Thirteen years ago, Labor Day weekend, my now-husband and I moved to New York City. We had no jobs lined up, had rented an apartment we had not seen and couldn’t afford, had been dating for about five minutes, and en route to the big city, we lost the only debit card we had that was attached to an account with money in it.
Five years ago, Labor Day weekend, our first child, Molly, was born in a hospital on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Next week, over Labor Day weekend, we will celebrate her birthday, three days before she starts Kindergarten. There is a list on our fridge of “supplies” for her classroom that she will need; she is committed to after-school classes or lessons three times a week in the fall. She became a real child without my noticing, without permission, and without looking back.
It is impossible to describe what it is like to watching my once-baby giggle with her friends, pretending to be “mama” to her dolls, “mooning” me to impress a playdate. More difficult because it does not all feel good–it is joy with regret, and fear, and guilt, and wonder, and sadness. It is impossible to fathom how time eludes us once children arrive. Each year, they become unrecognizable from the baby or child they were the year before. Each day is over before I’ve begun to take it in.
Today we took three of Molly’s girlfriends with their moms to lunch at a local store that caters to doll-crazy, fashion-obsessed girls from around the world. It also caters to dolls. It is a tourist destination, this store. The unsettling atmosphere of noise and plastic dolls and escalators is overwhelming and impersonal, not at all pleasant–unless you are a doll-crazy, fashion-obsessed little girl–or her doll.
My best friend joined us briefly–before she was scared off by the whining and all the miniature pink party hats–with her new baby girl. I recognized in her face those same thoughts I used to have when I was around parents with older kids and mine were babies–that will never happen to me. Just as we think we will never become the parents who bring screaming toddlers out to dinner, or lose touch with girlfriends because we’re too busy with parenting obligations, or declare yoga pants okay for “cocktail” attire. As well, we think our babies will remain just so–immobile, helpless, warm and slippery, smiling on cue, themselves so much like dolls we dress them and redress them in tiny versions of the outfits we would wear.
I remember bringing Molly to a pediatrician appointment within her first few weeks. Something had appeared on her skin, a rash. Or maybe it was her umbilical cord hadn’t come off completely on schedule. Or she’d spit up too many times. I don’t remember. But I remember rushing to get there before the office closed. And once the doctor had assured me that everything was normal, getting Molly’s baby jeans back on to her squiggling legs, her purple tee shirt and cardigan buttoned. Slipping her applique loafers onto her feet. “It’s like dressing a doll, isn’t it?” The doctor asked. “They’re like dolls at that age.”
And they are until they startle us with their insight and observations, their personalities that come from anywhere and nowhere and exactly where. Molly insisted a few weeks ago that we let the Green Peace workers talk to us. “They want money, and we already give to other organizations that save the animals,” I explained, trying to move past them on 14th Street. “But mommy, I want to save the animals!” And so we stopped.
The kids all got new, expensive dolls at the store today, courtesy of my mother. None would sleep with the doll in his or her bed, so the dolls are sitting on the couch with my husband and me, watching television tonight. They are surprisingly lifelike, and to an almost disturbingly degree, resemble our three children in miniature. This is the appeal of those particular dolls, I realize–the ability we have to customize their features to match our child’s hair, skin color, and eyes. Was it the kids or we who were drawn to these dolls earlier today? Didn’t I delight in how much the doll “twins” look like our own Henry and Ellie once we matched every color exactly so?
They are marketed with pure brilliance. Obviously children, little girls in various stages of developing their sense of themselves and their friendships, gravitate toward these trusted companions, with their stories and their histories, the party dresses and tennis clothes, the canopy beds and the writing desks–the possibilities for play lay endlessly before them.
And we parents, too, are enchanted–shelling out hundreds of dollars for the fantasy; the delight in our daughters and sons; the dolls that will eventually find places on shelves, in closets, lying on the beds of grown children away at college. And the dolls will be at that moment as they are today. As always, though, we are happy to participate in the most sought-after fantasy of parenting, to play any game that offers an illusion of time standing still.