I have a friend named Lucy.
She is kind of-- forgive me, Lucy!-- obsessed with the idea of getting married.
She tries on a lot of white dresses. This, in turn, leads her to stare in the mirror and worry about her weight.
She talks all the time about the guy she plans to marry (problem is, I'm not sure he feels the same way about her, ugh).
She refuses to accept the idea that maybe she simply hasn't yet met Mr. Right, or that it's perfectly ok to *not* get married.
Oh, also: Lucy is five.
WHERE DOES THIS COME FROM, AND HOW DOES IT START SO EARLY??
My own daughters have been similarly affected by this curious phenomenon. The 3- and 4-year-olds often request to watch our wedding video (and dwell on the getting ready part, I guess it's a stealth way of getting in some professional makeup instruction?). The 4-year-old goes on at length about the boy she considers to be her future husband (hello, A!) and dismisses me out of hand when I suggest that maybe she's a little too young to start planning a registry. And while I appreciate the important teaching moment that presents itself when I spot two of my daughters dressing up in bridal attire simultaneously ("Hey, are you two girls marrying each other? Well of COURSE two girls can marry each other, as can two boys! You MARRY the person you LOVE!"), it troubles me that weddings already feature so prominently in their projections for the future.
I honestly have no idea where all this is coming from. I don't think it's just that they interact with their own married parents every day; we hardly walk around the house pimping our matrimonial status like newlyweds. Nor could it be originating in the much-maligned princess stories, because, while our household is certainly not immune to the ATTACK OF THE KILLER DISNEY MARKETING CAMPAIGN (yes, we have princess *everything*), I've held off on telling them the anti-woman, first-meet-the-man, then-live-happily-ever-after stories that accompany each character (in fact, my 3-year-old recently told us she overheard someone at school talking about "Snow White and the Seven Skurfs") (smurfs with biker headscarves?). And I'm sure they're not getting it from movies, because our viewing habits generally revolve around Mary Poppins and Hi-5 / Wiggles / Barney dance numbers. Not a lot of bouquet-throwing there.
What else could it be? The kids have only attended one wedding (in which they were flower girls) (seized with such sudden stage fright that it was necessary for the bride and groom to EACH CARRY ONE OF THEM DOWN THE AISLE, creating the appearance of long-hidden love children to befuddled distant relatives who had flown in for the occasion, I almost DIED). And sure, our costume box does boast a few plain white dresses, but it was entirely the girls' idea to turn their ballet tutus into bridal veils. So what gives?
Perhaps the marriage mentality is just so completely OUT THERE in all the cultural cues that I've become desensitized to it. When my eldest and I peruse the tabloids over breakfast (is that wrong?), we are quick to ooh and aah over the celebrity wedding spreads. And when one of our family friends gets engaged, I guess we do make a big fuss over celebrating the milestone-- maybe to the point that the girls have come to believe that getting married equals joy, praise and attention? Hmmm.
Ok, well, putting that aside for a moment: Why does it make me nervous that the preschool set is so passionately marriage-minded?
I think the reasons are twofold:
One, I worry, as all parents of girls do, about the pressure on kids to be sexually precocious; I am always surprised that romantic physical contact between boys and girls even occurs to children of this age. My neighbor told me that when she recently chaperoned a field trip for 6-year-olds, the kids were pretending to HOOK UP in the back of the bus (hence the need for chaperones, I guess!!). Famously, my own parents were summoned into a teacher conference to discuss my kindergarten self's insistence of smooching all the boys (it should have been obvious THEN that I would be trouble later on). And this very afternoon, a teacher had to interrupt the gym class to rescue my 3-year-old daughter from a little boy who was trying to pin her down and kiss her. I wonder, then, if all the hype over marriage, which at this age seems to suggest one boy and one girl pairing up (note to self: read "Three to Tango" to the kids more often), only furthers the children's curiosity as to what they are supposed to do *after* they've paired up? Do I need to start my girls now on "Why would they buy the cow when they can get the milk for free?"
Second, I am concerned about the self-esteem issues that immediately flow from the idea that marriage is mandatory. At what point does a little girl realize that she is pretty, or not? That finding boys who want to date her (and eventually, marry her) will be easy, or challenging? At what point does she begin taking steps to making herself more attractive to the opposite sex: sucking in her tummy, batting her eyelashes submissively? And at what point does she start feeling bad about herself when she realizes that there are other girls who are prettier, thinner, and more confident? Is there any way to stem that tide... or at least postpone its impact?
I know there are things we do, as a society, that expedite our daughters' evolution from sexually ignorant to sexually aware. I mean, heck, one of my earliest childhood memories is being "married" at age 7 to a kid named Kevin on the way to day camp: the bus was extravagantly decorated with wedding bells, and some kid puked (too much champagne) so we had to pull over and abandon the matrimonial vehicle in favor of a decidedly less-celebratory van. On Valentines' Day, schools encourage our kids to draw big red hearts and talk mushily about love. There is no shortage of Barbie dolls decked out in full bridal regalia; is this bad? What's ultimately more hazardous about Wedding Day Barbie: the rib- (and soul-) crushing dimensions of her waist, or the symbolic white of her polyester dress?
My concern over little kids trying to make sense of adult themes doesn't end there, no: we have not only toddlers & marriage to contend with, but also its evil stepsister, toddlers & divorce. I found myself in a real ethical bind this summer as Jon and Kate, hosts of the girls' former favorite show, tore each other to shreds in the public colosseum. How was I to respond when my 4-year-old said to me, "Hey Mom, who's that skank in the magazine with Jon?" (slight embellishment). Was that my cue to delve into the mature topics of mid-life crises and famewhores and the reckless abandonment of wedding vows? Or should I have just stuck to, "His friend, honey"? I chose the latter. Not because I don't think my eldest could absorb the idea of people getting un-married, but because I didn't want her first exposure to divorce to involve the parents of kids her age, didn't want her worrying that it could happen to us.
I guess the upshot of all this introspection is recognizing that my daughters' interest in becoming brides is probably no passing fad, and therefore the onus is on my husband and me to continue to provide them with as many positive, egalitarian demonstrations of matrimony as possible. In fact, as I sit here and contemplate the societal implications of a 4-year-old who is already waiting for someone to put a ring on it, I find myself doing this little mathematical calculation: My eldest is four. I got married at 29. This means, if she's anything like her mom, she's got another TWENTY-FIVE YEARS before she walks down that aisle. For all my daughters' sake, I desperately hope that marriage experiences a rebirth during that quarter-century: that, by the time she finally says, "I do," gay marriage is as widely-accepted as "opposite marriage" (it just never stops giving, Miss South Carolina), and that the sobering trend of divorce in this country has been reversed. Because while my daughters' current view of marriage is unrealistically simple and rose-colored, I actually kinda hope it is something they don't outgrow: a little child-like optimism and whimsy might be just what the ol' institution needs.