By Natalie A Sullivan
I knew exactly what I was looking for when I visited Target for the second time that week. A boy doll, or at least a neutral looking one, with brown skin to match my son’s and maybe a bottle or a pacifier. What we got instead was Elizabeth, an olive skinned little girl with a small plastic ridge of hair, sturdy arms and legs, a soft pink body, and an explosive tulle hair ornament. Our son Christian loves, truly loves her. He feeds her milk and juice. He covers her with a blanket. He jams her pacie in her mouth when he randomly decides that she’s crying. He also flips her out of the back of his dump truck and runs over her with his digger. These, ironically, are NOT the times when he decides that she is crying.
Our son started chanting “baby, baby” a couple weeks ago after meeting his six-month-old niece for the first time, although he’s always loved to point out babies on the street. To him, a baby is a child of any age who happens to be walking in or near a stroller or who is being carried by their parent. Even though he never specifically said “doll,” my husband and I agreed that it would be the easier and faster way to appease him. My mother and aunt joined the search and recently found boy dolls for Christian that they are sending to us. In the meantime, we found – and he fell in love with – our very pink Elizabeth.
My husband and I thought it was a fine idea to give our two-year-old son a doll, but we soon decided that she would go down for her nap whenever he asked to take her out of the house. This had more to do with the fact that we knew we would probably end up carrying both our son and the family doll, but admittedly also a bit to do with how people might react. We count a lot of people as friends who we know would never give a boy a doll, much less a clearly feminine one, and although we disagree, we decided not to invite the discussion. But this morning, running late for day care, and with no time for a battle, my son and I left the house with syrup on our faces and Elizabeth in tow. I was already pushing them both down the street in the stroller before I began to wonder about the reaction my son and his very pink doll would get.
When I was in elementary school, there was a great show called “Free to Be You and Me.” The entire school got together to watch it once a year. It was all about each person being him/herself and accepting each other’s differences, complete with cartoons, actors, puppets and catchy songs à la “School House Rock.” Arguably “advanced” for its day, “Free to Be You and Me” had one little cartoon called “William Wants a Doll.” It was about a little boy named William who desperately wanted a doll. Instead, his father tried to offer him every boy toy and piece of sports equipment, but to no avail. William was steadfast- he wanted a doll. Finally, William’s mother stepped in and explained to the father that giving William a doll would teach him how to be a good father. In the end, William triumphs and gets his doll whom he loves dearly. As a child, I used to love “Free to Be You and Me.” Maybe because the video’s all-inclusive loving message appealed to my interracial self, but now as an adult, I see even more of the beauty, simplicity and timelessness of the message. Although it wasn’t our idea to get our son a doll, I truly believe that having one can help him to become a more caring human being- and maybe even help to make him a better father when the time comes.
On our way to school this morning, I looked closely for any reaction to Christian and Elizabeth. For the most part, people paid as much attention as you would imagine they would trekking to work in 85 degree heat. Then slowly, I noticed a couple of glances, followed mostly by smiles. A man crossing the street. A woman in the elevator at the train station. “I see you have a doll,” she said sweetly, causing Christian to pull Elizabeth a little closer. People on the train echoed the same sentiment. “I think that is SO great,” said the woman we sat across from as a younger man looked approvingly from across the aisle. And while I appreciate the sentiment, I can’t help but to wish it were more commonplace, more ordinary, to see a little boy holding his doll.
What happened today surprised me, in both a good way and an unexpectedly familiar one. People smiled at my son and then at me, with approval and support. Others went further to say how great it was that we gave our son a doll. It reminded me of what people often say when they know that we adopted our son. Very well-meaning people will often tell us how wonderful it is and how lucky our child is. Others have told us how good we are, treating us like we saved him, when the truth is that our son, and his birth mother, saved us in so many ways. As for Christian and his doll, I am just pleased that, at a young age, he is showing a growing compassion for other living creatures-and their likeness!
Our experience this morning was wholly positive, and for a moment, I chided myself for even worrying about any negative reactions. When we arrived at day care, Christian trotted off to class, leaving his beloved doll in the stroller to await the ride home. I kissed him goodbye and took a last glance at Elizabeth and smiled, knowing very well that if the boy dolls arrive in the mail today, she will be there to show them the ropes.
Natalie A. Sullivan is the mother of a beautiful two-year-old son, and a darling daughter in heaven who made her a writer. One of her essays was recently published in Three Minus One: Stories of Parents’ Love and Loss (She Writes Press, 2014).