My daughter and I caught a snake in mid-molt at the zoo last week. We'd been looking particularly for a rattlesnake because my four-year-old daughter has a thing for snakes, especially the rattling kind. (I don't know; something about the built-in instrument.) Anyway, when we found the snake, she had just begun to shed her skin.
We have found garter snake skin in our backyard before, but seeing it happen live was something else. The snake lay in long S-curves, peeling back her skin the way you'd peel a sock off your foot. The old skin looked like onion skin, transparent and papery, and etched with the imprint of scales. But the new skin beneath was so beautiful that for a moment, even I wanted to run a finger over it. It gleamed, black and espresso and ivory, as if it had spent all morning being buffed by a shoeshine.
I couldn't believe our good timing; molting only happens a couple of times a year for a rattlesnake. We planted ourselves right in front of the glass, practically smashing our noses up against it to watch. Inch by inch, the snake pulled herself out of the old skin. Sometimes she reared her head up and waved it solemnly in the air, as though addressing an audience. People started gathering behind us, and soon there was a crowd big enough that we couldn't have left even if we'd wanted to give up the best seats in the house. It isn't every day you get to see a creature do something so dramatic.
"What if you did that?" I asked my daughter. "What if one day you just woke up and peeled off your old skin and dropped it on the floor of your room?"
She giggled: Silly Mama. With one hand, she reached up to adjust her tiara, and for a moment several onlookers glanced away from the snake and smiled at her glittery dress and crown, more appropriate for a princess ball than a day at the zoo. Lately, the exclamations of "How cute!" and "Are you a princess?" are actually becoming commonplace.
Instead of old skin, princess dresses litter the floor of my daughter's room. I sometimes think it would be easier to raise children if you could just let them run around naked until puberty. The princess dresses are a constant source of consternation for my daughter, whose chief concern every morning seems to be: Which one should I wear?
I'm in Year One of Princess-Hysteria, and I'm already so over it. I'm tired of fighting over whether my daughter should be allowed to wear her ball gown to the mountains. (She is already allowed to wear it to church, Costco, the playground, and bedtime. I draw the line at hiking.) Go figure: After I bought my baby every gender-neutral outfit on the planet and painted her room in lemon and lime, after I filled our playroom with toys that could not possibly reinforce gender stereotypes, after I urged her toward the love of painting and toy trains, she started spotting princesses everywhere she turned: Target, dance class, the grocery store—spotting, and then gasping, shrieking, and begging to put them in our shopping cart.
Did I mention that, up until last month, she'd never seen a single princess movie? Didn't matter. Princess culture can grip a four-year-old in a stranglehold regardless of how little a parent reinforces the obsession. Keeping that kid away from princesses would probably entail moving her to remote Papua New Guinea. And then never leaving our hut.
"What do you like about princesses?" I have asked her several times.
"Their sparkly, beeeeaaauuuutiful dresses," she sighs every time, a dreamy look in her eyes. Seeing princesses lurking around every corner convinced her that one key to happiness is wearing the appropriate amount of (i.e. waaay too much) glitter. So she rocks the most princess-y dresses she can locate: her old Christmas Eve gown, hand-me-down Halloween costumes, and yes, a bona fide Elsa dress, which was gifted by the grandparents.
When you've got a gorgeous kid (I know I'm biased . . . but yeah, she's beautiful) who rocks a sparkle-studded tulle skirt and a fur stole, topping the whole thing off with a tiara—you're bound to get a little attention. Strangers constantly stop on the street and tell her how beautiful she is. She basks in the glow, becoming more and more convinced with every bit of attention that the road to success is paved with rhinestones.
Maybe that's true, if you gauge success by turning heads. Even as a grown-up, I can get a little attention with a new makeup routine, haircut, or special outfit. I can't say I don't like that attention myself. I'm kidding myself if I say I'm not looking for that same assurance and attention from other people, albeit through other methods, like getting published, just for instance. But here's the truth: Our culture might offer momentary amazement in a dramatic moment, but the applause is always fleeting, which is why, as the snake pulled the last inch of her tail free from her old skin and waved it triumphantly in the air, a few people clapped. Then, within moments, they turned off their cameras and walked away, the crowd evaporating. Nothing more to see here, folks. The snake didn't care. She's not shedding her skin for applause, but because she needs to grow.
To me, the purest form of creative expression would look just like that: Not performed for approval, but done to articulate oneself in a new, larger way. I would like my daughter to experience that sort of freedom in every arena of her life: to not be held back by a lack of outside validation or motivated only by its presence. I would like to model such engagement with the world, teaching her to measure success not by applause but by a sense of satisfaction that doesn't fade with the crowd. I would like her to shed her skin for a singular purpose: because it is necessary for her to grow.