I’ve watched a lot of Smurfs episodes over the last six or seven months — first, because I was pregnant, nauseated, and loathe to run around playing tag with my daughter, and now, because I’m constantly trying to come up with ways to keep her somewhat entertained while I nurse and coddle the sleepless, barfing changeling I spawned. We’re talking dozens of episodes, repeatedly. As someone who never got to watch Smurfs when I was a kid, I now want to formally thank my parents for not getting cable. Those topless little blue freaks are smurfing annoying.
Now that Smurfs are a part of my oldest’s obsessions, however, they are also a part of our bedtime ritual. I have to make up a story involving them every time I put her to bed. In fact, I have spent many lunchtimes pretending to be one or another of them, as well. Last year (and sometimes still) it was the Care Bears that permeated everything we did together. We’d be playing with her plastic zoo animals, and she’d hold up a wildebeast and an ostrich and say, “Let’s pretend this one’s Funshine, and this one’s Grumpy Bear.” And everything would just devolve from there.
Mostly, she wanted me to make Grumpy Bear do grumpy things. Though now that the Smurfs have edged out the Care Bears, she typically wants me to make Grouchy Smurf do grouchy things, like give other Smurfs shots. Sometimes I’m even asked to have Grouchy Smurf give Funshine Bear a shot, and it’s just so confusing. It’s like one big psychedelic trip into a four-year-old’s twisted imagination.
But I’ve noticed something about what the Smurfs and the Care Bears have done for us. They’ve given us an alternative means of communicating our deepest fears and grievances. While my daughter flagrantly uses them to play out her paralyzing fear of shots, I admit I have totally whored out Grumpy Bear to help my daughter understand ME. I sometimes make him seem like a beaten-down soul. When Smurfette gives Grumpy Bear a hug, he softens up a little and explains to her what a terrible day he’s had and how he’s just feeling grumpy because he’s so tired and gotten so run down by Funshine Bear’s incessant talking. Most of my snarky subtext goes over her head, and she gains a little empathy for crabby buttheads in the process, so it’s therapeutic for both of us.
I’m surprised these pretend-play games have done what they’ve done for our relationship, because I’ve otherwise concluded that words have almost zero impact on young children. I can tell my daughter that I love her a zillion times a day, and, God, how passionately I do, but my doing so does just about nothing to take the edge off the fact that I have barely spent a quality minute with her on days like today. And similarly, I can speak to my seven-week-old in the most adoring tone you can imagine, but we all know he could really give a shit what garble is coming out of that toothy hole in my face. He just wants it to shape itself into a smile. While I hold him. And hold him. And nurse him. And hold him. I can talk to him sweetly until I’m Smurf blue in the face, but it’s the caress he’s seeking, the nourishment, the human touch. My nearly five-year-old is not all that different.
Originally published 2009 JLF and the Momplex Blog