It's a loaded question and I'm still not sure I know the answer. But if you would have asked me that question at age 5, I would have answered: an archaeologist.
At age 7, a veterinarian. At 12, A novelist.
At 15 ... nothing. At 16, an artist.
At 21, a journalist. At 30, an editor.
At 32, a mother.
But I've always been on a career path, a path that has taken many twists and turns throughout my life. On that journey, my two daughters have tagged along to become well-versed in the pro and cons, ins and outs, ups and downs of having a working, single mother.
When my older daughter was 4 years old, a class project prompted her: What do you want to be when you grow up?
I asked her. "Anika, the world is yours. You can do anything you can dream of! Don't answer right away, just think about it: What do you want to be when you grow up?
"Ehh... I don't know. A princess?"
A princess?? The world is at your feet and you want to be a princess?
Princess pop culture wasn’t appealing to me in my formative years. I never owned a Barbie doll and was more concerned with trying to play on the baseball team with the neighborhood boys. My own Disney exposure was limited in my youth. By limited, I really mean none. My parents never took me to a Disney flick and I can't tell you anything about the princess films - current or past. While this may seem like I missed out on a childhood rite of passage, in all honesty, even my adult self finds those movies pretty frightening – on more than one level
I tried to be involved with her interests, our attempt at watching Sleeping Beauty, Disney-style, for the first time together. was a failure After the dramatic close-up of the shiny, sharpened knife that is intended to kill Princess Aurora, Anika matter-of-factly announced, "Mom, this is scary. It's not an Anika movie." And she wandered off to play dress-up in a poufy princess dress.
And yet, with her own minimal pop culture exposure, Anika still manages to be a princess fanatic with a closet of the frilliest, pinkest dresses ever sewn.
I made a conscious decision to skip over those classic and current fairy tales in our nightly reading ritual mostly because, as a single mom, there may be a day when my children have a step parent and I don't really want to start out an already complex step-relationship with the common storybook adjective, "evil."
And let's face it... There are a few varieties of princesses Anika could be talking about. There is the sophisticated, college-educated Kate Middleton-type princess... or there is the codependent Cinderella-type princess, who needs a man to help her find a pair of matching shoes.
I asked her if princesses went to college. She slowly nodded a wide-eyed yes as if to imply (and rightly so) that she would never suggest a future without college. Whether a princess by birth or a princess by marriage, I assume most modern-day princesses are expected to attend college. So I guess it's a starting point.
"So really," I pried, "what does it mean to be a princess?"
My daughter answered, "Well... A real dress."
"Your dress is real. You can touch it, so it's real, right?"
"Hmmm... Shoes. It's definitely shoes."
After a lifetime of exposure to the negative connotations of "princess," maybe I was the one who had the wrong idea. Maybe this independent feminist mother could encourage - even accept- a sliver of princess culture. Eventually I started to come around. I slowly found her professional goals easier to get behind, even if it means we tweak her royal dreams of being a fancy dress-wearing princess into a goal of being the fashion designer who creates those dresses.
Through that conversation, I learned I will always support my daughter, even if I don’t necessarily understand her choice. Although it is easier now, when her fantasies don’t involve any mention of princes, horses or sunsets.
But as I've never been the princess type, I was still hoping for some more definitive answers. Anika quickly tired of this line of questioning. Overloaded with conversation, she took a deep breath and said, "Mom, all I really want is to be taller. AND a princess ... Like YOU."