A mother and her daughter sit on a wooden floor playing with Barbie dolls. The daughter stops pensively and looks at her mother with hope in her eyes.
- “Mom, how do you know when it’s true love?”
- “Well, usually the music gets louder. Oh, or sometimes they look up in slow-motion.”
- “No, not on TV, Mom; in real life.”
The mother’s face clouds over, and she gazes off in the distance, eager to find something to which to change the subject. She doesn’t have a clue as to how to answer and guide her child through this tough time in her life, so she finds it easier just to ignore the issue. Her own personal examples only come from those fictional television couples, and she knows from firsthand experience how unhealthy it can be to grow up with those as role models.
Such a scene in a film will inevitably cause me to laugh-out-loud-- as was the case with Amy Heckerling's I Could Never Be Your Woman-- but should one occur in my actual life, I might just have a panic attack. Like Michelle Pfeiffer’s character, I’d have to take a moment to pause and figure out a way to distract my child from the fact that I can’t quite answer, and if I’m just honest enough to say that I don’t know, I’ll inevitably have to contend with the “But why?” that follows. Now, I don’t plan to have my own children, and in doing that, I also plan not to have girls. That should alleviate some of the past experiences that I’d be expected to share, but I know I, too, won’t be able to stave off all of the questions forever.
No one has ever come right out and accused me of not having a clue when I talk about relationships or offer my psycho-analyzation about the current guy or girl situation in which my friends are currently, but I often wonder if that’s what they’re silently thinking while I’m rambling. “What the hell does she know?” And maybe they’d even be right in thinking that way; after all, the time I’ve known some of my closest friends now has been one of perpetual singledom for me, and contrary to what popular film and television may tell you, a woman can be happy that way: I most certainly am. For all of this time, I have actively pursued staying single, and it’s actually easier to do than one might think. I’m not looking for a relationship, and I’m not the kind of girl who will just troll bars or clubs for a one-night stand, so right now, I just find it easier to just stay away from dating in general.
So how do you explain something to your child that you’ve never experienced for yourself and that you’re not even sure really exists? Do you revert to outdated images of childhood fairy tales or even the slightly more updated post-millenium ones? Do you point to people who seem to have it all (assuming you’re blessed enough to have such examples in your life)? Do you throw on a song or print out some lyrics and leave it up to the kid's own interpretation? Or do you turn it around and ask the kid what he or she thinks true love is?
My own parents did none of the above, probably mostly because I never brought my inquiries to their attention. So like Pfeiffer's character, all of my examples came from on-screen. I saw what I thought was true love first with Ariel and Eric and eagerly identified with the young hopeful who spotted the dude (and even though he was of a different species) just immediately knew. I patiently rewound my soundtrack cassette as the afternoons clicked on until I had all of the lyrics to "Part of Your World" memorized and could belt them out along with Jodi Benson (though I came nowhere near hitting the same notes).
It was not until I got a little bit older, though, that I realized (even when it's fictional) it's not all flowers and love songs in a relationship. Jesse and Rebecca and Zack and Kelly got together, fought, and separated-- albeit sometimes over petty misunderstandings-- but they ended up together in the end. So even though their problems barely scratched the surface of what those of us in the "real world" may face, they were examples that there had to be love there to survive... right?
A few years later, John and Marlena and Carrie and Austin had insane (seemingly insurmountable) obstacles thrown at them from all angles, and yet despite the divorces and the brainwashings and the marriages to other people, they, too, always found their way as a couple. And that's when it hit me: in all of these scenarios-- in all of these relationships-- the guy always took on the stereotypical provider/hero role. He was there to swoop in and save his lady love from whatever ghastly fate she may be facing this week, never limited to just the serious kidnappings (ahem, Mr. Black), but also creating a mini-prom when she couldn't afford the real one (Mr. Morris). None of that necessarily screams love at all; in fact, none of that is a particularly healthy image to which to look up and secretly hope for your own life. Yet, here they were: my examples.
But that only caused me to dig a little bit deeper inside of myself. If your actual life is so devoid of positive, happy, in-love couples that you have to look to the screen to understand the meaning of those words, . Maybe even in the beginning, in my early examples, I wasn't so much dreaming of the dark-haired prince to rescue me from a stifling existence as I was just dreaming of that escape in general.
Baby Danielle, trying to bust out of her fenced-in world since the 1980s.
And maybe that explains a little bit more about the way that I am now. Maybe I knew who I was at such a young age-- and became comfortable with who I was at such a young age-- because of all of the forced introspection. I didn't take things at face value or just accept what people tried to tell me; I questioned, and I thought about how it all applied to me, to my life. And that's what I want my own kids to do someday; I don't want them to be mindless, nodding drones that just blindly accept anything they see or hear. There are a whole lot of theories these days about the effect television has on children's emotional growth, and I'm not going to argue either side because I can only speak to my own very unique, very subjective experiences. But I will say this: as much as I did or did not learn about the reality of love from fictional examples, I know enough to know I never want my kids to feel like they can only get their answers from a flat panel on a wall. All of my neuroses that they'll think I'm talking out of my ass or my uncertainty about what to say to them or how to say it aside, I do know it is not a job but a privilege as a parent to share your story with your children, and as much as it may be with trepidation, I am looking forward to those moments.