When my daughter was about three years old, my husband bought her a surprise from the grocery store—a board book about the Disney Princess Ariel. In this particular book, clearly aimed at very young children, Ariel was a toddler version of herself, daydreaming about her wedding day. Baby Ariel just couldn’t get the details out of her mind—the gorgeous dress, the feast her guests would eat, how handsome Prince Eric would be.
As I was holding the book in my hand, I suddenly realized I’d meant to have a conversation with my husband about such things. I never intended for a Princess or Barbie to cross the threshold of my home, but I hadn’t gotten around to telling my husband how strongly I felt about this issue. And now I was holding a baby Princess book, chock full of the kind of tripe that has a three year old dreaming of her wedding day, and my daughter was looking with interest at the pretty blue cover.
So I read the book to her. And a way of dealing with the tripe that our culture feeds girls was born.
As I read, I commented to my daughter that there was no book for little boys about Prince Eric dreaming of his wedding day. Hmmmm, I said. Isn’t that strange? Wouldn’t Eric also be excited for his wedding day? And why on earth is Ariel, at such a young age, so fascinated with the trappings of her future wedding—the banquet, the dress, the guest list? Wouldn’t Eric care about the food he serves his guests, or how handsome he looks in his fancy prince getup?
Of course he would. But little boys this age are reading about firemen and policemen and builder dudes named Bob. These firemen and policemen and builders might or might not be married. No one knows, and no one cares.
After I read the Ariel book, the door to the kingdom was flung wide open. We bought Princesses and Barbies and pink fluffy whatnots sprinkled with stardust and manufactured dreams. We clunked around in plastic high heels, we watched silly movies and played games on the computer in which we styled the amazingly smooth and resilient hair of blond, doe-eyed future brides. We had fun with it, because—let’s face it—pink fluffy whatnots and curly hair can be fun. But we gave it all a context. We talked about the insipid, insidious messages buried behind the vacant eyes of the computer-generated imaginary women. We talked about culture and beauty—what is feminine, what is fun, and what is farce. And we had a line. A Bratz doll never did cross the threshold of our home, and we talked about why our home is and always will be a no-brat zone.
Most of the stuff the kingdom dragged in had nothing to do with weddings. But every once in a while, there’d be something—a computer game in which one of the blond Barbies was dreaming of her honeymoon, or the unexpected discovery of a miniature wedding dress in the dress-up trunk of a friend. Mostly, I ignored the stuff around weddings, focusing more on the beauty angle. But as my daughter has gotten older, I’ve occasionally pointed out some aspects of the very real marriage that is the cornerstone of our family.
“Your father was snoring last night,” I’ll say. “So remember, when you stand up there on your wedding day and agree to marry the handsome prince, you’re really agreeing to listen to him snore in fifteen years.”
She giggles. My husband gives me a look.
“Oh, and I’m no picnic,” I’ll say. “You know, Daddy has had to help me get around the world when my body wasn’t working—after I had eye surgery, and when my back went out. When he stood up next to me in my fancy dress, he was telling me he’d do those things, and more.”
I tell my daughter these things because I want her to know that her wedding day, no matter how perfect it is, is only a day. And it is also a doorway—not to a kingdom, but to a lifelong agreement, lived out in a series of shifting days. The only thing that turns a beautiful day into a beautiful life is love.
But nowhere—in no book or movie or computer game or reality show—do we teach children about the kind of love it takes to make it through the “for worse” and “for poorer” parts of a marriage. In fact, we teach our children very little about marriage at all. We focus on what we want to have, not who we want to hold. And it’s hurting us all.
When we allow an ostentatious day to define the beginning of a lifelong commitment we set ourselves up for failure. We create women who believe fulfillment lies in fanciness, only to discover they’ve been sold a farce. We create men who have no idea what all the fuss is about, and figure it’s not their business anyway. And we create marriages that are more like manufactured dreams than a dream come true—marriages that have no incentive, and no willpower, to last very much past “I do.”