Maybe because I’ve spent most of my life in school, either as a student or a teacher, I do a lot of research when I start something new. Becoming a mom was no different. If a baby, toddler, or preschooler does it, I have a book about it. Throw in Google and some online mom chat boards, and I am Very. Well. Informed.
So, I was not at all surprised when my older son became interested in imaginary play, as my how-to-parent-a-three-year-old book had told me to expect this. The book also told me it would not be long before he invented an imaginary friend, or perhaps even a whole imaginary posse. But where most three-year-olds zig, Matthew decided to zag. Rather than making up friends, he pretends to be someone else himself.
Thanks to a birthday “gift” of a used VHS tape, Matthew’s first alter-ego was Ariel, the Little Mermaid. For months, we had to call him “Ariel,” or he wouldn’t respond. (There are NO looks, by the way, like the looks you receive at the park when you shout, “Ariel, put your penis away!” because your aspiring nudist, mermaid-loving son is flashing the kids on the swings.)
After I saw the Ariel movie for the 8495520943580349 time, I introduced “The 101 Dalmatians,” and he was transformed. To, of course, Cruella DeVil. Then I learned what awkwardness REALLY feels like when I found myself at the indoor play place shouting, “Cruella! Give that ball back! Cruella! Say you’re sorry right now, young man, or we are leaving this minute!” As the months passed, he moved on to Wendy from “Peter Pan,” Cera from “The Land Before Time,” and Toodie from “Yo Gabba Gabba.”
[Here is where I’m supposed to make some defensive-sounding comment about how the fact that my son relates primarily to female characters is developmentally normal considering the fact that he spends about 85% of his waking hours with me, his female mother. But the truth is, I don’t care. Whatever floats his boat floats my boat, too—gender-“appropriate” or not.]
[Also, he may watch too much TV. But when a kid drops his daily nap, well, standards loosen.]
Then one rainy afternoon I decided to show Matthew a few scenes from my favorite childhood movie, “The Wizard of Oz.” Within minutes he declared himself to be The Wicked Witch of the West and insisted I play a made-up game with him called “Dorothy Melts The Wicked Witch.” The game is quite easy to play, as its title suggests: Matthew is the witch and sits on the couch. I hold a stuffed dog as Toto and a blue blanket as some water and prance around the coffee table singing “We’re Off to See the Wizard!” At some point “Dorothy” throws the blanket/water over the witch and watches while she moans “I’m melting! Melting!” and sinks into the couch.
So I played, and played, and played this game. While it was not as fun as “Ariel Jumps in the Water With Her Clothes On,” it also was not as skull-crashingly boring as “Cruella Steals the Puppies”—both of which I had played repeatedly in the past few weeks as well.
But then Matthew crossed the line.
As he melted into the couch for the 15th time that day, he commanded that I sing “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” and dance around his not-so-lifeless body (3 year olds are NOT good at playing dead). But even though we were having “fun,” I just could not bring myself to dance and sing in celebration of my son’s fake death. It just felt wrong. Not sharing my reservations, my 1.5 year old chanted helpfully “Nee-nah! Wicky wet!” and fell on top of his still-moaning brother. Weakly, I joined him, singing optimistically, “Ding dong the witch is melted?” But preschoolers are known for nothing if not for their occasional, completely random but also completely fanatical attention to some details. I would sing the song correctly, or there would be hell to pay in the form of a whining, crying meltdown.
So I sang and danced, regaling my sons, the neighbors, and an innocent dog-walker outside with a musical description of where the goblins go (Below! Below, below, yo ho!). Matthew delighted in this new variation of his game, William tripped around happily shouting “Yo ho! Yo ho!” and I decided to focus on the fact that no one was fighting or crying. I also resolved to save more money for his future therapy bills. Because they are coming.