Sleeping Beauty’s Mother

I am reposting this piece today because I have seen here and there renewed efforts to focus on children’s weight and controlling it. I think often  about Sleeping Beauty’s mother. Most of us are like Sleeping Beauty’s mother, eager to do whatever we can to spare our children difficulties.

 

You see that beautiful little girl in that photo? She was 5 years old there. I was delighted beyond measure when she was born. I always wanted a daughter, in part I’m sure to redeem my experience with my mother. To me she was and is the most wonderful daughter ever — smart, funny, and beautiful — everything I could hope for. 

But like Sleeping Beauty’s mother, we always fail in one way or another. Remember how it happened that the curse came to be in that fairy tale family? When the long desired child, a daughter, was born to the king and queen, they planned a great celebration. According to which version you read, they invited 7 or 12 fairies to the great feast. And whichever version, that is where the problem begins because one fairy is left out and she appears just as each fairy offers her gift to the child. She is angry at being neglected and acts out her anger by giving a curse, namely that on her 16th birthday, the girl would prick her finger on a spindle and die. The last fairy cannot undo the curse but she can mitigate it so that instead of dying, she and all the kingdom would fall into deep sleep for 100 years until a prince would come and kiss her awake. 

All The Spindles

Remember all the efforts Sleeping Beauty’s parents made to keep her from the curse placed on her at birth, that she would prick her finger on a spindle?They searched high and low determined to find and eliminate all the spindles and thus stave off the curse.

Well, knowing my body and how like the Fuller women I am, I was afraid that my daughter faced the curse of having to battle her weight all of her life. And I was determined to do anything and everything I could to protect her from it.  

Our concern here is not with interpreting the fairy tale; that has been done by many. Our concern is with the mother and all the efforts she made to keep her daughter from ever encountering a spindle and thus staving off the curse.  Such a frantic wish to protect her child.

Fate 

But the Moirae* could not be escaped no matter how vigilant she was or how hard she tried. When she was 16, the princess happened upon a woman who was spinning and asked what she was doing. She asked for the spindle and as soon as she took it into her hand, she pricked her finger — and well, you know the rest.

The mother failed in her effort. And even more, the curse happened at least in part because of the lack of a place setting for the dinner or enough goody bags, depending on the version. A careless error of omission that opened the way for this curse to come to pass.

 

I have been thinking about this a lot lately. How often we fail to be able to protect our children from whatever curse it is we fear. No matter how hard we try, there will always be one spindle. And perhaps the seeds of the whole problem lie in our frantic desire to keep our children from pain such that in the process, we fail to teach them things they really need to know. I was as much enthrall to the desirability of slenderness as anyone and so in a way my efforts led to exactly what I least desired.

I read and I talked with everyone I could think of who might be able to help me. I breastfed her for all of her first year, because it seemed breastfed babies were less likely to become fat. I held off introducing solids until she was almost 7 months old, because it was thought that early introduction of cereal predisposed to obesity. I made all of her baby food so that I knew there was no hidden sugar or modified starch. I was vigilant about what I and my husband ate, so that we were modeling healthy eating. I struggled to overcome my shame about my body so that I wouldn’t communicate that to her — I worked my ass off to get comfortable talking about my body, answering questions about it, getting comfortable in my skin.  

And it seemed to work. Until she was around 11 she was slender and I thought maybe we had escaped the curse. No matter how vigilant I was or how hard I tried, I hadn’t reckoned with genetics and puberty. She began to gain weight. She started menstruating when she was not quite 12 and it seems that it signaled the pricking of her finger on that spindle I had tried so desperately to get rid of. She became plump, with the same rounded body I have. Initially I was in despair because I had done absolutely everything right, everything that was supposed to stave off the curse. We didn’t overeat, eat junk food or any of the other “bad” things. We walked and did things together. She walked to school every day and played field hockey. None of it kept her slender.  

My heart broke for her as she struggled with it all. We talked about bodies, about doing everything possible to be healthy, that people come in all sizes. Her doctor and I determined that it was important for her to focus on being active and healthy, not dieting because she was at risk of developing an eating disorder, like several other girls in her class had.  

It was like walking through a field of land mines every day. I wanted someone, anyone to wave a wand and let her have the body she wanted. I felt guilty, that somehow I was responsible for her weight, for having passed along this terribly difficult problem to her. I worked  with renewed vigor on my own body issues. But none of it could change things. And I had to forgive her for not having escaped and myself for not having been able to save her.  

She is 43 now. She is not thin, but she has settled into an adult weight less than mine. She is active and healthy. She has been able to keep her weight fairly stable by concentrating on being healthy. She is largely free of the self-loathing I was still struggling with when I was her age. 

I read here and there and everywhere that if we get children to eat healthily, avoid junk food, and exercise, we can prevent obesity, and I think of my beautiful daughter. If they only knew how hard it is to eliminate all the spindles in the kingdom. 

* In Greek mythology, the Moirai are the Fates

Wanting to be wanted

When I was nine, we lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico. My mother, not an easy woman, thought I would never become a desirable catch, as I was too preoccupied with books. Her poking, prodding, and criticism did not work, so she enrolled me in a ballroom dance/etiquette course. As it happened, that same year, the University of New Mexico was mounting a production of Euripides’ “Medea”. They needed two nine-year-olds to play the sons, but it was thought that nine-year-old year old boys were too rowdy to take the discipline to be in a play like that, so they came to the dance class to pick two girls. I was one of them.

 I remember being fitted for the costume, being taught to walk like a boy and to scream like a boy. I did not know what the story was, but it was fun learning those things.

I finally saw the play all the way through the day of the dress rehearsal. I remember standing in the wings watching. The meaning of the play rolled down the aisle like a dark cloud and swallowed me as I realized she kills her sons. In a moment, I understood what role I was playing. I can remember the hair standing up on the back of my neck and the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.  

 I woke up the next day with a fever and by the end of the day, it was clear I had the measles. I missed the whole run of the play.

Fast forward many years to graduate school. Medea continued to fascinate me so I decided to write my dissertation about her. I was struck by how modern her situation seemed. Imagine Medea as a girl, star-struck by the hero, Jason. Her name means cunning or knowing. She is the niece of Circe, granddaughter of Helios, daughter of a king. A powerful woman, a priestess of Hekate. Yet, when she sees Jason, described as good-looking, tall with long blond hair, a Fabio of his day, she becomes infatuated. Jason represents the glory and civilization of Greece, adventure. In order to help him to survive the tasks given him by her father as the price for obtaining the Golden Fleece, she must choose love over duty. In turn, in order to secure her help, Jason swears to marry her. In choosing Jason, Medea breaks the tie to family and home to go with Jason to a land where he is hero and she a barbarian.

Jason wants her, needs her, in order to successfully complete his quest. He is willing to give her what she wants—that feeling of being wanted and a place to hide her power and control. In agreeing to marry Medea, Jason gains everything—his life, the Golden Fleece, his safe return as a hero. In one version of the play, the Nurse raises the important question: “Why must a woman seek a man who seeks his special gold?”. Men with this kind of commitment, more to their quest than to the woman, seem unlikely to match the devotion of a woman like Medea. But she feels wanted, needed and so surely, perhaps she thinks, he must be the one for her.

I hear variations of this story again and again in my office from smart, competent women who spend their days wanting to be wanted and being disappointed time and again. To a degree I lied it myself when I was a young woman. Too often the women seem to see themselves as trophies or dolls on the shelf and convince themselves that whoever chooses them must be the right one, because after all, he is choosing her. And too seldom see themselves as also in position to choose, not merely to wait until being chosen.

Following from Lacan, who asserted that women want to be wanted more than they want to be loved, women too often seek to be desirable rather than to be fully known. Polly Young-Eisendrath explores this “wanting to be wanted” not as the normal outcome of female development but as a problem in her book, Women and Desire: Beyond wanting to be wanted. 

She observes

“The compulsion to be desired and desirable undermines self-direction, self-confidence, and self-determination in women from adolescence through old age, in all our roles, from daughter to mother, from lover to wife, from student to worker or leader, whether or not the affliction is conscious.

Wanting to be wanted is about finding our power in an image rather than in our own actions. We try to appear attractive, nice, good, valid, legitimate, or worthy to someone else, instead of discovering what we actually feel and want for ourselves. In this kind of conscious or unconscious arrangement, other people are expected to provide our own feelings of power, worth, or vitality, at the expense of our authentic development. We then feel resentful, frustrated, and out of control because we have sacrificed our real needs and desires to the arrangements we have made with others. We find ourselves always wanting to be seen in a positive light: the perfect mother, the ideal friend, the seductive lover, the slender or athletic body, the kind neighbor, the competent boss. In place of knowing the truth of who we are and what we want from our lives, we become trapped in images.” (Young-Eisendrath, Women and Desire: Beyond Wanting to Be Wanted, p.3)

Sound familiar?