It turns out I’ve misunderstood dolls. Far from being a symptom of male hegemony, an early attempt to slap on the shackles of domesticity, a way to inculcate children in the habits of rearing children themselves, dolls are an invaluable and effective developmental tool.
Astrid took to “Laura”, her new doll, immediately. From the moment she ripped open the packaging and took out this new simulacrum with a shiny plastic head and bright pink clothes, she knew what to do. First she hugged it. Then she took it around the room, introducing the doll to her new surroundings. Then they sat together on a chair and surveyed their territory. Since then, Astrid and Laura have been inseparable. Astrid takes Laura with her everywhere: in the car, in the pushchair and to bed.
One of the most effective ways to learn is to teach someone else. To take another person through a process you must understand it thoroughly. Going over it with someone else also helps to cement it in your mind. But Astrid’s relationship with Laura stretches well beyond this pedagogical truism.
Laura is Astrid’s first foray into the realm of imaginative play. This technique of imbuing inanimate objects with preferences and predilections is a good way to learn how to interact with other people. It is an opportunity to try out various things, to test theories of how the world works and to create a dominion almost entirely under her control. So Laura – or “lawla” as Astrid has taken to calling her – acts as a proxy in all kinds of situations from eating to playing to going to sleep.
As part of this process, Astrid is taking her first tentative steps on a lifelong journey of pretending to be someone else. She is, in short, developing a personality. The 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer noted that the word “personality” is derived from persona, which is Latin for mask.
How personality works, and how the roles we play in various social situations operate, can be traced back to the origins of the word in ancient theatre. From Greek drama to Japanese Noh, masks have been used in theatrical performance. Besides the practical benefit of amplifying the voice and enabling actors to be heard in large auditoriums, the mask encouraged audiences to make imaginative leaps. The mask’s independent form, detached from directly recognisable human traits yet somehow very similar, aided empathy by helping audiences to flesh out the simple outline of the stage character with details from their own lives. The simple and clear forms of the mask permitted freer expression and helped with understanding.
Similar processes take place every day during social interactions. We slip into characters that help us to deal with situations (and others to deal with us) more effectively. Astrid’s relationship with Laura is the prototype for this attitude, and there has been a noticeable change in her behaviour since the doll arrived.
For instance, we were in a lift and an unknown man stepped in. For some reason, Astrid did not like this man being in the lift even though he was very friendly and smiled a lot. She looked as if she was about to start crying, but she kept on smiling at the same time. She seemed to be having feelings of fear, yet knew that she was meant to be friendly.
It was an odd moment. Proof that we all wear a mask even at a young age.
If I look slightly mauled, my wife Lucy looks savaged. I have a few scratches on my nose, but she has bruises on her arms as well as some superficial facial wounds. Astrid is the source of all these injuries – unintentionally and without malice, of course, but the source nevertheless.
Early in the morning, she wakes up and bounds around the bed. Part baby tiger, part street wrestler, she leaps around, settles on my head and puts her fingers up my nostrils. Her fingernails are as sharp as talons. They hurt. Occasionally my nose starts to bleed. Now and again she playfully reaches to gouge out my eyeballs.
More worrying than this relatively harmless high jinx is Astrid’s habit of biting. Fatigue or frustration are often to blame. Sinking her teeth into Lucy’s flesh seems to be a way to vent these feelings. Rarely does she bite me.
Experts speak of remaining calm and saying “No” loudly when your child bites you, but it is hard not to be flustered when Astrid’s jaws clamp on to your arm or thigh.
Little by little the cool and calm approach seems to be working. Lucy has fewer bruises of late, even though the baby tiger has not been tamed completely.