Jenna R. London

Teaching a Unicorn to Dance

        My eighteen-month old daughter, Brynn, and I arrived ten minutes early to the bridal shower at Roxanne’s Pizzeria in Mahwah, New Jersey. Brynn was accustomed to spending her days digging in the sandbox, splashing in the kiddy pool or chasing after her dogs. But on that Sunday morning, we drove three hours from our home in Saratoga, New York to celebrate a cousin much older than her. Elyssa, the bride-to-be, wanted Brynn to be the flower girl even though the pair barely knew one another.

        I straightened my daughter’s dress—moderately-frilled and adorned with purple unicorns—and then made sure her toes weren’t sticking out of her white leather sandals again.

        I am the kind of person who prefers dirt underneath her fingernails to paint on top of them; a cross-country road trip to an all-inclusive Caribbean resort vacation; a career as a wetland biologist to one that requires high heels and a cubicle. I am the opposite of Elyssa, who’d been living with her fiancé at her parent’s house for several years prior to and throughout her two-year engagement.

        A decade older than me, Phil was raised in northern New Jersey and had long been an enigma in his family; the long-lost brother. He wasn’t estranged. But he was the only one of the three siblings who’d moved out of state, who hadn’t married young and who wasn’t present for every birthday and holiday like his sisters were.

        Phil’s mom had died several years before he and I met on a cross-country field project. Elyssa’s wedding would be among the first significant milestones since the passing of Phil’s dad. I was keenly aware that planning and participating in a milestone event without parents to anchor them was foreign and painful territory for Phil and his sisters. I wanted to support my husband and show-off our kids—Brynn, the flower girl, and my son, the ring bearer who would be nearly four on the wedding day. At the same time, I needed to protect our children from unrealistic expectations of the mother-of-the-bride and the bride herself, a task that proved increasingly challenging as the wedding date loomed nearer. The ceremony was scheduled for eleven a.m. Elyssa wanted the kids to be present for the “getting ready photos” beginning any time after seven. She wanted them to walk down the aisle one at a time, be announced into the loud banquet room, and stay for dinner and dancing.

        The month prior to the bridal shower, Elyssa and I flooded cyberspace with texts regarding the style and cost of the dress and accessories Brynn would wear the day of the wedding. Elyssa pictured participants in the reality show Toddlers in Tiaras, I pictured Shirley Temple-esque. Although I avoided making waves where my husband’s family was concerned, I also couldn’t let my toddler daughter wear a backless dress, makeup or lace-up ballet flats that cost one-hundred-and-fifty dollars. The requested attire seemed to sexualize her. The expense seemed especially  ludicrous since the engaged couple couldn’t afford to live on their own.

        That August afternoon, I fretted that Brynn wouldn’t even tolerate the bridal shower. Beginning around five-months of age, she screamed and cried if anyone except me or my husband held her. This was in stark contrast to her brother, who’d been happy to be passed around in any sized crowd. By a year-and-a-half, Brynn’s screaming had subsided and bribery in the form of cookies from people Brynn knew had a 50/50 chance of success. However, strangers still weren’t her thing.

        I did not have high hopes that Brynn would be changing her stance on “stranger danger” that afternoon at the pizzeria. By the time we arrived at the bridal shower, my own insecurities about my parenting—such as bringing up a daughter who screamed when touched and that I myself wasn’t “girly enough”—swirled at the forefront of my thoughts.

        According to Trip Advisor, the mid-range Italian restaurant was a local favorite, known for its lively ambiance and good, predictable food. When we arrived, the main dining room was empty, but a hostess pointed us in the direction of the sun parlor that was closed to the public for the afternoon. I said hello to Phil’s sister and one of her daughters, the Maid of Honor, then stood off to the side in my dress and high heels, holding Brynn in my arms. The parlor, with its soft colors and hanging plants provided an intimate setting. One long, leather bench ran the length of the wall that abutted the dining room. The tables were donned with white tablecloths and pink ribbons.

        Phil’s family was a small one. He’d told me that most of the fifty women attending the shower would be friends and co-workers of the mother of the bride. I waited by the entrance for the only other people I knew to arrive—Phil’s middle sister, her two daughters and a woman everyone called Aunt Betty, who wasn’t a blood relative but had been Phil’s mother’s closest friend. Jane and the five bridesmaids scurried around the parlor with last-minute touches: placing party favors, situating the photo board, decorating Elyssa’s chair with ribbons and balloons. I smiled awkwardly. Brynn hugged my neck tightly.

        Within a few minutes, guests arrived. Most of the women who streamed into the parlor took the liberty to grab and poke her as they passed us. Perhaps biology dictated they simply could not resist touching a baby with pigtails in a dress with unicorns. Maybe I was overly judgmental given the recent interactions I’d had with Elyssa regarding the flower girl dress and shoes. Perhaps Brynn’s rambunctious personality attracted people.

        Regardless of the reason for their behavior, my daughter, who preferred to be acknowledged from a distance, was the focus of back touching, arm poking, pig-tail tugging and face rubbing. Hands and waggling fingers appeared from all directions like moths to a flame. Most of the voices directed at her were two octaves above normal tones. I didn’t tell them to stop, that she was sensitive about strangers touching her. I was already self-conscious and out of my comfort zone.

        “No!” Brynn finally yowled, sounding like a house-cat stuck on barbed wire. I squared my shoulders and didn’t apologize for my daughter’s outburst, despite disapproving looks from guests. The truth was that I felt a whiff of pride even as I tightened my grip to keep her in check. But the most pressing question occupied much of my brain space was this: how long would Brynn and I tolerate her role of precious little princess?

        I grew up in rural Pennsylvania. My playmates were my two older brothers and boy cousins. My mom was the youngest of ten children. She raised me to “get up and get out of here,” an impoverished area with little opportunity. She instilled the concept that I could do whatever I wanted to do, that I didn’t need a man, but could choose to add one to my life. She also thought family was important and needed to be supported, even in the midst of questionable reasons. Like any kid, I absorbed the lessons and wouldn’t understand the impact my upbringing had on me for several decades.

        After high school, I attended college several states away and lived a transient life as a wildlife technician and outdoor educator for several years after graduation. Phil was forty-two and I was thirty-two when we married. . He owned a small business and I’d been working as a wetland biologist. We’d funded the majority of the modest event on our own. Despite my very best efforts to not judge or place my value system on others, I chafed at how much money was being spent on Elyssa’s shower and wedding; Elyssa couldn’t support herself. But I kept my mouth shut when my children weren’t involved, because this was my husband’s family.

        As the noise level in the parlor grew and Brynn began to squirm out of my grip, familiar faces approached. We hugged and kissed the way relatives do at functions like weddings and showers. Aunt Betty—a woman whose opinion I did value—looked me up and down. Then did the same to Brynn.

        “What’s this I hear she’s not girly enough? You both look plenty girly to me.” A look of Oops. I said too much, crossed her face. But then she shrugged. It must be nice to be old enough to mis-speak and not care about it. I struggled to remember that what other people said about me was not my business.

        Aunt Betty blew kisses to Brynn, who giggled, but tightened her grip around my arm.

        “Would she let me hang out with her at your table?” asked Madeline, one of the cousins.

        “I think so,” I responded. We walked over to our table and I handed Madeline Brynn’s mini-backpack with yellow and pink hearts that held a few toys and books. Strapped into a high chair, I hoped that Brynn would be out of the direct line of fire for those overcome with baby fever.

        For the next thirty minutes, I chatted with Anne and with the friends of Jane who’d wanted to meet “the brother’s wife.” I kept glancing over to Brynn who was entertained by her cousins who played with the toys and made funny faces at her.  While the waitstaff delivered salads, I settled in a seat on the bench across from Brynn. When she saw me, she squirmed. I realized my potentially catastrophic error. In my efforts to remove Brynn from the unwanted touchers that I hadn’t considered that by the time we all sat down for the meal, Brynn had been restrained in the highchair for close to an hour.

        I envisioned Brynn’s thought bubbles. Who the heck were all these people? Why had we left her big brother at home? What was with her shiny white shoes? Were he and her dad playing in the yard without her? Was her baby doll involved with these activities? Toddler angst bubbled just beneath her surface.

        I silently promised an ice cream cone, full access to her brother’s toys and a pony ride to this exhausted and over-stimulated wrecking ball I was honored to call my daughter. But I needed her to please, please hold herself together until the main course had been served. For some arbitrary reason, Phil and I had agreed that making it through the main course would deem Brynn and my presence at the shower a success.

        However, when the maid-of-honor rolled out a projector while everyone was finishing their salads, I knew it’d be some time before lunch was served. Brynn looked at me and blinked. I had no doubt she understood the stakes. She stared me down while she stuck her fingers on either corner of her mouth. Then she turned towards her aunts and cousins, stretched her cheeks out and regaled them all with her “monkey face.” She struck the pose long enough for a handful of pictures to be snapped. My mind raced to the phone calls that would transpire behind my back. What would be said about me for allowing the flower girl to act so un-civilized? Would Aunt Betty still think us “plenty girly enough?”

        I pulled Brynn out of her high-chair, desperate she not act like the over-stimulated and exhausted toddler she was. I was sitting at the end of one of the three tables that paralleled the bench. When I turned in my seat, Brynn flopped on her back and rested her head on my knees; I touched her cheek and she laughed.

        Without a word, a stranger reached over and tickled Brynn’s stomach.

        “No!” she shouted and kicked the woman’s arm with her right leg, sat up and karate chopped the woman’s arm.

        Babies shouldn’t hit. Adults shouldn’t touch babies they don’t know. I was impressed by Brynn’s aim, and her tenacity.

        The woman looked at me, aghast, as if she expected an apology from me. I almost lectured that babies have boundaries or asked her how she would have liked getting poked in the stomach by a stranger. But Brynn had said enough for both of us.

        “Did you do that because you didn’t like that she grabbed you?” I asked.

        “Yeah!”

        “I’m sorry that happened. But it still isn’t okay to hit.” Brynn gazed at me. I imagined she awaited the usual instruction from me to give the woman a high five, to show Brynn was sorry for fresh behavior. But I didn’t tell her to apologize. My daughter didn’t have to tolerate being grabbed by a stranger. Since Brynn was still infatuated with the recent discovery of her belly-button, however, I knew introducing complex and abstract concepts was overly ambitious. The only alternative that came to mind was to not respect her boundaries. Now I consider an Option C: I could have told the strangers Brynn was sensitive about being touched by people she didn’t know. But the interactions occurred so quickly it didn’t seem feasible. And making a formal announcement about the flower girl did not seem to be an activity that Elyssa would condone at her bridal shower.

        Dinner had been served while I was pre-occupied with Brynn’s antics. I scarfed down my cold food and stopped thinking about the inappropriate toucher. In the car on the way home I considered her perspective. She was closer to the “old age” bracket than to the “middle” one. There is joy in hearing a child’s laughter. I myself was touching the child. I supported empowering children and teaching them that their voices and boundaries matter. But maybe this stranger had none of the expectations or values that I did.

        Two things I knew for sure: Brynn needed a change of scenery and I felt compelled to prove to Phil’s family that my little bruiser could exhibit behavior that wouldn’t get her expelled from finishing school. Elyssa had told me that on the wedding day, she wanted a photo of she and Brynn twirling. I suggested Brynn show the bride-to-be a twirl right then. I gently pushed the flower girl in her cousin’s direction.

        Phil’s relatives prepared the cameras on their phones. I glanced towards my empty seat.  I learned that the inappropriate toucher had moved to the other end of the table.

        Before I became a mother, I’d have fallen down a rabbit-hole of self-doubt. I should have stopped Brynn before she kicked the woman. I should have noticed the woman was about to touch her. I should have apologized to the woman. The possibilities were endless. But on that day, I forced the self-doubt from my mind. Needing to advocate for my children brought me an unexpected self-assuredness. This woman may have had her perspective. But I had mine, and a responsibility to my daughter.

        Nobody tried to touch her. Brynn spun and spun, free and happy in her own space. Purple unicorns flew through the air.