybe you heard?) and I sort of spent a few weeks/months holed up in my house feeling sad.
All of this has sort of lead to me not really being online a lot. I miss out on a lot of stuff, I think, not having my smart phone. I’m not in the group chat we have going with other homeschoolers, so I miss some of our meet ups. Sometimes I get super lost because I don’t have a GPS. And I miss out on a lot of cute photos of my kid not having a camera constantly in my pocket. But, I kind of love it. I do not miss the feeling that I need to capture every adorable thing Margot does. I do not miss the bad feelings of comparing my life to other people’s lives. I do not miss worrying that my child is falling behind because my friend’s kid is learning to do something that Margot doesn’t know how to do yet. I don’t miss the feeling that I need to be constantly available.
I do actually miss things, though. I miss having connections with people around the world on Instagram. I miss seeing other people’s journeys with unschooling and sharing our journey. I miss the inspiration I get from seeing what other families are doing. Which leads me to NOW.
Now, there is about a foot of snow outside, but I’m itching for spring to come and am feeling like getting back to this whole “documenting our life as unschoolers” thing.
Also, the dishes are done, and Margot is playing a game by herself and I was sitting here on my computer with a mug of tea and once I was done checking my e-mails and catching up on the news I thought “what else can I do on this machine?”
So, here I am. I have a few big topics in mind to talk about, but for now, a little update:
Things That Have Happened Since I Last Updated This Thing
Today I was looking back through old blog posts and realized it has been exactly three months since I declared I would be taking a three month summer hiatus. So, officially, my hiatus is over. I did not intend to take the summer off from blogging, although I barely blogged over the summer. My only intention was to step away from Instagram and to try to spend more time “in the moment” as they say.
It was an experiment, and a successful one. So successful, in fact, that I don’t plan to get back on Instagram. So many people have told me how much they miss seeing Margot’s photos on Instagram and it means a lot to me that people say so. But, I think it was just really taking away from my experiences to add the filter of “Instagram worthiness” to all the moments in my life. I still took plenty of photos over the past 3 months, some of which you will see below in a little summer hiatus slide-show. And I still shared a lot of these photos. The difference was that when I took a photo I thought someone particular in my life would appreciate, I sent it to them directly and they would often write back and we would connect with one another over this photo. So often I felt like I was posting things and my photos would get some comments and likes but it didn’t really foster any connection with the person on the other side of the little red heart.
I will try (really hard!) to be better at updating things on here once in a while, because I know that our friends and family who we are not fortunate enough to live closer to do still like seeing these little glimpses of our lives. Hopefully by writing on here, I can satisfy some of those curiosities while also making a meaningful record of our lives as an unschooling family. So, without further ado… a glimpse through the lens of my cell phone camera into our summer filled with hikes and friendship and sunshine and fresh tomatoes from our garden and only one trip to the emergency room:
At the beginning of the summer Margot was afraid to put her face in the water. She wasn’t afraid OF the water, she loved to go in the pool. But, she would only do so while holding on to an adult. Usually me. And usually pulling down my bikini top in the process.
So, we enrolled her in swim classes. We looked around a bit for classes in the area. I had read a lot about Infant Self Rescue classes and had almost enrolled her in one of those classes two summers ago. Unfortunately, they didn’t have enough families signing up and cancelled the class, so that was a bust. Now, the closest ISR class is about an hour away.
With a little research and very little debate we settled on swim lessons at the Y in Nyack. The Y is less than 5 minutes away driving and is walkable from our house. And they offer the most affordable classes in town. We had heard a few mixed reviews, but we enrolled Margot in a two week intensive and decided if she wasn’t into it, we would stop the lessons and it wouldn’t be a big loss.
Now, before I start blabbing on about how much Margot loves swimming and how much she has improved, I’d like to talk about the problems with the class first. The biggest problem we have with these lessons is that they schedule one lesson to end at the same time that the next lesson begins. So, on the half hour it’s a mad dash to get one set of children out of the pool and the next set of children in to the pool. This also means that we do not get any face time at all with Margot’s swim instructors. Which is a problem only because I’d appreciate a little snippet like “She is really improving at x, maybe you can practice y with her a little bit.” Or just, “Your child is a special, special snowflake and I have never had a student as lovely or as intelligent as her. You have clearly done a stellar job at parenting this unique creature!” This also leads into my other big complaint. I don’t know her teachers’ names. AND! The teachers kept changing from day to day. So, one teacher would see Margot succeed at something and then the next day a new teacher would be there and then would start from square one, not knowing that Margot had already mastered a certain skill.
Those are my complaints. And they are not insignificant, except that they kind of are because this past week Margot swam across a pool by herself. She LOVES swim class. And she LOVES swimming. And she has improved so dramatically we are constantly amazed by her skills. She no longer clings to us in the pool and, in fact, if we try to hold her she scolds us and asks to be left to her own devices.
After her first class was a success, we signed her up for the next two week session, so that she was in swim class 5 days a week for an entire month. It made it really hard for us to do anything else since we had to be at the pool everyday by 3pm for an entire month, but she never once said she was tired of going and so, we went. Now she is in swim class once a week and at least three times between classes she asks “is it a swim class day today?”
We really could not be more thrilled and we intend to keep up with lessons as long as she keeps wanting to do them. We especially want her to continue lessons through the colder months so that next summer she is ready and raring to go. Since Todd’s parents have an in-ground pool I have been so anxious for Margot to learn how to swim. She is never out there unattended, but it’s a skill that I have really been nervous about her acquiring. Todd and I both tried to teach her, but she would get frustrated with us (and, admittedly, we with her) when we asked her to do things. We realized that this was something that we couldn’t teach Margot on our own. So, we found someone (or in the case of the Y, multiple someones) to teach her instead.
Now maybe you can see how this all ties in with unschooling. We are dedicated to unschooling. I believe now more than ever that we made the best choice for our child when we chose unschooling. Seeing how well Margot responded to a teacher in a small class with me nowhere in sight (the adults watch the children on a CCTV in the waiting room) showed me that this is a model that works for Margot. It did not for a moment make me think “oh, crap, maybe I should enroll her in school after all.” Being dedicated to unschooling does not mean that we are anti-schooling. I think (some) schools are wonderful and I am very grateful that they are available if my child ever wants to make use of them. I am grateful, also, that there are so many opportunities for Margot to learn skills from people who are not me. I intend to accompany Margot for as much of her educational journey as is appropriate for us both, but I have no intention of being her only teacher along the way. We are so thrilled that Margot has had so much success in swim class, and maybe someday she will break her Daddy’s backstroke record!!
Recently we went on a beach vacation with my family and I decided to spend the weekend cellphone free. I posted one last photo on Instagram then used my phone for GPS to get us to our destination (of Solomons Island, MD) and once we arrived I turned my phone off and put it away for four whole days. I wandered around without even bothering to bring my pocketbook with me. It felt really wonderful.
I was at a bit of an advantage in this scenario because Todd was always with me and he had his cell phone in case anyone needed to reach us, and his camera in case Margot did anything noteworthy and adorable. Also, my parents and sister were usually with us, along with my brother in law and my neice. So, most of the people who I would be worried about missing an emergency call from were with me.
Still, I felt really great not carrying my cell phone around with me. I liked not having that familiar weight in my bag as well as not having that familiar itching feeling to check what was happening on Instagram.
A few years ago I realized the Facebook was taking up too much of my time. I was a new mother and a new vegan and I was desperate for community and Facebook was my connection to hundreds of like-minded people in similar stages of life. It is perhaps hyperbolic to say that I would not have survived that time of my life without the familiar blue glow of Facebook on my cell phone, but it was, indeed, an important part of my life. I have made friends on Facebook who I now call my best friends, I used it to educate myself and expand my world. But then I started to feel bad when I went on. It was an addiction and I needed to break it. So, I decided to take a 3 month hiatus and after a few weeks of no Facebook, I never went back. I decided life on the other side was much clearer and happier. And, in some ways, I replaced my Facebook addiction with an Instagram addiction.
I have always felt like Instagram was less insidious than Facebook. I still, for the most part, believe this is true. But, I was noticing the same pattern of obsessive checking and I decided, rather on a whim, to take a 3 month summer hiatus from Instagram. I have had mixed feelings about taking this break because I have, again, met some wonderful people on Instagram, most of whom live very far away. So, it feels a little like I shut down a bridge and have no way of crossing the river anymore. But, also, it feels kind of amazing. I feel like I am present in my life in a way that I wasn’t always being present when I was looking at events through the lens of “Instagram worthiness.” I like to think that I was not curating my life so that it was worthy, but still, looking at all of the things that I do together with Margot and thinking “oooh, I have to post this.” It added a step between experiencing something and enjoying it for myself. I also began to realize how strange it must be for Margot when everyone around her knows about all of the things that she does. It was not uncommon for me to post about something that Margot did and then run into someone the next day who said “Oh! Margot, I saw that thing you did yesterday!!” Margot never made any comments about this or seemed distressed, but… it started to seem odd to me.
A few days after I began my hiatus I decided to finally do something with Margot that she had been asking to do for a while. We dyed her hair purple and pink. And I went through the process of thinking “OMG, if I don’t post this to Instagram, NO ONE WILL KNOW HER HAIR IS PURPLE.”
And then I realized how absurd it was that I was worried about that. Was I dying her hair purple so that I could show the internet or because it was something fun that Margot wanted to do? And… what happens if we do something and DON’T post about it online. (I realize, also, the absurdity of positing that question ON MY BLOG, but… bear with me…)
So, I’m taking a hiatus. I think I will still post on this blog when the mood strikes me, but I’m trying really hard to be more present in my life. I think it’s important for my health and well-being and also for Margot’s. I know that there have been times in her life that she has had to share my attention with my cell-phone screen and I feel bad about that. I still have my phone, and I still find myself looking at it more times per day than I “should,” to check the weather, to look up an answer to some random question, to zone out for a few minutes reading news blogs. But, I am absolutely feeling more present in my life. Instead of watching Margot play in the frog pond and thinking of the perfect Instagram caption for what she’s doing, I’m just… enjoying watching her do it. I mean, I still did snap a photo and send it to some of my best friends… the ones I met on Facebook… but, come on, I am still a millenial!
One night Margot and I were lying together in bed talking and cuddling and she said “wow, Mama, you have hair on your belly.” I do. I have hair on most parts of my body, in fact. And not cute, blond, downy hair, but like, dark, brown, sometimes wiry hair. And I have never ever felt good about that. I have bleached and shaved and plucked and waxed the hair off of my body. I have tried every way possible to deny that there even was hair there to remove. Because girls are not supposed to be hairy. Girls are supposed to have smooth and flawless skin. Girls are “supposed to” look a lot of ways that I do not.
So, when Margot pointed out this “flaw” of mine. This thing that I have always wished was different about me. This thing that I have been teased about. This thing that I have hated about myself. When she pointed to that hated hair on my body, I cringed.
This had happened to me once before. As a teenager, I was babysitting two little girls and we were playing on the monkey bars in their backyard. I flipped upside down and one of the girls said, “You have hair on your belly.” And I said, “Yeah, it happens when you get older.” Then as she replied in disgust that her mother definitely did NOT have hair on her stomach, she confirmed the belief I had been carrying around that my body was wrong. That it was wrong and ugly. It was too big and it was covered in disgusting hair and it would never be beautiful.
So, when the hair growing on my now 32 year old body was pointed out to me by my impressionable young daughter, I cringed first but then I said “Yes! Isn’t it beautiful?”
Margot looks like her Daddy, everyone says so. But, there are a few things she got from me. She got my olive colored skin and, along with it, the dark hair that covers it. I did not choose to have hair on my body, and neither did Margot. I can choose, though, to love my body with all of it’s dark and unfeminine hair. And I can do my very best to teach Margot to love her body, too.
I said, “Isn’t it beautiful? You have hair on your skin, too.” Wide-eyed and joyful, she asked “I do??” So, I pointed out the fine baby hairs that cover her skin. I said, “I love the beautiful hair on your body.” And she said, “I love the beautiful hair on your body, too.”
She will not remember that conversation 30 years from now, but I will always remember it, because it was the exact moment I decided, “I need to love my body.”
Which is what led me to posting a picture of myself on Instagram in my underpants. It received many likes and some lovely comments from my lovely friends. But, I’m sure a lot of people were confused, or annoyed, or had other sorts of not-nice feelings about seeing me in my underwear with my unshaven underarms and my unkempt bikini area and my round soft body parts. I would like to say that I don’t care AT ALL about those not-nice feelings that people might have about my body. I would really like to NOT care at all about them. But, I’ve put in a lot of years hating my body and it’s a hard habit to break. Which is why I’m really hoping that Margot never develops that habit in the first place.
I know that I can not shield Margot from the influences of society. As homeschoolers, I hope that she will, at least, be shielded from some of the intense peer pressure that many young girls experience in school. We try to never watch television with commercials. I have shied away from showing her “princess” movies (I have never forgotten that in the dance scene the Beast can fit Belle’s ENTIRE WAIST in his paw… nor have I forgotten longing to feel so tiny…). And I try, in all forms of media that she consumes, to show her a diverse range of humans. In other words, I do my best. But, even with me doing my best, she does not live in a cabin in the woods with no exposure to the outside world, which is the only way I can imagine raising a daughter who never realizes what society deems to be beautiful.
But, maybe I can raise a daughter who never feels like she has to conform to those standards? Right? Maybe I can radically love my body and show her that she can and should do the same. Maybe I can convince her that the hair on her body is beautiful and that all bodies are good bodies. Maybe I can teach her to wear what makes her feel happy and eat what nourishes her soul. Maybe, if I stop saying “I need to lose weight” then she will never feel like SHE needs to attach her self worth to a number on a scale. Maybe, if I am unapologetic about how my body looks, if I stop hiding it away under clothes designed to alter it, if I show the world myself in my underpants and say “THIS IS MY AMAZING BODY” she will never feel that she needs to hide her own beautiful body away. Maybe, just maybe, if I can show her how, my daughter will grow up loving herself.
Margot is only three and a half. So, technically, right now, she’s just “home” instead of being “homeschooled” because she is not legally required to be in school yet. But, still, not quite every day, but fairly often, I get asked the question “Where does Margot go to school?” Admittedly, I like being asked this question because it gives me an opportunity to dazzle (bore?) people with the theories which inspired us to choose unschooling for our family. But, also, when I’m asked this about my tiny child I feel a little overwhelmed by it. I know that the days of “why isn’t she in school?” are coming. I know that having a school aged child navigating the world with me on a daily basis is going to lead to lots of questions and comments. I also know that the comparisons will start.
My lovely insta-friend Jo wrote recently on her blog about comparisons, and it’s something that has been on my mind a lot recently as well. By “recently” it’s possible I mean “my entire life.” Being compared to my sister was always a part of my life. Whether the comparisons were innocuous or favorable to one or the other of us, they were always being made. By our family, by our friends, by ourselves. “Your sister is so pretty” is a phrase that I heard often through my high school years and that has shaped my self image. And I am sure there is some comparison to me that looms large in my sister’s mind. Margot does not have a sibling against whom to be constantly compared, for better or worse. But that does not bump her out of the comparison game all together.
It’s a bit of a nasty habit we parents have, comparing our child to others. It happens so early, too. We agonize over those first words and first steps and first everythings, looking sideways at the other babies at storytime wondering how old they are and in what ways they are more advanced than, or falling behind, our own child. It is insidious and we all do it. We parents have all had the moment where you hear another child, maybe even younger than your own, say something impressive… like… oh, I don’t know, like, “disestablishmentarianism” and you are so impressed and ashamed that your child isn’t also discussing 18th century British politics, so you head home and start repeating “disestablishmentarianism” to your child who refuses to repeat it and you both get frustrated. That’s the bad bit of comparing children, and we all know it is bad.
But, comparisons are also part of how we learn. Babies compare their bodies to the other bodies around them to establish their place in this world, they mirror us to learn speech and movement. And, as we get older, comparing ourselves to others help us to achieve more. Even as parents, comparing our children may sometimes be beneficial. Perhaps we see another child doing something we didn’t think our own child was old enough to do, and so, emboldened by seeing another 3 year old tearing down the street on a scooter, we find a scooter for our child and let them try it. As long as we are using comparisons as inspiration to try new things and we are not saying “why can’t you do this thing that someone else can do??” (the subtext being “what is wrong with you?”) then comparing is not all bad. But, to do this, we need to let go of the general idea that a (developmentally typical) child can be advanced or can fall behind their peers.
This is a big part of Unschooling, perhaps the biggest part of all. Recognizing that not all humans learn the same skills at the same time. Allowing ourselves that space to let knowledge come to us when we are ready to receive it. The biggest example of this is reading. It so happens that this is also my biggest hang up with unschooling. Reading is a huge part of my life and always has been. I hope that Margot shares my joy for reading (and writing) and I am eager for her to start. But, I know that she might not start reading at the same time as her schooled peers, and it’s a fact that I have to struggle with internally. I know that if she reaches a certain age and hasn’t begun reading, tongues will be clucked and comparisons will be made and it might be suggested that I am not doing what is required of me as her “teacher.” Thinking about that possibility feels really, really bad and it is something that I have to work on.
For now, the questions about Margot’s schooling have a tone of interest and perhaps mild discomfort at the idea. But, as her peers start entering school in greater quantities, I worry that the tone might change. Margot’s two best friends live kind of far away, too far to see them daily or even weekly, but not so far that we can’t see them about once a month. (They are the lovely children pictured here with Margot) Their families are planning to go to conventional schools and one of them has already begun preschool a few days a week. Margot’s little cousin (who I should probably stop calling her baby cousin since she will be ONE in less than a week…) will also be going to conventional school. And, well, I should stop listing them because most of the children that Margot already knows will be going to school. So, the comparisons are coming. Whether they are spoken or unspoken, harmful or helpful.
It’s going to be a difficult thing to navigate. I know that bad feelings will come up for me. I know that I will see unfavorable comparisons as an insult against my abilities as a mother and that I will need to deal with those feelings and not use them as a reason to push Margot to do something that isn’t right for her. I know that I will see favorable comparisons as a reason to feel superior to others who have chosen another path and I will need to deal with those feelings and not let them get in the way of valuing others’ experiences.
I hope that following different paths does not get in the way of Margot’s friendships with her schooled peers. I am hopeful that seeing other children having a different childhood experience will inspire Margot. I hope that she compares herself to her schooled peers in a way that makes her feel excited about learning. I hope that when she hears her best friends talking about some topic that they loved learning about in school, she seeks ways to learn about it herself. I hope that they will expose her to things I might never have thought of and that she will expose them to things that their schools didn’t cover in their curriculum. I hope that she (and I) will inspire those around us that education comes to us all in different ways and at different times. And I do really, really hope she likes to read.
I am going to go ahead and admit to the fact that I never wanted to have a daughter. I always imagined myself as the mother of a pack of wild boys. I’m not totally sure what made me think that I was suited to having boys instead of girls, but… that was how I felt for a long time. Not until I had a dream about a little girl with dark hair sitting on my Nana’s lap did I think, “I’m going to have a daughter.” And, of course, here I sit as a mother to one daughter and no pack of boys in sight.
Unless, of course, you count the pack of boys that Margot is friends with.
Margot recently asked if we could have a tea party. We planned our perfect tea party and I realized that her guest list was her and a bunch of little boys. I think all of these boys (and their parents) would actually be pretty excited about the idea of a vegan tea party in our backyard, but it just really struck me that the only other little girl consistently in Margot’s life is her baby cousin.
I don’t know how I feel about this. (Maybe you’ll notice this is a theme in my life, having feelings that I can not identify…) A big part of me is screaming “Who cares?! Gender is a construct!!” But, then there is another part of me that knows how much in my life I have really valued my friendships with other women. Girl time is important to me, and I worry if Margot might be missing out on something (Another theme: me worrying that GoGo is missing out on something…)
I’m also not sure exactly how to remedy this. So far our local homeschooling community is pretty boy-heavy, but we are still really in the beginning stages of finding and building this community, so I am hoping that things naturally even out at some point. Women do still make up 50% of the population, don’t we? In fact, yes, I just googled homeschool statistics and it looks like 51% of homeschooled children are females! This doesn’t really say anything about unschooling in particular or regions or types of homeschoolers… but, my point is: the girls MUST be out there somewhere, just waiting to engage in some quality girl time with my little girl! But, it seems a little desperate sometimes when I’m like “OH!! You have a DAUGHTER?!?!” while rubbing my hands together imagining a tea party between this new little girl and Margot who is probably off somewhere arguing with a little boy about whose turn it is with the toy train.
This all sounds like I am super gender-conforming and I’m really not. Or, I’m really trying not to be. We try really hard to let Margot show us where her interests are without forcing any gender identities on to her. We also discuss gender and feminist issues with her. Sometimes in a store we point out that the “boys” toys feature heroes while the “girls” toy feature ballerinas and wonder out loud why the girl dolls don’t get to wear firefighter uniforms, too. Margot corrects anyone who calls the mail carrier the mail man by saying “that’s a gendered term.” She probably doesn’t totally know what that means, but… I’m planting as many seeds as I can over here. She is in for a whole world of information once she is old enough to understand the finer points of intersectional feminism, but, we will stick with seeds for now…
All of this is a lead up to me talking about Princesses. I’m not going to get into Princess Culture too much, because there is so much that has already been said and I don’t feel that I have anything groundbreaking to add to the topic at this point. If you are raising a child in this world and you are scratching your head as to what “Princess Culture” is, I recommend a quick google on the subject. Back? Great, let’s keep going, I promise I’m about to get to the good stuff.
So far (maybe partially because Margot doesn’t have a lot of older girls in her life) we have mostly avoided princess fever. Margot has only seen one Disney princess movie and it was a long time ago and she never really asked about it ever again. We don’t do a ton of tv and movies and try to stick to non-princessy things when we do (for a lot of reasons…) But, we borrow so many books from the library. Like, seriously, so many. Margot has her own library card because we were constantly maxing out my check out limit (which is 50 books). So, we have come across some nice princess books in all of our borrowing, and I thought I would give a few quick reviews of some of them.
This is a longer book (90 pages) and is part of a series. The first book was such a hit in our house, Margot asked to be the Princess in Black for Halloween. We happily obliged, as you can see in the photos sprinkled through this post. I like this book because it allows for Magnolia to have two sides, which I think is nice. She wears a fancy dress and nibbles on cookies and she also slides down a secret passage way and battles monsters. I know that it is part of the fun that her superhero identity is secret, but I wish that it wasn’t “shameful” for a princess to be “different.” The titular character is, as you can see, white, which is another bummer, but I will note that there are more diverse characters in the later books in the series and Duff the goat boy seems to be darker skinned. It is cleverly written and has enough funny bits for the parents who are reading along, but nothing “wink wink, nudge nudge” funny, which I like.
I think these books do an okay job of showing the Princess in Black battling monsters without making it scary, but she does engage in a bit of violence against monsters throughout the series, so if you or your children are sensitive to violence you might want to skip it. Margot is pretty sensitive, but did not seem bothered by the fighting and often said “Twinkle Twinkle Little SMASH!!” when kicking snow piles, copying the monster-fighting super hero.
We know (and maybe you do, too) Jane Yolen from her Dinosaur books, because Margot did have quite an interest in dinosaurs for a while. I really love books that rhyme and this one fits the bill. The story is great and so are the illustrations. I am happy to say there is a fairly diverse cast of princesses in the book, though they do all appear to be able-bodied. The final spread shows a party where it looks like there are boys dancing with boys and girls chatting up girls, which I like. There is nothing overtly romantic in this story, but I like that it’s not all images of princesses slow dancing with princes.
My one complaint with this book is that is kind of anti-pink. I think that we should celebrate how not all princesses (or… girls…) love to wear pink, but we should be careful also not to demonize the color. After all, there is nothing wrong with the color pink. It is a fine color and one of Margot’s favorites. Feminism, after all, is about choice.
Margot’s one complaint about the book, is that there is an illustration which shows the princesses all sitting down to a chicken dinner. She points it out every time and says, “They aren’t vegan” with clear disappointment in her voice.
Okay. I do have a few more princess themed books on my bedside table to review, but maybe instead of getting them all out at once I should pace myself and do another princess book installation another time because my eyes are starting to glaze over and maybe so are yours.
I have thought about making a site dedicated solely to reviewing children’s books and media with an intersectional feminist (and vegan) grading sheet, so this is something that I have a lot of thoughts about.
I really want to know if you have any favorite princess books (or any that you absolutely loathe, so I can put them on our AVOID list…), so please let me know here, or in real life if you’re my IRL pal.
Margot has been preoccupied with death for a while now. For a long time I imagined that it was because I almost died when she was three weeks old (pulmonary embolism) but recently, out of the clear blue sky, Margot said, “Mama, I’m so glad I didn’t die in your belly.” I managed to just say “I’m very glad, too” instead of clutching my daughter to my chest and sobbing into her hair which is what I wanted to do. I was very sick (with Hyperemesis Gravidarum) during my pregnancy and could not eat or drink anything at all for over a month, and had a very scarce and limited diet for a long time following. In spite of those facts, we never thought that the child I was carrying was in any danger. Still, when she made that comment I was overcome with the idea that her obsession with death may have started when she was just a little ball of cells growing inside of me wondering if she would make it. Yes, this may seem a bit strange and unbelievable, but there is scientific proof that what babies experience in the womb affects their lives as children and adults. I know, also, that Margot remembered being in the womb around age two. She told me that everything looked red and that it sounded like “ba bum ba bum ba bum.” So, does she really remember the first trimester of my pregnancy? Is it possible that she has been thinking about death for LITERALLY her entire life??
I (obviously) can not ever answer that question. The real point here is that, however it happened, I have a child who says things like, “I’m glad I didn’t die in your belly” and over breakfast says (in her sweetest voice and without any serious concern) “is today the day we are going to die?” Believe me, the day that she said that to me, I looked more than twice every time we crossed the street. She just has this tendency to say unsettling things about death and dying. She sees a photo of someone and says “when they die, I want to see their bones.” In true Unschooling spirit, I have leaned into this fascination. We have borrowed every book the library had to offer about death. Her favorite one for a while was called “Missing Jack” about a boy whose cat Jack died. We have a cat. Named Jack. Who looks extremely similar to the cat in the book. She asked to read it every day multiple times a day for over a week.
So, the other day when Margot told me there was a ghost in our house, I went with it. Margot told me the ghost was scary and we needed to scare it away. We got some pots and pans and banged away saying “please leave us alone!!” The ghost went on it’s way and Margot and I talked about whether or not ghosts were real (we decided we don’t know for sure) and why that ghost was angry (it was because her brother died). And then, a new ghost came out. A little girl, the same age as Margot (even though she is the ghost of a woman who died because her body got too old and couldn’t live any more). Her name is Delilah and she has been living with us ever since. Delilah has curly hair like Margot’s but she can change the color of her hair whenever she wants to. She has a scooter just like Margot’s, but since Delilah is a ghost her scooter is also kind of magical; whenever we go anywhere in the car, the scooter attaches to the back of our car with a magnet and she rides behind us. Sometimes the angry ghosts come back to our house, and when they do Margot asks me to protect Delilah while she bangs on pots and pans to scare the angry ghosts away.
I know that imaginary friends are not anything to be worried about. I also know that only children are more likely to have imaginary friends than children with siblings and that sometimes children create imaginary friends in order to deal with a trauma. I’m not worried about Delilah’s presence in our lives. (Although when Margot told me there was an angry ghost asleep in my bed I admit I immediately put an end to all ghost talk for the rest of the night…) I have done the requisite googling to assure myself that children with imaginary friends develop better social skills and deeper empathy for their peers and grow up to be healthy and intelligent adults. One article even jokingly suggests that parents make up imaginary imaginary friends for their children on any preschool applications to indicate that their children are “gifted”. So, I’m cool with it! We play along and ask questions about Delilah and Margot even tells us that she’s not REALLY REAL if we pretend to, say, paint her nails or comb her hair. I AM SO COOL WITH ALL OF THIS.
Is my desperation showing? The truth is… I AM cool with it. I DO know all of these wonderful things the internet has to say about children with imaginary friends. But. I am also very aware of the fact that Delilah is, in some ways, a stand in for a sibling, which is something Margot will never have. And while I am over here being SO COOL WITH IT… it breaks my heart a little bit at the same time. We have chosen this life for our child. We have made all of these decisions about what her life will look like and so many of the choices we have made for her put her on the fringes of society. And then! We decided that she would be the only one! This lone weirdo with no siblings to lean on when life as a weirdo gets… weird. No one to lean on, that is, except for her imaginary friend who is a dead person.
Which is why doing this, this blogging thing, is kind of important. We have been very fortunate to find a family of unschoolers who we love in our neighborhood. But, it’s hard even to be just two families of weirdos. I want to find a global community of weirdos to learn with and share experiences with. I hope that putting ourselves out there like this helps us find that community. So that, hopefully, when Margot really needs someone to lean on, she has choices beyond me and a dead girl.