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Thanks, Barbie, for making me a better parent

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There would not be Barbies in my home.

These words, spoken both before I had children and in the early years of my two daughters’ lives, rarely went challenged by the women around me. We all shared this sentiment, believing, without really diving into why, that Barbies were a direct affront to the type of feminism we wanted to pass on to our children.

Never mind that I had grown up with Barbies, entire plastic containers of Barbies and all of their accessories, or that I played with them probably for far longer than many of my peers. This was a new generation. Not to mention that the thought of those tiny stilettos and purses and tiaras — and now even teeny spiders (see: Entomologist Barbie) — scattered throughout my house made my Type A skin crawl.

Yet here I am, manipulating Barbie’s stiff arms into a party dress at the request of my 3-year-old. Here I am, gathering towels to put under Barbie’s pool in the hopes of keeping the floor reasonably dry. Here I am, working with my 5-year-old to gather the tiny stilettos (and running shoes and hiking boots) strewn throughout the playroom and dump them into their own plastic container before bedtime.

How in the world did I get here?

As with many things, you could blame the grandparents. My girls discovered Barbie — specifically my old Barbies — on a visit to my parents’ house. To be fair, my mom did ask first, and I said fine, my girls could play with Barbies there. It would be something special, something to do on the two or three visits we make each year to their house, a distant 537 miles from our own.

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Then there were the two secondhand Barbies purchased at the giant community yard sale by the other set of grandparents. Again, fine, I agreed, so long as the Barbies stayed at their house, on the opposite coast from ours. But then Barbie appeared alongside Skittles and chocolate eggs in my girls’ Easter baskets. And beneath the birthday wrapping paper. And more recently, under the Christmas tree, the neon pink of Barbie boxes outshining the twinkling holiday lights. It was a Very Merry Barbie Christmas indeed. And for this, I have no one to blame but myself.

Of course, there are lots of potential parenting lessons here: The reminder that you don’t really know anything about parenting until you actually do it. The importance of letting children have their own interests, even when they’re not what we wanted, hoped or dreamed. The necessity of accepting the mess, the millions of small parts that come standard issue with childhood. But the truth is, I’ve embraced Barbie for reasons that are much more self-serving. Barbie makes me a better parent.

Far from my fear that Barbie would be nothing but a gateway to superficial concerns of appearance or the false idea that you can be everything (both a hair stylist and an astronaut!), the dolls have been a critical tool for processing daily life — its moments of joy, uncertainty, fear, excitement, anxiety and more. My children often answer my questions about their days at kindergarten and preschool with abbreviated responses that provide me little real information, but when they are playing with Barbie, they recreate their days in exacting detail. The Barbies go to schools strikingly similar to the ones my daughters attend. The dolls do gymnastics and ballet, go to performances and sporting events, have play dates with friends, and take the trips we have planned.

“Don’t forget to say ‘Bonjour’ when we go into the pâtisserie,” I hear my older daughter’s Barbie instructing her sister’s doll. A second later, I hear the younger girl’s Barbie clear out the pâtisserie’s entire supply of macarons. From my perch in the dining room, near enough that I can keep an ear on them while I work but not so close that my presence restricts them, I suppress a laugh. Obviously, they have their priorities for (what was to have been) our spring break trip to Paris in order.

In the dialogue my daughters hold between Barbies, I am treated to their interpretations of what they hear from teachers, coaches, friends and even me. Sometimes I glow with pride, as I hear my own words being used to encourage or celebrate or kindly instruct. Other times, I cringe as they replay my less-than-stellar moments, a painful but important reminder that, even when it doesn’t seem like it, they hear and remember everything I say.

As much as I love being privy to the day’s little details — what project they’re working on in cultural studies, the words to the new song they’re learning in music, what their best bud brought for snack — what makes me stop typing and lean in for a better listen is when the Barbies reveal their fears, worries, and insecurities. My oldest daughter is a bright, kind and loving child who guards her feelings with a dragon-like fierceness, resisting most of my efforts to get her to open up about things that are bothering her. Instead, she tucks them away, holding them tightly inside until she blows fire, leaving me desperately attempting to understand what the actual problem is.

But when I hear her Barbie say that she’s scared of the dark or announce that she’s not going to play with another Barbie because she’s being too mean, I know my daughter is expressing something she doesn’t feel comfortable saying outright.

“Did I hear that Barbie’s scared of the dark?” I ask, as I make a detour with my laundry basket through their playroom. “Do you have any ideas about how you could help her?” Sometimes she jumps in with an answer before I even finish my question, knowing exactly what she wants, but not wanting to say as much; other times she asks me what I think. I don’t always offer up the right idea (as she will make clear), but at least we’re now talking, and with the focus kept squarely on Barbie, we’re able to together navigate issues she’d otherwise keep hidden.

As we now try to find our way through this strange and anxiety-ridden time of coronavirus and canceled everything, the little window that Barbie provides into my girls’ thoughts feels even more vital. What do they know? How well do they understand what is happening? What are they worried about? What seems scary or overwhelming? Is there anything about this time that might actually feel fun and exciting?

Of course, it didn’t have to be Barbie. It could have been those cute little wooden dolls I bought in an attempt to preempt Barbie — the ones that were roundly ignored for two years until I passed them on to another family. Yet, for whatever reason, Barbie speaks to my girls. . . and allows them to speak more openly to me, even if they have no idea that’s what they’re doing.

So, okay, Barbie, wipe your feet, wash your hands (for the full 20 seconds), and come on in. But for the love of all things holy, please make sure you put your shoes where they belong.

Theresa Blackinton is a freelance writer and editor living in Durham, N.C. Find her on Twitter @livesofwander.

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