No, Moms Don’t Have to ‘Stand Still’ for Their Children to Succeed

Our first child is leaving for college at the end of August, which means we are smack in the middle of a summer of “lasts” and attempting to squeeze in every possible drop of togetherness without all killing each other. It’s a bumpy ride. But we aren’t giving up. This is why my eldest, her younger sister, and I went to see Barbie together on the afternoon it came out. 

mom and teen daughter
Moms don’t stay frozen in time while their teens become adults; they grow, too. (Twenty2- @dbpicado)

I loved the movie despite the mental and emotional distraction of bracing for a significant life transition. I loved how it lived up to all that its marketing promised. I loved Barbie’s shock at encountering the real world. I loved America Ferrara’s monologue.

I love a lot of things about the Barbie movie

I loved seeing it with my almost grown-up teenage daughters. I loved adding another common experience to our relationships, even as those opportunities are about to become less frequent. But then, almost at the end, there was something I didn’t love.

We mothers stand still so that our daughters can look back and see how far they’ve come.

ruth handler (as played by Rhea Perlman) in Barbie

This was the line that Ruth Handler, the creator of Barbie, played by Rhea Perlman, speaks to Barbie as she grapples with her future. It is the line that has people weeping on TikTok. 

One columnist called it the movie’s “most profound line.” But as I sat in the theater, it took my willpower not to groan aloud or embarrass my daughters with a verbal eye roll.

“Are you kidding me?” I was thinking. “After a whole movie about a mother leading the fight to save what is good about Barbie Land, the lesson of the movie is that mothers have to stand still?” 

I am open to the possibility that this line would have hit me differently at a different phase of life. But at this particular moment, when eighteen years of love, sweat, and tears have brought us to the verge of a new phase of family life, all I could think about was how often that very idea — that we are supposed to stand still for our children to succeed — shapes mothers’ feelings about sending their children out into the world.

The strange expectation that moms stay stagnant while their kids go off into the world is not reality

They go, we stay. They learn new things, and we think about the paths we didn’t pursue. They build their futures; we are what those futures lead away from. Ultimately, they don’t need us anymore, and we are stuck forever in the same place we’ve always been.

No wonder many parents wander around this summer before college with dazed expressions and teary eyes. But this strange expectation of motherhood does not reflect reality — even when an unnecessarily shmaltzy movie line makes us think it does. 

And it is not a fair burden to place on our daughters as they step out of our homes and into their new college worlds. Their existence has not frozen us in time. And their future success does not depend on us standing still and becoming touchstones for them.

What I wanted to scream at the movie screen, in that darkened (but not dark enough to conceal my identity as my daughters’ mother) theater, was: NO. I am not standing still. We are not standing still!

Thanks to my daughter, I have been doing the opposite of standing still

I have been in constant motion for my first eighteen years as a mother. I have been learning new things. I have been developing expertise as a parent. I have been changing my thoughts about the world and moving along new paths. I have been flying by the seat of my pants. I have often been getting by on minimal sleep. But I have not been standing still. And this is thanks to my daughters.

Without them, my husband and I might have built different career paths. We might have ended up moving more often. We certainly would have made different choices about spending our money and time.

But we grew with our daughters in ways we didn’t even know to expect before we had children. Everything about how I view the world is shaped by raising, living with, and getting to know my daughters.

The ways I interact with students and colleagues as a college professor have been enriched by what I have learned as a mother. The things that bring me joy have multiplied in unforeseen ways as I’ve raised my children. 

Parenting set me into constant motion, learning and doing all kinds of new things

And my confidence in my abilities to navigate the challenges of life has grown as well, with every phone call with our pediatrician’s office, piece of friend group drama, or decision to let go just a little bit more in the interest of raising daughters prepared to face life as adults. 

As much as I hated that line, it reminded me — perhaps by accident — that gratitude is a two-way street in family life. I hope that as my daughter finds her way in her first year of college, she will look around (not back) and appreciate all that we have poured into our parenting efforts.

But I also want her to know how grateful I am for the opportunities that her existence has given me to grow with her. As we move her into her dorm, I want to thank her for everything she has taught me. And for all I know, I will learn from her journey through college and into full adulthood.

I imagine plenty of mothers will be sitting in theaters this summer with their recent high school graduates, watching Barbie and holding back tears (or letting them flow).

I want to suggest a different line as inspiration

For all of those parents smiling bravely as they try to find the balance between holding their
soon-to-be-college students close and helping them prepare to step into their future, I want to suggest a different Barbie line as inspiration for the big transition we are all facing.

When Barbie first tries to sort through her shock on arriving in L.A., she sits at a bus
stop where an older woman waits for a bus. Since no one ages in Barbieland, Barbie has never seen an old woman. Rather than being repulsed, Barbie looks at her in wonder and says, “You are so beautiful.” The woman smiles back at Barbie and says, “I know.” While this line hasn’t grabbed the headlines, director Greta Gerwig fought to keep
that scene and considers it “the heart of the movie.”

Learning about Gerwig restored my faith in the movie — and my conviction that there must be a strange backstory to how Rhea Perlman’s line ended up in the story.

The true beauty of a mother-daughter relationship is that we are both still moving forward

As my daughter leaves for college, I want to send her off with that confidence — the knowledge that she is beautiful in every aspect of her being and doesn’t need a stranger on a park bench to confirm it for her.

And most importantly, I want her to understand that the true beauty of a mother-daughter
relationship can be that, even when our paths begin to diverge, we are both still moving in ways that keep us both intertwined and growing.

Neither of us is standing still.

More Great Reading:

How Barbie Got Me Through Childhood and Motherhood

About Karen Spierling

Karen E. Spierling is Professor of History and the John and Heath Faraci Endowed Professor at Denison University, a liberal arts college in Granville, OH.  She is also the mother of two teenage girls who are often—but not always—up for trying hard things. As a teacher and a mother, one of her favorite things is seeing young people move through the stages of “that sounds completely impossible” to “this is so hard, but I can see my way to the end” to “I can’t believe it did it — look at this awesome thing I did.”

Read more posts by Karen

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