My daughter and I have a secret: a Princess Firefighter lives in Jersey City.
Her name is Constance Zappella and she is Jersey City’s first female fire captain. I met Captain Zappella at a meet & greet for toddler girls. The invitation read “I Want to Be Captain Connie!” so I took the morning off work, pulled my daughter out of daycare, and trekked to the firehouse, determined to show my daughter a woman with guts. A woman with heart. A woman who swam against the current and shattered glass ceilings. The anti-princess if there ever was one.
Oh, how I needed an anti-princess.
I was not shocked when my daughter first started showing a preference for all things pink. When she started demanding choice over what she wore – usually with a stamp of the foot and an exasperated “but that onesie doesn’t go with those tights!” – I assumed it was a control issue. When “princess” started to dominate her vocabulary, I smiled, thinking “so cute that she’s passing through this phase.” But then it persisted. “Princess” encapsulated all toddler aesthetics; princess toys, princess shoes, princess toothbrush, princess hat, princess stroller, and so on. She had never seen a Disney movie and her TV was limited to Sesame Street and Thomas the Train; where in God’s name was this coming from? What would happen as she grew older? Was my daughter going to get sucked into the Cinderella storyline? Become a Snow White stalwart? Start to ingest the female-as-submissive fairy tale theme at such a young age?
As my confusion grew into outright concern, I received the invitation to meet Captain Connie. The perfect opportunity to nip this princess persuasion in the bud.
When we arrived at the fire station, Captain Connie was there to greet us, dressed in navy cargo pants, a short-sleeved navy shirt, and thick-soled boots. With soft blue eyes, blonde hair swept back into a tight ponytail, and manicured nails painted pearly white, Captain Connie cut against her workplace like a diamond in the rough. The fire station was all function, no beauty; straight lines of concrete, cold gray steel, and piles of coats and boots stored behind metal cages. Not exactly princess territory.
We gathered around Captain Connie as as she knelt down and held out a fire helmet for the little girls to touch and explained how firefighters climbed up ladders to rescue people from burning buildings, wore heavy coats and big boots, ate together in a big kitchen, and rushed off to a fire when the bells rang. Before long, the firehouse speakers blared to life announcing a fire emergency. Captain Connie donned the heavy coat and boots and the firetruck roared to life. She jumped into the shotgun seat and, with sirens blaring, bade us farewell.
As I walked home I felt like a failure. The metal cages filled with gear and the fire truck pealing out of the driveway had frightened my daughter. The kitchen was all she was interested in, which seemed a pointless reason to drag her out of daycare and miss a day of work. I felt more confused than before. I was not connecting with my own child. Worse yet, I came to a realization – felt it in my gut – that trying to tamp anything she expressed so naturally, so innately, was wrong.
And then fate intervened.
Several weeks later, I was strolling my kids across a busy downtown boulevard in Jersey City when my eye caught three figures marching towards us. Two men in uniform and a woman wearing a knee-length skirt and heels. The JCFD Headquarters was across the street so I pegged the men in uniform as firefighters. The woman’s hair was blonde and it bounced off her shoulders, worthy of a shampoo commercial. As they approached, I could barely contain my excitement as I leaned down into my daughter’s ear and whispered, “Look, honey! That’s Captain Connie!” Then, without thinking, I added, “Doesn’t she look beautiful?” My daughter glanced up just as Captain Connie and her colleagues walked by. “Where is she, Mommy? Where?” Her eyes darted in all directions, but Captain Connie had already passed us. But then, her interest piqued, she proceeded to ask a litany of questions about who Captain Connie was, where she worked, why she was pretty, and why she was walking across the street. Without so much as a second thought, I found myself telling her that Captain Connie was a princess firefighter, that she was brave and bold, and that she was dressed in her princess clothes because she was going to a big party.
It was a breakthrough moment for me. I met my daughter on her own turf, using princess power to communicate and connect. I also realized a grievous shortcoming within myself; I had boxed Captain Zappella into the box of “firefighter” when in truth she was a whole person, a whole woman, more than just a career. From that day on, I threw aside any fear that using “princess” to describe the life around us would somehow harm my child. In fact, I have found it is very healthy; it allows us to connect, it validates what comes to her naturally, and I can gain greater insight into what she finds interesting, challenging, and at times frightening. I march with her through imaginary adventures and join her in a revelry of pink, ruffles, and all things sparkly.
Every child’s life is fraught with complexity as the years progress. But for a toddler, those years, and those discussions, can wait. Because for many little girls, mine included, princess power is real. Princesses can have guts. Princesses can have heart. Princesses can swim against the current and shatter glass ceilings. Just like the Princess Firefighter.