In early March 2020, flustered and rushing into the house to deal with a vomiting 3-year-old, I fell in my driveway and twisted the absolute hell out of my ankle. After an urgent care trip, my toddler and I spent the following day stuck on the couch together, watching Peppa Pig.
I just don't know how much more of Peppa’s increasingly ridiculous antics I can take, I thought to myself while watching the episode where Mummy Pig has to parachute out of a plane to raise money for a new school roof, for some reason. Cut to just a few weeks later and the depths of lockdown, and I could have cried with gratitude for that animated pig’s existence.
Millennial parents often have a fraught relationship with screen time, especially when you consider that most of us watched plenty of television growing up. (It even had… commercials.) Screens have proliferated over the course of our lives, popping up like mushrooms after a rainstorm on everything from billboards to refrigerator doors. Smartphones and tablets are everywhere. Hence the arguments and the angst over screen-time recommendations, which went completely out the window the minute the lockdowns began. One parenting expert who’d previously preached the importance of screen-time balance went so far as to publish a piece in The New York Times, apologizing to anybody she’d ever made feel bad.
But when I think about my kid’s cartoons, I feel something other than guilt or anxiety: I feel a surge of immense gratitude and downright fondness. I wouldn’t have made it through lockdown without first Peppa, then Paw Patrol, PJ Marks, Stinky and Dirty, Frozen, and Frozen II.
Lockdown just was the beginning of my reevaluation of my child’s cartoons. I’ve come to love them on their own terms: Shout out to the Kratt Brothers and their deeply wholesome explanations of wild animals; my immense respect to the genius that decided to make a puppet show about a character named “Donkey Hodie” who lives in a windmill and his friend, “Purple Panda;” God bless the entire Encanto creative team. Please — never, ever stop.
Call this a case of Stockholm Syndrome if you want, and fair enough. For weeks, Peppa was my child’s constant companion and mine too. My lockdown memories are deeply intertwined with that peppy little theme song, which I know perfectly well just popped into your brain, like an ice cream truck jingle. It’ll probably be jangling around between my ears on my deathbed. Same for Paw Patrol, and don’t even get me started on PJ Masks.
Of course, there’s plenty to dislike: Peppa has a reputation for brattiness, and I deeply disapprove of the way they talk about Daddy Pig’s tummy. The absurd range of gear on Paw Patrol seems solely designed to sell toys, and where does Adventure Bay get the money, anyway? I shudder when I remember the uncanny days of Little Baby Bum.
But there’s plenty to love, too.
Even now, I am finishing this draft to the distant sound of Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures, a recent series in which Barbie is, for some reason, a vlogger. Who better to pick up a gig as a babysitter than the doll famous for having dozens and dozens of careers? In a recent episode, Barbie fell asleep and woke to find herself Mayor Barbie, who must deal with a giant threat to her town by working with such allies as Scientist Barbie, Engineer Barbie, Dance Barbie... you get the idea. This sailed right over my now-5-year-old’s head, but I’m still laughing about it. The people making these shows clearly know that the parents are occasionally a captive audience and wink in our direction: I think about the Peppa episode with the “glitter containment incident” every time I discover a stray piece of metallic dust, which is often.
But I don’t need that winky awareness, either. Lately I’ve been enjoying Marvel Rising, which follows the adventures of a group of young superheroes in Jersey City. I sometimes find myself tempted to sit down and watch the whole series on my own, in order, rather than chaotically jumping around according to my kid’s whims. I await the happy but mortifying day that I find myself at a bar unwinding with a group of colleagues, gushing enthusiastically about Squirrel Girl. The trade-off is that I occasionally find myself arguing with a preschooler about which cartoon we’re going to watch on pizza night. I am desperate to get my kid into Bluey, a show parents recommend to one another with the enthusiasm once reserved for prestige dramas. We’re missing out on a television event, and she doesn’t even care!
There’s a part of me that wishes I were one of those endlessly creative, endlessly available mothers, overflowing with craft projects and enriching activities every minute of the day. But nobody is that mother — she’s a fantasy and an impossible standard to meet. Sometimes, I need to shower, or there’s a blizzard and I still have to do the job that helps keep a roof over this kid’s head. And sometimes, I just need an hour on a Saturday morning to drink my three cups of coffee and scroll through the news on my phone, or two hours to read a book in an adjacent room, one ear listening for disaster. And, at the risk of sounding like a midcentury housewife promoting a brand of soap — Calgon, take me away! — sometimes it’s Barbie’s Dreamhouse Adventures that makes that possible.
Is it educational? No. Do I care? Not really! Not everything has to be enriching. Sometimes, it’s nice to sit on the couch and laugh at deeply silly jokes for a while.
Kelly Faircloth is the executive editor at Scary Mommy, where she commissions freelance pieces; if you’ve got a story you’d like to share, pitch her here! She’d love to hear from you. Previously, Kelly worked at Jezebel.com, where she was a senior editor and wrote about royal gossip and romance novels, along with body image and history. She grew up in Georgia between a river and a railroad, and she has a lot of questions about the world-building in Paw Patrol.