“When I grow up, I want to be a princess doctor,” Elle tells me.
So is that a doctor who treats princesses, or a doctor who’s also a princess, I ask my wide-eyed three-and-a-half year old.
Exasperated, as if I’ve just posed some asinine question I should already know the answer to (for instance, whether she’d rather have an ice cream sundae or peaches for dessert,) she illuminates for me the nuances of the princess-doctor profession.
“It’s a doctor who’s a princess, who treats princesses,” she says.
My daughter’s declaration of her future livelihood intrigues me. Part of me wants to say hey, I’ve done something right here: a child who wants to be a doctor! She must already comprehend the implications of empathy for her fellow man… well, technically, her fellow princess. But this is a socially and emotionally valuable thing to do with one’s life, nevertheless.
Yet I cannot swallow the “princess” part as easily. A “princess,” by its very name, implies a doe eyed lass stuck in a tower of someone else’s making. She is beautiful and kind, but dependent upon another’s heroics to write her history.
Perhaps I am reading too much into the spoken ambitions of a three-year-old girl. That may be true. However, I knew at three years old that I wanted to be a writer, and here I am. Long-held aspirations never really die.
So I ask my daughter: What does a princess do? Her interpretation of what a doctor does is already quite clear. We play the doctor-patient game daily, in which Princess Dr. Prohaska treats just about every ailment, from a sore throat to a stubbed toe, by affixing an imaginary bandage.
“There you go, all better!” she’ll proclaim, patting my big toe expressively. “What hurts now?”
But I’m not as clear on the princess part. Once again, my question – What does a princess do? – elicits a gentle chiding from my daughter.
“A princess has good manners, silly!” she snorts.
Not necessarily a bad thing, I think to myself.
“But how does a princess make money?” I can’t stop myself from asking this question. I know the harsh realities of the outside world shouldn’t play a part in the dreams of a little girl, yet I feel an obligation to prepare this person, who will someday be a young woman, for reality’s eventual slap across the cheek.
Elle looks at me blankly. To a three-year-old, making money is as distant and arcane a concept as loading the dishwasher.
I rephrase the question. “What is a princess’ job?”
“A princess cleans the house.” She pauses thoughtfully, then smiles brightly. “And has good manners!”
What has so affected my view of what is considered a life of achievement for a woman that I have such a hard time imagining my daughter actually wanting a future filled with immaculate houses and the manners to match? Could it be those Women’s Studies classes I took in college, where I came to appreciate the battles the women of my mother’s and grandmother’s generations fought in order to climb out of that suffocating box of housewifery?
But I return to the other part of the “What I want to be when I grow up” equation: Becoming a doctor would be considered, by any feminist’s standards, a life of achievement. Hearing that my daughter wants to be a house-cleaning, well-mannered doctor shouldn’t, then, make my teeth clench.
But it does.
Perhaps it is this marriage of roles – nurturing and socially estimable, yet also driven and professionally successful – that lies at the heart of what I fear may be in store for my daughters. Have we, as women living in a post-feminist society, unintentionally set the bar a little too high for ourselves? We’ve made it clear that it isn’t enough to simply raise children and throw dinner parties. Yet we still raise those children and throw those dinner parties, in addition to plowing through our professional aspirations.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to be a doctor and a princess. As long as that is what a girl truly wants to be when she grows up – and isn’t just what is expected of her.