Article by Chris Field, Army Spouse
A couple of days a week, my wife is able to drop our kids off at school and daycare, both of which are very close to her installation. But this week, she has had to go in quite early for various reasons, and I’ve had morning kid duty these last few days. While I only am officially ‘at work’ a couple of days a week (I’ll often work from home), our daycare, like many, charges a full week’s tuition even if your kid is only there one day. And even if I could keep him at home, I find that the few hours he’s ‘in school’ is hugely helpful in terms of errands, exercise and, honestly, sanity. Our three year old has the energy of a triathlete on amphetamines. After a couple of hours with him, I’m left with the energy of a slug on valium.
But since he turned three, he is in a new classroom, one with far more girls than boys. He isn’t at the stage of ‘girls = cooties’ yet, but he does tend to play with the boys a bit more than the girls. And I’m beginning to see why. Most days when I drop him off, all of the little girls are already dressed in their full princess regalia, with the ornate dresses, ballet slippers and magic wands already waving. The first couple of times, I thought it was just the ‘theme of the day’, and didn’t think much of it. But lately, it seems like every day is ‘Princess Day’.
And at some point, I think I set something of a dangerous precedent. Every time I drop my son off, many of them run over to us and want to hear one of my goofy stories about princesses. I make them all up, of course, and depending on my mood and energy, sometimes I can spin a good yarn. But today was different. I don’t know what it was, but my story today was about ‘Princess Gold-Diggra’ and her efforts to land ‘Prince Chintz’, an ostentatious and flashy, but hollow shell of a man. And she lived miserably ever after. And yes, I’ll often tell stories using words and references that go way over the heads of 3 year olds, but ones that the teachers find amusing. The kids just like hearing stories, even if they have no idea what I’m talking about.
Just like many of my students.
Well, after stopping on post for a couple of things, I headed home. But I started thinking about the ‘princess effect’ or the Cinderella narrative that some feminists find so alarming. I say ‘the princess effect’ and not the ‘Cinderella Effect’ because in psychology, the ‘Cinderella Effect’ is a theory that suggests that step-children are at a higher risk of abuse by a step-parent than children who are genetically related to a parent. On the other hand, the general idea of ‘the princess effect’ goes like this: girls are being brought up to buy into the fairytale that goes, “You are a delicate, frail princess, and only after your Prince Charming rides in to save you from your destitute loneliness and unfulfilled existence will your life have any meaning. Your life will only be fulfilled if it is shared with a handsome prince.” The princess effect suggests that women are being brought up to believe that, by dint of their elegance, perseverance and beauty, they will eventually meet their prince, and through that relationship, find the fulfillment and satisfaction that had previously eluded them. And the criticism amounts to this: young girls are being fed the myth that only though their relationship to a dashing, regal hero can they ever hope to find happiness. And when young women find out that they might be living in a sea of frogs, or that Prince Charming may never arrive, or has been snapped up by another woman, they’ll encounter a painful truth. By buying wholesale into the idea that a prince, and only a prince, can give my life meaning and happiness, a predictable scenario develops. When Prince Charming never shows up, some women end up feeling hollow and alone. They are left feeling like, whatever else they do, their existence is incomplete without the ‘affirmation’ of a prince.
That criticism may have merit, and we’ve been cautious about feeding the Cinderella narrative to our own daughter. On the one hand, we’re raising her to be smart, capable and self-reliant. But on the other, she’s the quintessential girlie-girl who likes princesses and frilly ornamentation. And good for her. She’s as cute as a handful of buttons.
But I started thinking about these little princesses and if there’s anything to the critique of the Cinderella narrative, and if it contributes to the distress and dismay in those who are brought up to believe that their Prince Charming and ‘happily ever after in the castle’ awaits them, and end up living lives that are quite different from this feel-good, ‘into the sunset’ mentality.
This led to something else. I started wondering if there’s a military version of the ‘princess effect’, and what role it may have in some of the unhappiness in military marriages. I suppose I’m just talking about female spouses, but I began wondering about the ‘princess narrative’ and its correlate in military marriages. Perhaps a woman has ideas of 1) meeting her prince, who will liberate her from a life of punishing toil and tedium, 2) not only will her prince arrive eventually, he will look dazzling in a military uniform, and 3) when she does find her military prince, her identity will be forever defined and uplifted by her husband’s service and career. If these notions are operating in her life, she could be setting herself up for trouble, for she may be embracing one or more myths that could translate or transform into personal despair.
For instance, someone might enter into a marriage to a servicemember with certain ideas:
The idea of the ‘man in uniform’ taking his lady to an uninterrupted parade of military balls. The idea of perpetually basking in the reflected honor and significance of being part of a military family. The idea of proud and deliriously joyful reunions after he returns from deployment. The idea of leading glamorous and dramatic lives akin to those in the show Army Wives. The idea of venturing out into the great expanses of life and experience, ornamenting her life with travel and adventure, while constantly being buoyed by the pride and patriotism of military service.
Buying wholesale into that glorified but wildly misguided script could be a recipe for disaster.
I wondered whether the idea of the ‘Military Cinderella’ has left some spouses feeling terribly disillusioned about military family life. I considered whether or not these shattered illusions have contributed to the dissolution of military marriages, or at the very least, varying degrees of unhappiness while being in one. Is there something like a ‘princess effect’ in the military, and might it be a contributing cause of the dismay that stems from the ideal version of ‘military marriage’ being bludgeoned by the accurate, and occasionally very harsh reality of military marriages?
From what I’ve seen, the reality of military marriages could go something like this: rather than riding in parades, sporting yellow ribbons at a spouse support function, or posing for photographs for a human interest story in the local newspaper, many spouses spend their days surrounded by stark reminders that they are far from friends and family, and beset by the realization that their lives are quite different from the ones they had dreamed of living. Because of the churn of PCSing, many friendships are fleeting at best. Because of deployments, some spouses are overwhelmed by playing the dual role of mother and father. And for some, most days are spent wrestling with boredom or trying feverishly to cobble together some sort of career. Rather than basking in the reflected glory and honor of playing a prominent role in military service, many spouses bask in the baking sun of some desolate duty station, day after day, and may become weary of wondering where their ‘sunset’ really is. Because they sure haven’t ridden off in one yet.
On a related note, fully embracing the notion of ‘being a military spouse or family’ could entail that you are defining yourself by your servicemember’s career. It may suggest that your identity becomes inextricably linked with his. Your status as ‘dependent’ suggests that you are merely along for the ride. You are ‘tolerated baggage’. But in the end, you are affirmed by your marriage to your servicemember, and it is only by virtue of your marriage to him that your identity comes into full relief. And this speaks directly to the idea of codependency, and the self-esteem issues that stem from that condition. “The dependent as codependent”: My self-worth emerges only through my marriage to my servicemember. My self-esteem is coupled to my role as ‘military spouse’. If this sort of thinking begins to set in, and chinks in a marriage’s armor begin to appear, military couples may be at risk for a painful de-coupling.
I’m not suggesting for a minute that your average military man is threatened by (or that the military is laden with) Princess Gold-Diggras (or as they’re known, ‘tag chasers’) who marry for prestige and benefits, not love and commitment. Nor am I suggesting that most military spouses are codependent and living in a fantasy land of their own making. But I am wondering if there isn’t a whole array of myths linked to military living that cause an alarming sense of disillusionment in military marriages, which in turn could end up causing simmering resentment or open friction between spouses.
I am merely wondering if the illusions created by ‘Cinderella’ that may lead to ‘needing a prince to affirm my existence’ (and the potential codependency and disenchantment that may result) have their parallel in the military, where the image of riding off into the great Exchange in the sky, arm in arm with her service member in his formal mess uniform, has somehow contributed to military marriages ending up in a mess.
Chris Field is a philosophy professor and active duty Army spouse of 8 years.