When Clementine woke up yesterday morning, I suggested we walk down to the Safeway and get some milk, since, having just returned from vacation, the fridge was near empty. She reminded me that it was Saturday, and we could go to the Farmer’s Market. This was astonishing to me, as it seems like only days ago she had absolutely no sense of time (wait, I think I just…never mind). Our trip to the market ended up including a visit to LakeFest, the annual street party on Lakeshore, and an overly long turn in the largest bouncy house I have ever seen. By the time we set off for home, we were both hot, tired and grumpy. The only way I got her home was reminding her that we had a birthday party to go to that afternoon. I also told her that she needed to wash her wild tangled hair if she wanted to go to the party.
We finally made it home and I let her watch TV while I did some prep for tonight’s dinner: we were having three other couples and five children over, so there was a lot to be done. As the party time approached, I checked in with her.
“Do you want to go to the party?”
“What kind of party is it?”
“I don’t know. It’s at the lake. I guess it’s a lake party.”
“It’s not one of those princess parties, is it?”
“No, I don’t think so. I think it’s just a party.”
She decided to go, at which point negotiations regarding the hair washing began in earnest. Actually, one very simple negotiation:
“I’m not going to take a bath.”
“Okay, that’s fine. So we’re not going the party.”
“I don’t want to go to the party anyway.”
“WAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!” <Flailing of arms and legs>
Repeat five or six times.
She finally joined me in my shower instead of taking her own bath. She peeked in while I was rinsing my hair and launched into howls of despair because it was “soapy.” I reminded her that she did not have to take a shower, that she was more than welcome to go lie down in her room and we would just skip the party, which made her cry harder and gasp about being just about to get into the shower as soon as the soapy had gone way. She cried the entire time. Literally. Every time I suggested to her that she need not put herself through such apparent torture, she made it clear that not going was not an option, and that she was prepared to bear any burden, no matter how heinous, to go to the party.
Any burden including getting dressed by herself, which was another requirement I had set. I suggested she wear her “nightgown” which is not a nightgown at all but a very cute blue and green striped spaghetti strap dress from the Gap which she has refused to wear but keeps me from giving away by promising to wear it at night (a promise she has never fulfilled). I hold out hope she will wear it one day, but I don’t know why I bother. At Lily’s princess birthday party in April, I decided to stand my ground as long as it was necessary (and it was a very long wait) to get her into reasonably party-appropriate attire (not a princess outfit, just something at least kind of cute), only to give in and let her change back into her black ET the Extraterrestrial t-shirt once it became clear that she was essentially on strike and going to sulk in a corner the entire time. Since then, I have become more or less resigned to her fashion choices, but I still engage in the futile exercise of suggesting other options.
First she came out in a skort with a giant chocolate ice cream splotch on the front and her pink mermaid shirt from Australia, which is cute but made less charming by the word Australia under the picture of the mermaid and the many many stains it has acquired over the past couple of years. I explained that stained and dirty clothes were not okay and she reemerged with a second stained shirt before finally passing muster with a red T-Rex t-shirt and tan shorts. Not exactly celebratory attire, but at least clean.
I went to check the directions to the party and found that I had been wrong about the princess thing. The party invitation included the request: “Please be sure to inspire your children to wear their favorite fairy dress up outfit.” I told Clem this and asked if she still wanted to go. She said “Yes, but I just want to wear this.” I did not bother to point out that she will be the only girl in attendance not wearing a princess or fairy outfit; we’ve done this often enough that she knows that full well. She wants to go to the party in her T-Rex shirt. I am fine with this. We are late, and I just want to get going.
When we arrive, a professional princess/fairy is doing magic tricks for the 12 or so girls, who are indeed, all in their princess and/or fairy outfits. (Most of them have fairy wings on over princess dresses, and I’m not sure the distinction makes any difference at this age. Especially when compared to a T-Rex.) We say hello to the hostess and I remind myself that while I have failed to “inspire my child wear her favorite fairy dress up outfit”, I do not need to apologize for Clem’s attire; I explain, in a hopefully lighthearted way, that this is just her preference. Clem sits down to watch the show, but she sets herself apart by more than just her clothes. The little fairies in training are crowded up around the head princess, faces up and smiling, hands reaching. Clem sits back, and looks like she’s watching a Chekov play performed in Russian. She’s having none of this. At one point she participates in the finger wiggling that is apparently necessary to bring forth some wish for the girl’s birthday, but for the most part she seems so disengaged I wonder why we are even there. Why all the howling and fighting and struggling to come to a party she probably knew was not really going to float her boat? Watching her, it occurs to me that she doesn’t actually think princesses are dumb, she just doesn’t care about them one way or the other. They don’t really seem to register with her. What she does care about are things with scaly or leathery skin: ET, mermaid, T-Rex. I see the connection now. And there’s one more thing she cares deeply about.
I check in. “Clem, are you okay? Having a good time?”
She looks up at me matter-of-factly. “When is the cake?”
Then I get it. Parties, to Clem, are cake delivery vehicles. Cake is worth walking home in the heat for, washing hair for, and wearing clean t-shirts for. I have been played, and so has her birthday friend. She genuinely likes the girl, but she is just tolerating a lot of glitter and magic for a bigger pay off.
The cake, at this point, does not appear imminent. The head princess is now painting the girls faces. Clem loves having her face painted, but is not being very assertive about getting in line. Finally it’s her turn, and, in a break from the long line of butterflies that have gone before, she requests a dolphin. When she is done, she hands Clem the mirror and says “I made you a dolphin on either side of your face. I hope you like it. I didn’t think you would want your whole face to actually look like a dolphin.” Clem thanks her quietly and says quietly to me “well, I did want to BE a dolphin.” But she’s not too disappointed. She likes the splashy dolphins too. And really, how would you make someone’s face look like a dolphin?
Finally the cake comes. Clem is the last child served and is perfectly patient. She doesn’t eat her whole piece; she knows how much she wants and stops when she’s done. It’s now almost 4:30 and we have guests coming at 6 so I tell her it’s time to leave, hoping we’re not embarrassing ourselves too much with the suspicious timing of our departure. But there’s one activity left and Clem wants to partake: the head princess is twisting balloons into animal shapes for the kids. This time, Clem carefully maneuvers into the prime spot and makes her request: a red balloon. “What shape would you like? ” “Just the balloon please. Red.” “Hmm, well normally I make them into something for you. How about a mouse?” “No, just the balloon. And don’t blow it up all the way.” I had a brief flash of Homey D. Clown saying “Homie don’t play that.” They keep going like this for a while before Princess gives up and hands over a long skinny red balloon. I tell her thank you for the awesome hot dog.
We say our thank yous and leave. It was a good party, actually kind of fabulous. I would recommend that Princess to any moms in the market; she was totally charming. Clem is in a great mood, having gotten what she came for and more: the gift bag has a Pez in it. If I’ve sounded horrified by any of this, I’m not. I have no problem with the Princess thing, and I have no problem with Clem opting out. She seems entirely unselfconscious about the whole thing, for which I am immensely grateful. Clem is a very outgoing, playful, even popular kid. She’s just different. She know who she is and she knows what she wants. She’s also incredibly good at getting what she wants, and for that I admire her.