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October 30, 2008

American Girl Gothic

2 I took my 4-year-old to Chicago's American Girl Place for the fist time, and she handled the wanton display of material girlhood with such grace that I felt proud. And sad.

She didn't say much as we made our way through the two floors of displays -- dolls, their furniture, their pets, their ice skates and of course their outfits, along with matching real-live-girl-sized outfits for their owners. Finally, after we had stared with shared amazement as dolls had their hair done in the doll salon, Nutmeg ventured a comment.

"If I got an American Girl doll, I would take her here, just to have things done to her."

Her voice was thoughful, not whining, not excited, and -- maybe this is just my hope talking here -- not wistful. Not once on our journey across both floors had she said to me that she wanted anything she saw, much less asked me to buy anything. All around us, well-put together young ladies her age and older held dolls of their own. They left with shopping bags full of new accessories for their "girls."

My daughter left with a free catalog. She carried it carefully through three El transfers (we accidentally boarded the wrong line after the first transfer) before she started getting upset because her baby sister was stepping on it, so I put it away for her in my bag.

I was proud of Nutmeg for not whining or begging for a doll. I certainly wasn't planning on buying anything on our visit; we had gone to the store just to spend time with out-of-town friends who wanted to see it. And yet, watching her hold the free catalog, I felt a twinge.

I thought of Laura Ingalls' parents in Little Town on the Prairie; telling her that although they were poor they wanted her to enjoy the pleasures the other girls at school enjoyed. They ordered for her the fad of the day: custom printed name cards to give away at school.

We are not poor, but I take my daughters with me on every shopping trip and they know how carefully I spend. I forbid them to ask for things in stores because I cannot stand the sound of a whining child begging for material things. I have tried to explain clearly, and without excess emotion, why we need to limit our spending.

I want very much for my children to grow up knowing how to be sensible stewards of their financial resources, to not bend to the pressure to consume that permeates our environment.

And yet.

There was something about the little girl who admired all those dolls without asking for anything. Something docile.

Am I raising a girl who grows up to ask for nothing? Nothing from employers who give raises and plumb assignments to squeakier wheels? Nothing from a husband who accepts her hard work and love without offering enough in return?

Or am I just raising a smart saver and investor who will be able to take care of herself in lean times and fat?

I am sure about one thing: We never should have gone to American Girl Place, not without a doll or the intention of buying one. Fiscal restraint is one thing, but why did I lead a child through a palace of wonders only to leave her with the impression that she is less worthy than the girls all around her who partook in those wonders?

During the whole visit, I found myself, an adult of relatively robust psyche, in an emotional wind tunnel that I struggled to articulate.

"I feel simultaneously above it all and like I'm not good enough," I told my friend. The mothers in designer outfits and their perfectly coiffed daughters amplified my children's grubbiness and my own. Our stroller was crusty. My toddler's diaper had leaked pee on my shirt and on her pants. I was looking at outfits for dolls that cost $22 or more -- more than I spend on outfits for my real live children.

I could see the ridiculous and sickening excess of it all, especially on a day when the stock market was careening southward, when families all over America faced being put on the street, and when I could not stop wondering how my own family would keep our home if job disaster struck. I reminded myself about children who die for lack of a $10 mosquito net, children who don't go to school because their parents can't afford a $10 fee, and laughed at myself for mooning over something so unnecessary.

And yet, these dolls are so beguiling, especially as they are presented in their lucite cases with their tidy environments and their little possessions. I pictured what they would look like once they were out of the box in my house: accessories scattered to the four winds, hair tangled, collars stubbornly standing up at odd angles.

That, I think, is what both attracted me and sunk me as I admired those dolls and the families who owned them. Like magazines, they presented an alternate reality that looked so much nicer than the world I live in. A reality where little girls and their toys are tidy, smooth and together. Where everything comes with the proper back story, and where a little girl or her parent has the patience to match every detail of an outfit to her doll's, down to the ankle socks and the earrings. And, as luck would have it, a reality that I could buy.

The vertigo I felt in that store matched the panic brought on by reading Seventeen magazine at the age of 12: The American Girl dolls not only presented a better reality, they told me this is what I should be doing. Then, I realized that I was supposed to have a multistep beauty routine and separate wardrobes for each season of the year. Now, I was learning that my home should be a place where a doll could maintain with dignity her small wardrobe of dresses, her orderly and pleasant little bedroom set.

It wasn't until years later that I gained the maturity to put down any magazine that made me feel like a lesser person.

I hope that, during my visit to American Girl Place, I gained the maturity to leave any place that makes me feel like a lesser mother.

Original Chicago Moms Blog post. Carrie Kirby blogs at My Funny, Funny Family and writes about frugal living at Shoplifting With Permission.

Photo by Jeff Sandquist.

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