Monthly Archives: July 2017

Hello Barbie

I bought my daughter her first Barbie entirely unexpectedly.

It was a rainy, grey Monday. As usual, once she tired of her 15 minutes of iPad time, Isabel asked her daily question, “Where we going? I wanna go somewhere!” She’s an active, social kid and we rarely get through the day without a trip, well… somewhere.

The night before, I had begun making plans in my head. The conservation area. We would bring the net friends had just given Isabel for a birthday gift and go catch (and release) frogs and tadpoles. We would collect smooth stones into piles of dark and light. We would wander the trails, our eyes out for fresh raspberries growing wild. We would spend the morning outside.

When the day dawned cool and grey, I knew those plans were not going to pan out. I turned to my next favourite thing to do with my toddler: painting. But, our supplies were low, and she always likes a good trip to the dollar store, so, off we went.

She was thrilled to be there. As is our normal, I told her she could pick one treat, something small, candy or a toy, that she could have at the end of our shopping trip. Early on, she found a handful of suckers and held on to them pretty tightly. We made our way to the craft aisle. I lingered over decisions about paintbrushes, canvas, and sketchbooks. She took off down the aisle, as three year olds often do, and returned a moment later holding a familiar shaped box. Long. Kind of skinny. Very pink.

“Oh, Isabel,” I said. “Really?”

She held it out proudly toward me. Barbie. “I want this, Mumma!”

“Are you sure?” I said, leaving behind the sketchbooks. “I don’t know how I feel about that, Isabel.”

“Please, mum?” Isabel gets tense, her expression guarded, when she thinks she might not get something she wants. “Barbie! I want this!”

“Let’s go look,” I said, leading the way in the direction of the aisle she had plucked the toy from, hopeful that I might find something else to divert her affections. I suggested another doll, a baby, lacking the long legs and full bust that make Barbie so problematic. I even attempted to encourage the tiara and wand set her fingers lingered over briefly. But nothing else caught her eye so completely.

Over the past number of months, Isabel has become the girly girl I never expected to raise. Dolls. Dresses. All the toys from the pink aisle at Walmart. I know how this has happened; her daycare is all girls, and there, she’s being exposed to all the traditionally feminine toys, some of which, like Barbie, are just a touch above her age level. This is something I’m unwilling to change. Putting my daughter through a daycare transition because of my own prejudice against the gendered toys she plays with there seems unfair and maybe a little over-the-top.

So, my child’s life is, for three days a week, out of my control. But I do get to choose how I react to the change, and here I was, standing in a Dollar Tree toy aisle, wondering what the right way to deal with this was. There is no denying that Barbie is problematic. There’s the unnatural beauty standards, there’s the question of age-appropriateness.*

But, more importantly, I gave my daughter a choice. I had empowered her to look around the store, find something that she wanted, and walk out the doors with it. Taking back that freedom from her little three-year-old hands felt wrong. And what if I did say, “No, Isabel. Not this. Anything else, but not this”? What message would that give her?

Mom doesn’t keep her word.

Toys for girls aren’t as valuable, interesting, fun as other toys.

The toys I like aren’t as valuable, interesting, fun as other toys.

(I am not as valuable, interesting, fun.) 

Perhaps I’m overthinking this, giving a doll too much power, maybe, but I never want Isabel to think of herself, of girls, as lesser.

She made a choice. She made that choice entirely on her own. And sure, she’s three, and I’m the parent in this situation. But even three year olds should know that, when they’re told they get to make a choice, they actually get to make that choice.¬†Standing in that aisle, I decided to put aside my discomfort with a toy that goes against so many of my principles as a parent and honour my daughter’s right to choose something she likes. I don’t know if it was the right decision. I don’t know if there actually is a right decision in this case. I do know it made her happy,¬†so happy.

After we safely made it home and watching Isabel play with the doll for a while, a long-time Twitter and Instagram friend sent a little encouragement. Perhaps Barbie can open up some opportunities, rather than merely being the start of pushing Isabel into the box of beauty standards. Use Barbie to talk about different bodies. Give her a name and a career. Maybe this doll doesn’t have to have all the baggage that its inventors and the world have put on her. Can she be a positive influence? Can I turn her in to a good role model for my daughter?


I hope so. One way or another.

* There are also a ton of issues related to the sketchiness of Mattel’s business practices, but this was not a Barbie branded doll, so I feel some comfort that at least Isabel wasn’t begging me to support a seemingly corrupt company.

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After we bought our little house in Toronto, I became the sort of homebody that didn’t even want to spend a short weekend away from her little house, the projects we had on the go, and the domesticity of home life. Home was a sanctuary, a place in which I wanted to spend as much time as possible. I resented the obligations that would occasionally take us away to other parts of the province for short amounts of time. For about a year, there was no where else I wanted to be.

Eventually, as we wrapped up our projects and got used to the fact that we actually owned property, our attachment to our little house leveled out and became a little healthier, but I have always preferred home to anywhere else. I tend to dread camping trips, holidays, and visits to distant family in the weeks preceding plans, no matter how much I know I’ll enjoy the trip. Even day-to-day, I relish the time spent at home, and constantly feel like I don’t get enough.

But, even a homebody needs to get away.


We have just returned from two weeks of camping* in Prince Edward County. I spent the two weeks with my feet up, reading to my heart’s content, watching my children entertain themselves in a way they are incapable of at home. We left many of our worries at home – housekeeping, diets, the constant hum of social media. We turned off our phones, shifted our focus, re-centred, and recharged.

Retreat does not go naturally with motherhood. It is the sort of work one cannot easily retreat from, especially when one’s children are present. They still wanted to be with us, wanted to include us in their play, in their friendships, in their every small, volatile emotion. Isabel still had her days. Eden still needed diaper changes and help to sleep. More than one night, I found myself stepping away from the campfire at 8pm, called into the trailer by a squalling baby, and not emerging until morning. My girls still needed me; from them, I could not retreat.

And yet, the time out of our regular routines was invaluable. They found new, wonderful ways to occupy themselves, and I found myself with plenty of time for myself, which made me more willing, more content to be present with them when they needed or wanted me. I zipped through book after book. I pushed Isabel on the swing. I introduced Eden to the beach. I sat around the fire with Mark, chatting late into the night. By the second or third day, it was easy for us to recognize that we need aspects of retreat in our everyday lives.

For a part of the week, we wandered the park – it was a private trailer park, at which some friends and family own trailers – debating the possibility of joining the ranks of permanent summer campers. Would we enjoy this, having a place to call our weekend summer home, able to drop the world at a moment’s notice and drive ourselves to our own little space in the country? On one hand, our finances are already tight. On the other, we can easily recognize the ways in which retreat is good for us.

In the end, practicality won out and we shelved the idea for another year. Perhaps next year will be different. But for this year, we instead agreed that, rather than spending some money on creating a retreat away from home, we would do our best to cultivate the elements of retreat in our day-to-day, at least for the remainder of the summer.

What does this mean?

On one hand, for us, it may mean spending a little money to make some changes to our backyard and porch space to make them places in which we want to spend time. We’ve already begun this process to some extent, and I write this from our porch, watching the sky turn pale and dark on a Monday evening. Over the summer, we will work on this space to make it not just useable, but enjoyable, comfortable, beautiful even.

But, retreat is not just about place. It’s also about mindset. It’s that feeling you get when you arrive at your destination, a destination that is not home, where everything is different, and you feel, in some ways, like a new person. It’s as if being in that new place gives you permission to grab hold of the things you want out of life – deep conversation and connection, true leisure. Why else do writers and artists feel the need to escape their lives in order to find creativity? We hope to recreate that feeling, without ever leaving our pretty porch.

For me, this means less social media and more reading, writing, art, and creativity. It means less scrolling through a Facebook feed and more being present and focused. For Mark, it means less TV and more activity – more gardening, more building, more fitness, more reading, more conversation. For both of us, it means staying off the Internet, shedding the sort of distraction that allows the evening to pass in a blur of nothing.

I hope we will be able to hold onto this lesson, this reminder. I hope that we will be able to find retreat at home. If not, if, in a year, we found ourselves back into old habits, perhaps it will be time to invest in that place of retreat.

* I say camping, but only for a lack of a better word. Trailer camping is not really camping, especially when said trailer is hooked up to electrical and water. This is how some people live year-round, and quite comfortably. It’s not camping.

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