Who knew a doll could make film history? “Barbie” is currently in the middle of one of the largest global box office runs in recent memory, grossing a total of 1.4 billion dollars as of September 14, 2023. It has become Warner Brothers’ biggest movie of all time and one of the most popular movies of the year, particularly with young girls like myself. But there is one part of the movie that references a mother-daughter relationship between Barbie and her creator, Ruth, that I can’t seem to get over.
“Mothers stand still so our daughters can look back to see how far they have come,” Ruth, played by the ever charming Rhea Perlman, said to a confused Barbie. And while beautiful in theory, when I returned home from watching the movie, I was confronted with the idea that my mother did not stand still for me. Did that make her a bad mother? Did that make her any less of a woman? Not in the slightest. And while I don’t think that Barbie tries to convey that idea at all, I want to shed light on another aspect of motherhood and to a different generation of mothers that differs from the maternal archetype portrayed in Barbie. Mothers that continue to walk forward in defiance of the patriarchy. Mothers who shatter glass ceilings with their unwavering spirits. Mothers who refuse to stand still and let the world pass them by.
Mothers like my own.
My mother started her journey with her bachelor’s degree about five years before I was born. She was working full time and going to school part time, all while trying to manage a household of stepkids. Her world had to take a pause when I was born with wide eyes and a throat full of fluid. (Seriously. My mom says I talked so much I choked in the womb, which is still kind of accurate.) I believe this is where my mother, and most mothers, stood at a crossroads. They had two options: stop walking, or tread harder. And I am happy my mother chose the latter.
Throughout my entire childhood I saw her work for a dual degree that took almost two decades to achieve. She went to school, went to work, went to my recitals, took me to theater practice, took me to marching band rehearsals, and paid for all my school books. And I think that if my mother had stood still and been complacent in her lack of education and her career, I wouldn’t have seen her as the role model that she is to me today.
I watched a woman—a black woman at that, thwarted on all fronts by a society that otherwise worked overtime to make sure she had every chance to not succeed—be determined to achieve her dreams no matter the adversity that stood in her way, no matter what life threw at her. Not even a little big eyed, brown baby with even bigger dreams could slow her stride. She kept going to her night classes eagerly. She advocated for herself and to be compensated for what she was worth at work. She graduated with a degree in a career that she loved. (Human Resources if anyone is wondering).
Now, as I write this story while my mom thinks of me hundreds of miles away, I wonder if I’d ever be able to achieve this had she chosen the other side of the fork in the road. If she had chosen to stop pursuing a degree. If she had decided to stay unhappy with her position at work. Would I have been motivated to work as hard as my mother? Would I have been determined to make her proud? Would I have wanted her to know that the fruit of her labor had paid off in bountiful and beautiful ways? I don’t think so. This school has more money than I think my mom would even be able to fathom, but I know I wouldn’t have gotten here if weren’t for the precedence of steadfast willpower that she set for me as I was growing up.
I do not think Ruth meant anything negative when she told Barbie that she believed in her decision to stand still. For most mothers, that is a viable and valid option. But for my mother it was not. She kept walking in an effort to show me that society was not the deciding factor of my fate in this world. And that against all odds, she would do the unimaginable. She would get an education. She would raise a daughter that too often looked just like her. She would defy the expectations that had been placed on her shoulders since she had stepped foot in this country. She would be better, so that I in turn could be better than her.
Some mothers stand still, but mine kept walking.