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My Daughter, Peter

My Daughter, Peter

The author had no problem with her little girl pretending to be Peter Pan. It was Wendy she was worried about.

October 1997

Madeline’s obsession with Peter Pan began a few months after she turned four. Once started, there was no stopping it. More days than not, she was Peter Pan from the time she put on her hat and tunic in the morning until the moment she slipped back into her green pajamas at night. For all I knew, Madeline spent her dreams in Neverland, as well.

As an inveterate tomboy myself, I was delighted by her choice of hero. I congratulated myself that she never thought twice about her ability to take on a boy’s role and that she immediately placed herself in the center of the story and had no time for the accessory female characters. My husband and I fueled the fantasy, bringing home every video and storybook version of the tale we could find, taking her to two live local productions, and ultimately staging an elaborate fifth birthday party in Neverland.

Then, soon after turning five, Madeline transformed herself overnight from fearless, triumphant Peter Pan into lovely Wendy, the vulnerable, nurturing mother figure. And I found myself thrust back in time, wrestling anew with my own sense of what it means to be a girl.

Mine was a childhood of dichotomies. Growing up on a ramshackle farm in rural Maryland, I spent my days outdoors--shirtless and barefoot in the summer, riding bareback, baling hay, and creating wild adventures in the woods and fields. But we also lived close enough to Washington, D.C., to step into the fancy social circles in which my mother was raised. Over the years I have bounced back and forth between personae: the farm girl and the sophisticate, the tomboy and the fashion plate. And sometimes, the two have gotten all mixed up.

A few months after graduating from college, I showed up at a friend’s door wearing a designer shirt, a gold bracelet, and a pair of baggy, worn-out army pants held on by a bandana belt. He looked me over with an amused smile, then observed, “You look like you can’t decide who to be.” I couldn't have put it more succinctly. Truth is, I had just spent the summer crisscrossing the country, searching for a place I might fit in. Everywhere I went it seemed I would be more at ease somewhere else. The cities felt too refined, the small towns too provincial, the suburbs too conventional. Somehow I needed to find a way to weave together all of me--to be my real self, full of contradictions.

In the years since, I thought I had done just that. I'd gotten married and settled on a former farm in a rural, culturally rich area, not unlike the one where I'd grown up. I enjoyed wearing skirts and dresses to work, but was comfortable knowing that the evening would find me at home, repairing the busted dishwasher in my old army pants. Then I became a mother.

Madeline’s arrival both confirmed and challenged my womanhood. I reveled in my ability to be warm and nurturing, chafed under her dependence, and dreaded the minefield of girlhood I knew lay ahead. How would I help her explore the true range of her abilities amid the pressure to be pretty and polite? I determined to bring her up like a boy, but with plenty of female role models.

I bought her trucks and building sets and dressed her frequently in hand-me-downs from her four male cousins. I kept an eye out for female cops and truck drivers and shielded her from the corrupting influence of Barbie and Cinderella. And, whenever I could get away with it, I substituted female pronouns for the characters in her storybooks.

Her eventual transformation into Peter Pan was a fantasy come true for me. As she leapt off boulders and soared on the swing set, belting out, “Look at me...I’m flying,” I saw myself at five, hurtling over bales of hay on the barn rope swing. When she pressed me into service as Captain Hook for a ferocious sword fight, she challenged me with the same determination I used to stalk imaginary villains through the Maryland underbrush. No cowering victim for this girl. Mine was a powerful daughter.

So when she appeared downstairs one morning in a pretty pink dress and announced in no uncertain terms that she was now Wendy, something inside me caved in. Wendy? I thought. WENDY? Why would she give up her freedom, her power, her brazen confidence to be Wendy, a maternal role previously assigned to me?

I knew enough, at least, to shut my mouth. I welcomed her warmly and hoped the phase would pass.

Indeed, in the months to come, she would bounce around among many different roles. Whenever she wore a dress, she was Wendy. She recruited her two-year-old brother, Sawyer, as little Michael and mothered him as tenderly as only a big sister can. Other days she slipped back into her Peter Pan duds. Once in a while she dressed herself as Tiger Lily, or one of Peter Pan’s gang of Lost Boys. When she received a fake pirate’s hook as a prize, she even spent a day as her archenemy, the evil Captain. As I watched her metamorphoses, I realized she was, in fact, exploring different facets of herself--experimenting with what it felt like to be the hero, the mother, the friend, the follower, the bad guy. I could see her asking, as I had for so many years, Who am I?

Then, suddenly, it all seemed to come together with the introduction of a new heroine: the wild Swedish ragamuffin Pippi Longstocking. We read the first book twice, then made a frantic trip to the library for the next installment. Here, at last, was a girl stronger and braver than any boy--nay, any other creature--on earth. She stood up to police officers and thugs, mad bulls and phantoms. And she cared not a whit what anybody thought of her. She did as she pleased and dressed as she pleased, mismatched stockings and all. She was generous, spirited, joyful, and all the children loved her.

At last it hit me: what Madeline really needed to learn was that she could be as independent and important as Peter Pan--and be a girl. I found myself wondering why I had been so blind. After all, isn’t that what I have been discovering all these years, that I don’t have to give up my femininity to be competent? That I can rewire a light switch, supervise a staff, and be romantic? Isn’t being comfortable with oneself, whoever that may be, the real goal?

Still, as Madeline skipped through town in Pippi’s wacky braids and garish clothes, I found myself squirming under the critical gaze of strangers. I could almost hear them thinking, You dress your beautiful daughter like that?

Thankfully, Madeline was oblivious to their expectations. She spent the summer happily tearing around the driveway astride her “horse” (a bike with training wheels) and feigning feats of great daring. Pippi became such a hero to our whole family that once, when Sawyer spied a balloon caught high on the ceiling of the local mall, he assured me confidently, “Pippi get it down.”

Eventually Madeline’s infatuation faded, and she moved on to other role models.

I’ve moved on, too. Last fall, when she unexpectedly became best friends with the boys in her kindergarten class and dumped her costumes and dresses in favor of rough-and-tumble pants, I rejoiced not in her ruggedness, but in her ability to do as she chose. A month later, when she threw herself heart and soul into The Wizard of Oz, I learned to look beyond Dorothy’s gingham dress and flashy shoes and appreciate her courage, kindness, and honesty.

In a week, Madeline turns six. Our house is a whirlwind of preparations for her party in Munchkin Land. Although I don’t know where this road will lead, or what other characters she'll become along the way, I have more faith now that her defining role will be as a confident, creative individual named Madeline. And I'll be there cheering her on.

Copyright © 1997 Charlotte Meryman