Matt Archbold graduated from Saint Joseph’s University in 1995. He is a former journalist who left the newspaper business to raise his five children. He writes for the Creative Minority Report.
I’ve played Barbies. I’ll admit it. Don’t you dare judge me. I’m a father of four girls. I had no choice.
When my oldest was a toddler it was just her and me during the week while my wife worked. So we played Barbies. A lot. She would often toddle out of the bedroom in the morning rubbing her eyes with Barbies already in her hands, ready to start playing.
“Take this please,” she’d say and simply hand the Barbie to me and sit with her legs cris-cross apple sauce next to me.
I didn’t even get to be Ken. I was a Barbie. Not even a good one. I was the leftover Barbie, you know, the one whose left arm kept falling off and whose spangled pants didn’t match the plaid shirt. It’s not even that we didn’t have a Ken I could use. We had a few of them of varying hair color and dress lying around; one was a prince and another was a cowboy. But the Kens just laid there looking like little Village People crime victims in odd positions on our living room floor. Forgotten.
We played Barbies. Exclusively.
The Barbies had their Ken-less adventures. We’d make the Barbies run by bouncing them up and down and dragging them across the carpet encountering dragons, monsters and wizards hidden in pillow mountains and blanket caves.
These were undomesticated and wild Barbies, a consequence my wife tells me, of me being an undomesticated and wild Dad home with children. Their hair wild, their clothes untidy, these were hero Barbies taking on all comers.
I learned to follow my daughter’s imagination but it was difficult because there were always secrets I wasn’t aware of. Secrets like we could fly when we got into any real trouble or secrets like the imaginary monster that had cornered us was actually good and only pretending to be bad. I didn’t have to know the secret though. I was there for company, not ideas. And if I dared offer a suggestion my wonderful and adorable little girl would look at me as if I were rewriting a classic –like I’d just suggested to Melville that Captain Ahab maybe had a laser gun time machine thingy to fight the whale. In other words I shouldn’t make suggestions. She’d feed me lines like “You say, “Oh nooooo. The dragon’s coming.” My job was to repeat. And I was good at it.
But a funny thing happened when my wife and I had more children. It seems we didn’t just make children we made playmates; little bff’s. As a consequence, for years now I haven’t had to play Barbies. My other girls were more than willing playmates for my oldest as they found joy in pretty much everything. And their willingness to spelunk into the folds of crumpled blankets and tunnel under piled cushions, seemed more in tune with where they all wanted to go. I essentially became a Ken doll. Forgotten. Discarded. Without the prince pants or cowboy hat.
And I was dumb enough to be grateful. I didn’t miss playing Barbies, not even a little. I was able to get a lot more done during the day. This is one of the reasons I tell people that big families are sometimes easier.
Up and down the stairs the children ran in their multi-level imaginings. By then we had a Barbie tent/castle too which was defended with imaginary and courageous Barbie blood. When my boy came along the girls just accepted that a Power Ranger or Batman joined in the Barbies’ adventures.
I simply watched all these games from the sideline while making lunch, doing laundry, or working and I refereed in case of squabbles and outrages. There was never any shortage of things to do.
My youngest daughter eventually came along and stole the boy out of their group. The boy liked being the leader of his own group and my youngest daughter liked letting him think he was the leader. Together, they went through the old Halloween costumes and dressed up as heroes, most often as Batmen.
I asked once how there could be two Batmen and something called the “multiverse” was explained to me by my four year old son. I understand Stephen Hawking actually has a theory about a multiverse but I don’t think Batman’s involved.
Five imaginations ran wild in our little house. I just kissed boo-boos and provided lunch breaks.
But then the boy started school. It’s funny because I was so worried about how the boy would react when I dropped him off at the lunch table in the cafeteria in Kindergarten that I didn’t even think of my poor daughter who was losing her playmate. The boy was fine. He sat down and began talking to the boy next to him. I looked down and my poor little one was crying. I picked her up and we walked out of the school, her crying for her favorite partner in the multiverse.
When we walked in the door at home she ran into the front room just like always and I sat down to check my email. I heard her pulling out the costume bin in the front room. About a minute later I noticed a little Batman with a ponytail and untied shoelaces standing next to me.
“What’s up?” I asked her.
“Take this please,” she said.
She was holding out the other Batman mask to me. The boy’s Batman mask. We were alone. And I was expected to play.
Suddenly I missed the boy terribly. I thought maybe I could start homeschooling him. Hmmm.
So for a few hours, my youngest and ran up and down the stairs, hi-ya-ing imaginary Jokers and Solomon Grundies. We flew spaceships made out of cushions and got into massive tickle wars with each other that didn’t really fit into the storyline but were fun anyway. We broke for lunch and Batman fell asleep on the couch while this Batman got all Bruce Wayne, put the mask away and checked his email and moved laundry through.
When it was time to pick up the kids from school I tell her to get in the van. “Ooooookaaaaaay” she’d squeal and rush into the front room, returning seconds later with an armful of stuff and climbing into the van.
The girls and the boy would run out of school and climb into the van excitedly. The boy would sit down in his seat. Wordlessly, my youngest tapped him on the shoulder and she simply hekd out his mask to him. He’d put it on. Together again, they’d battle imaginary bad guys while buckled into their car seats, two imaginations on a rocket ride through the evil multiverse.
I was once again a Ken doll.
My youngest has her sidekick back for the afternoon. They race up and down the stairs, their hi-yas seemed a little louder, more joyful and their villains more dangerous.
My youngest is now in a three hour pre-k in the morning. But we still spend a few hours with each other alone. And we play. I know I have very little time left to play heroes. I am a hero in the morning and a Ken doll in the afternoon when she gets her buddy back. I get a lot more done being Ken but I think after all I like being a hero a lot better.
Because I finally know a secret. I know that they won’t want to play heroes with me forever. So I’ll play heroes. I’ll spelunk into blanket caves and climb pillow mountains until nobody wants to play with me anymore. And someday I’ll just Ken my days away until a hero is needed again to slay the dragons on the stairs. And then I’ll try to play hero once again. As long as they’ll have me.