Like the mothers who forbid their children from playing violent video games or with toy guns, my mother did not want me to play with baby dolls for the same reason. She was afraid that if I pretended I was a mother, there was a risk I would engage in such behavior in real life. Baby dolls, toy cradles, and plastic kitchen sets were all off limits for the same reason. My mother, a proud feminist, wanted to ensure I avoided the mistakes she had made in her life, namely getting married and having children. “Do as I say, not as I do,” she’d tell me.
While mothering a pretend human infant was objectionable, mothering pretend baby animals were tolerated. I amassed a huge collection of stuffed mammals, reptiles, and arthropods. My older sister sewed a baby sling and coordinating outfit for my teddy bear in her junior high home ec class. For one year I carried that bear everywhere like a Kenyan bush mother.
Barbie dolls were something of a gray area. I found a few dolls in our basement that had once belonged to my older sisters, relics from the era before my mother raised her consciousness. Barbie was a full-grown woman so there was no mothering involved, nor did my mother seem concerned with the doll’s obvious anorexia. However, she did object to Barbie’s lack of professional opportunities, but my mother’s propensity to never throw anything away proved stronger than her feminist principles, so the dolls stayed.
Every year on my birthday my mother liked to give me an educational toy: Simon, Master Mind, Comp IV, Little Professor. It was hard to get excited. I’d get my doll fix from my best friend Michelle who lived down the street. Michelle’s mom was very nice though foolishly unconcerned with Michelle’s future political leanings. At Michelle’s house, I fed Baby Alive food packets mixed with water and waited for the substance to move through her so I could change her diaper. When Michelle and I played with her Barbie dolls and United Airlines Friend Ship, Barbie never demanded to fly the plane herself.
As my seventh birthday approached, Michelle’s mom asked me if there was anything special I wanted. A doll I said unequivocally. On the day of my party, she handed me a huge box. “It’s what you want,” she said when she wished me a happy birthday. Later that night I opened the box. It was a beautiful doll, a doll fit for a princess, the tag said. It was a doll that didn’t eat or go to the bathroom. There was no string on the back of her neck to make her talk. Her hair didn’t grow long and shrink back. There was no airplane sold separately. It was a doll of exquisite artistry that gave its owner pleasure simply by her very existence. Even my anti-doll mother was impressed. “Oh, that’s a beauty!” she said. “What a special gift. But its not a doll to play with—its too expensive.” She took the doll and placed it on the shelf in my bedroom. There it remained untouched for 23 years.