My younger sister and I are at odds over how I’m raising her niece.
My daughter is obsessed with princesses, fairies and ballerinas. She only wears dresses and is usually in pink. This is not us, this is not like the childhood we had… My sister is wondering how I let this happen; what happened to me?
Before I had children, it seemed obvious to me that the perfect childhood was the one my sister and I had. By today’s standards we might have been tom-boys but today’s standards seem to polarize girls and boys more than they used to. Between princess and tom-boy there were plenty of ways to fit in. My sister and I were blissfully ignorant of what was supposed to be ‘girl-stuff’ and ‘boy stuff’.
This nostalgia over our childhood costumed by corduroy dungarees and focused on tree- climbing, bike riding, marbles and make-believe, had created a prejudice against all things pink and frilly and anything demanding that girls be ‘all-girl’: Namely, ballet.
I’m not against ballet itself; it’s a beautiful, expressive art and I admire the dancers’ strength and grace. I also know there’s nothing wrong with little girls wanting to do little-girl-things. It’s just that it wasn’t like me and maybe I expected, or dare I admit it, hoped, that a daughter would be just like me.
I was probably worried that if I indulged any part of a daughter’s ‘girlie side’ it would take over and I wouldn’t recognize in her the childhood I had; the one I dreamed of repeating, to the letter, for my own children.
Pre-children, I promised myself I’d take them to an outdoorsy, co-ed, all-rounder type of activity. I was imagining myself on the sidelines at little athletics and nippers.
I wasn’t imagining myself in the front row of a ballet performance, but now that real children have entered the equation, here I am.
Partly as a bribe for going to swimming lessons (the bribe being her promise to go – and to try her best not to leave her fingernails embedded in the teacher’s shoulders) and partly indulging her passion for dress-ups, my husband and I signed our pig-tailed pony-galloper up to the local community centre’s baby ballet class.
Now, having taken my place in the row of parents and grandparents sitting expectantly at the first ‘watching morning’, camera charged and ready, my pre-child parenting theories are looking a bit silly.
As she thumps around the sunlit hall with complete abandon, in a flurry of pink tulle, I see Ruby enthralled, and most impressively for an impatient preschooler – focused.
At ballet she is the swan, or the lost princess, or the rainbow fairy. Despite a plie that resembles a squat and her left leg’s refusal to skip sabotaging her best efforts at a fluid ‘step- hop-run’; in her mind she’s fluttering through the clouds leaving us spluttering in a wake of fairy dust.
Miss Jane and Miss Chelsea (it takes two to herd the first year of ballerinas through their paces) gracefully arc their arms over their heads as they instruct the girls: “Make your rainbows”. Stretching onto their pointes they then dip into the air and fold their hands over their hearts: “Now pluck the stars out of the sky and put them in your heart, one by one.”
This stanza ends with a small pirouette before Miss Jane turns to lead her tutu-ed charges stage left for some ‘grand jete’ across the room – minus one fairy.
Ruby is still working on the stars. She may have missed a few and she’s taking great care to pick them up gently, cradling each one, before placing it back in her heart with a benevolent smile of someone who really believes she’s responsible for the night sky.
She’s just getting around to the sweeping rainbow move, still grinning manically, when she’s brought back to earth by a sharp clapping from the wings.
She returns to Earth and bounds back to the chorus line, pausing to sneeze wetly into her hands (good on her for remembering, I’m thinking) then joins hands with her classmates (wince or snigger from the other mums, depending on their daughters’ position in the line).
I’m vaguely embarrassed by this little public health violation, but I’m barely present in the room either. I’m as entranced by my daughter’s disregard for the world around her as she is by the magic of her dance. She’s created another space for herself and taken me with her, letting me in on a secret that makes stars out of sunlit dust specks and waves out of the traffic sounds outside.
I’m so glad I brought her here. If only I could bottle this confidence, this serenity, and feed it back to her when she turns 15; when those stars will either seem out of reach, not worth the hassle or just boring and stupid; when she’ll be more concerned with what she looks like than what it feels like when she’s dancing, running … sitting still breathing.
I’m relaxed, my now trivial preconceptions having disappeared over the rainbow. Okay she’s not out learning ball-skills and doing mixed sports but she’s using her body, learning coordination, doing something physical – with the added touch of drama and magic that’s captured her imagination.
I might even be a bit envious, wondering if I was ever as captivated by something, or if I still could be.
I’m contrite, having to admit that nostalgia for my own beloved childhood teeters precariously close to self-righteousness. For now my daughter loves the pretty things in life and the wonderful twinkling world that ballet invokes for her. I only hope she will retain the true freedom of the three year old ballerina, and seek it out in what ever she does.
I still harbour secret hopes about nippers or soccer but I know there’s so much time for all of that.
I doubt there’s much time left to be lost in the clouds with the fairies. While it lasts Ruby can keep her wings – she might even teach her aunt a thing or two about flying.