Originally published March 2, 2012
Last Saturday I promised my four-year-old daughter movie and pizza night if she behaved herself all day while I caught up on work in the office. I don’t know as I would go so far as to call my daughter “girly.” She hates baby dolls, loves cars, trucks, trains and LEGOs and is especially fond of getting as dirty as possible when outdoors, but she also has a fondness for all things Barbie and princess. I’m okay with Barbie, and I’m actually okay with princesses, too, as long as we’re just talking about dressing up in a fabulous gown and looking beautiful for the day.
But there is a point at which my tolerance runs a little thin. Heidi persistently asks for Disney princess or Barbie princess movies–you know the ones where the girl finds her “one true love” and lives “happily ever after.” And much though I’d like to pretend my efforts to make her strong, independent, and choosy are overriding all this falderal, I know they’re not.
I still try though and resisted Heidi’s begging for yet another Barbie princess movie last weekend and chose instead the movie Enchanted. You may have seen it. It’s a little bit of an anti-fairytale with the otherworldly princess rejecting Prince Charming in favor of an imperfect marriage to a New York divorce lawyer. It still has the flavor of happily ever after, but it’s a slightly better twisting of reality.
Heidi loved it, and she even got it when the princess fought the dragon instead of the divorce lawyer. But still, it wasn’t perfect. Because the princess fails, and both she and her lover are saved by a chipmunk. Women are still not allowed to save themselves in fairytales.
A friend of mind calls Disney princess “mind-fuck for girls.” I think that’s an apt description.
Rare is the woman, no matter how intelligent, who does not suffer to some degree from a childhood of fairytale mind-fucking. I always thought it had bypassed me. Instead of browsing through catalogs at pictures of stunning wedding gowns as a pre-adolescent girl, I was cutting out pictures of my dream house…which I did eventually build, by the way. It seemed to me, even when I was quite young, that I had a much better chance of building the perfect house than of finding the perfect man.
You can control the construction of a house. Love is something else entirely. It runs where it wants to without asking anyone’s permission in advance. And most men are not prepared to be Prince Charming. They didn’t grow up watching princess movies. So there’s an emotional disconnect between boys and girls right from the get-go. My preschooler recognizes it already. She told me in the car one day, “Boys are stupid, Mommy.” I nodded, for there was much truth in this statement. And then she continued, “Daddy is a boy, so Daddy must be stupid.”
I laughed aloud, as I often do when profundity on a grand scale comes out of Heidi’s mouth. One of my girlfriends told me Heidi is far more advanced than we ever were as girls if she already gets the idea that guys don’t get us.
Even though my parents raised me not too put too much credence in fairytales and to make my own way in the world without relying on anyone else to make it for me, they apparently did not protect me enough. Because I still grew up believing that maybe, just maybe, I would fall in love with my best friend and live happily ever after.
It didn’t happen. Not for lack of trying. I think, like so many women (especially young ones), I did my best to cram romantic partners into my personal visions of Prince Charming. And the poor men could not help but fail. My former husband had no idea I actually wanted to be proposed to at the lovely overlook where we first watched the sunset on Skyline Drive. I honestly don’t remember exactly anymore how he asked, it was so unmemorable. Others were worse. Like the boyfriend who foolishly told me he’d bought me a diamond just out of the blue with no indication beforehand that marriage was even on the table. I told him he better pay off his college loans and credit card debt before he dared show me the thing. Thank heaven for that caveat. We broke up long before he had his finances in order, and I was saved from what probably would have been a disastrous marriage.
So I don’t have a romantic proposal story about being carried off on a white horse into the sunset to pass onto my daughter. But then my mother didn’t have one to pass onto me either. She got her engagement ring in the mail. (My dad was in the Air Force in Texas at the time.)
And maybe these anti-fairytales are better anyway. For what pain women suffer in believing that a man will sweep them off their feet one day and love and cherish them forever after. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, mind you. But it’s rare. In my 36 years, I’ve encountered only one such couple. They were in their 50s when I met them, working at a museum where I had a part-time job during grad school. They’d been married 30 years. Every day at the end of work, that man would come into the gift shop where his wife worked, scoop her up off her feet, and kiss her. And she would giggle like a young bride. It was amazing to watch. Everyone in that museum shop would turn to look, no matter how many times we had seen it. And we all longed to be so lucky.
Because a lot of it is luck in the end, isn’t it? Chances are Mr. Right is out there for you. But chances are he lives on the other side of the country or maybe halfway across the world. He may not even speak the same language as you. How do you find him? That man whose personality is so magnetic that you’ll forgive him a thousand times for failing to put his socks in the hamper or for failing to pick the kids up on time? (Because you know the reason you’re really mad at your husband about his sloppiness and forgetfulness is because you’re mad at him for not being Prince Charming, right?) He’s not your match, and both of you know it, so you spar over the kids’ grades, whose turn it is to do the grocery shopping, why his mother is coming over again, and what to do on the weekend that everyone will enjoy.
Most of us settle for Mr. Half-Right. Or maybe even Mr. One-Quarter-Right because we know that our chances of finding the true Mr. Right are very slim. And someone told us somewhere, likely in a fairytale, that we have to get married, have kids, and pretend to live happily ever after with our “one true love.”
I’d like to think I’m over it. Sometimes I think I am. I’m a realist at least 85 percent of the time. I know men and women often don’t speak the same language, that they have wholly different expectations, that neither gender can be expected to read the other’s mind. I know that 90 percent of the time when a man hurts me, frustrates me, makes me crazy, he really has no idea he’s doing it.
But then something will inspire me to start believing in fairytales again…or at least make me want to believe. It happened most recently last November when Dorothy and I were in Florence, Italy, walking the famous Ponte Vecchio. In case you don’t know, it’s a famous bridge spanning the Fiume Arno that is lined with shops selling gold and silver jewelry. I’ve never been much into jewelry. Once when my former spouse suggested he should update my engagement ring, get me something with a bigger diamond, I told him if he had that much money, I would be far happier with a fantastic vacation or a piece of land. (I never got the diamond, by the way, or a vacation, or a new piece of real estate.) But something about this romantic 1345 bridge in Florence, overlooking the river, with its shops of jewelry and the couples hand-in-hand walking across it gave me a little regretful thrill.
“Wouldn’t it be grand to get proposed to on this bridge?” I suddenly said to Dorothy. “And then go into one of these shops and pick out your ring?”
Dorothy, like me, is something of a cynic about love, but even she had to agree. Yes, that would indeed be fantastic. And so we stood there a moment in between all the glistening shops, looking out over the water and the city, daydreaming about something that was long gone for both of us. And I think we felt a little foolish that we even had such a girlish daydream—two business-owning women who had paid for their own trips to Italy and gone unaccompanied by husbands or lovers.
The “mind-fuck for girls,” as my friend called it, apparently outlasts education, prosperity, experience, even divorce. Which really leads me to wonder what it’s all about, why we can’t let go. Is it something like the “Hope” of Pandora’s Box? Does the idea that the “one true love” is out there somewhere keep us trudging onward in the most hopeless of circumstances, enduring the string of dates with men who are not “the one,” sifting through them all, wondering, and wondering if Prince Charming is ever going to show up? Do we really go through all of this thinking we’re going to be the rare and lucky woman who truly lands Mr. Right??
I know there have been times in my life when I have wanted to shout like Charlotte in Sex and the City, “I’m 35! Where is he?!”
I remember watching a friend of mine walk down the aisle a few years ago. And if anyone had been through the relationship ringer, she was it. I remembered her lamenting during her days as a single, dating woman, “I’m exhausted by it. I am exhausted by dating men, none of whom are right. I just want to give up.” But one day, years later, she walked down the aisle arm-in-arm with the man she believed to be “the one,” and the beaming smile on her face gave me hope for a moment.
Maybe this will be it, I thought. Maybe she really found him, and they’re going to be in love forever. She’ll prove it’s possible. I even told her so. “Make me believe,” I urged her.
But that’s not how it happened. Her husband is not picking her up into his arms at the end of every workday and planting an “oh, my god, I am so in love with you” kiss on her lips. The question is though: does he need to be?
And I’m afraid the answer might actually be “yes.”
But do I say that because I’ve been mind-fucked, too?
But I do know two women who found love in their 60s…finally. And at least one of them is quite madly in love. I think of her sometimes when I start feeling hopeless. I remind myself there is always that five percent or less chance that something magical might indeed cross my path one day.
Crazier things have happened.
It never crossed my mind, for example, when I was the child of hard-working parents just barely getting by at times that I would one day enjoy the luxury of standing on the Ponte Vecchio looking at diamonds and coral pendants and perhaps, more importantly, looking across the centuries-old architecture of the city where Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci once lived.
I bought a ring for myself that day. It was not a diamond. It was not even expensive. I bought it from the jeweler on the bridge with only a few dozen pieces in his window. He told me he was able to sell the same pieces as his neighbors so much cheaper because of his low overhead. I slipped it on my finger, pulled my leather gloves back over my hands, and proceeded on my way to the Galleria degli Ufizzi to look at the original paintings of Botticelli, Raphael, and El Greco, something I also would never have imagined being able to do on a typical writer’s salary.
It did not occur to me until later that I had done my best to live out my fairytale thus far. And perhaps that simple gold filigree band was something of a self-engagement ring for me, not on the scale of the famous right-hand diamond. My fairytale is not quite that big, not yet. And I suspect if it ever gets that big, I’ll be buying more land with mountain vistas or maybe checking out Antarctica, not frittering money away on diamonds. Who knows? That is the beauty of it, too. The not knowing what’s around the next bend.
In the tale of Pandora’s box, humanity is saved by hope. But hope is not sitting on a windowsill wishing for Prince Charming to come dashing around the corner. Hope is active. It is work. It is believing…and doing…and being…even when the evidence suggests that the game will not end as you would like. It’s still worth a bold attempt. Don’t leave it to princes and chipmunks to save you. That’s great if one comes along and gives you a lift. But try lifting yourself first.