In the past six years, a sinister force has taken over my house.
It’s not the chicken nuggets, frozen cheese pizzas and boxes of Kraft Dinner. Nor is it the lack of toilet flushing, or even the endless conversation about what they did in the toilet.
I’m talking about a plague that comes in all colours, shapes, and sizes; one with glass eyes, whose ability to transmit lice and the norovirus is as impressive as it is disgusting.
I’m talking about stuffed animals. “Stuffies” are a big part of life at chez Millard, and I’m pretty sure they’re breeding.
But even as I fantasize about permanent extermination, I have to admit I get it.
As a kid, stuffies were my constant companions. I never got into Barbies (who wants to cuddle a stick insect?) and my short-lived doll obsession was limited to the Cabbage Patch variety. For a short time, Millicent the redhead and Amber the preemie replaced the dozens of cats, bunnies, dogs, seals and indeterminate woodland creatures I played with and loved every day. But it didn’t last.
Stuffed animals were my go-to toy and I treated them like real live pets. When I was super-stressed by world events (such as the Flintstones shifting time slots, or finding my brother’s He-Man figurines violating my Care Bears) my stuffies’ soft fur and sweet faces were the ultimate comfort. Even in my late teens when my friends were cruising the cosmetics aisles and pouring over Seventeen magazine, I still had a select few hanging about. And by hanging about I mean sleeping in my bed with me every night. I have no memory of whittling my collection down from 100 to ten, but it must have been gut-wrenching.
I would spend hours positioning my stuffies for classroom lessons and TV watching. Their bed-sleeping rotation schedule was executed with the accuracy and precision of a Navy Seals training exercise. When they weren’t learning fractions and watching cartoons, my animals could be found in the bassinets and baby buggies I stole from my actual human brothers. Come on, where were my stuffies supposed to sleep? On the floor?
Fast forward thirty plus years and I find myself secreting garbage bags full of plush creatures out to the curb. Not because my kids don’t want them, but because we are simply out of room. My suggestion that we wash and donate some was met with horror so, like any good, compassionate mother, I waited until they went to school then packed as many as I could get away with into garbage bags and buried them at the bottom of the bin. (And let me tell you, life was a whole lot easier before this “clear bags only” business).
But just because no one has asked to see Tommy Turtle (yet), doesn’t mean I’m proud of my behaviour. In fact, I’ve recently become very, very ashamed.
The stuffies are ever-present in our house but when my girls are particularly anxious or out of sorts, they’ll play with them more than usual. Recently, critters I thought had disappeared (courtesy of my own cold, dead heart) were suddenly reappearing. They’d escaped my wrath by hiding under beds and at the backs of closets and were now enjoying tea parties and natural light. And this is when it hit me: not only had I thrown away some of my kids’ best friends, but I’d done so with as much compassion as a serial killer dumping the bodies. Thinking about Tommy Turtle going from a warm, comfy bed to a landfill in Michigan – and my daughters finding out about that - made me feel sick to my stomach.
While these toys may not have actual feelings, the meaning we assigned them made it seem as if they did.
When I watch my kids play with stuffies I see them learning to care for and about something other than themselves. I see them using empathy and demonstrating compassion. When they make sure each stuffy gets a turn on the swing I hope they are learning to be fair, and when I see them playing with their non-favourites, I hope they are learning that everyone needs a friend.
In my house, stuffies are helping bridge the gap between two little girls with little in common personality-wise. My oldest, who constantly reminds me she didn’t ask for a sister, is still, three years later, wary and mildly resentful that she’s no longer the only game in town. But when the stuffies come out, the playing field magically levels. They collaborate and connect in ways they don’t with other toys.
I’ve always been an animal lover and my kids are too. Sometimes I wonder if my love for animals fueled my stuffie obsession, or if my stuffie obsession taught me to love real animals. I guess it’s a question of what came first: the (stuffed) chicken or the egg. Regardless, I love watching my girls brush their stuffed horses, cuddle their stuffed kitties and refuse to walk their stuffed dogs, just like they do in real life.
Many people don’t understand the attachment people like my daughters and I can form to inanimate objects - how we can love something that doesn’t love us back. Psychologists will refer to our stuffed animals as “security objects” or talk about attachment issues that follow young stuffie lovers into adulthood. And once I slowed down and stopped obsessing about how stuffies were cluttering up my house I remembered what a treasured part of my childhood they were. And the killing stopped.
If you’re not there yet, I understand. If you’re still committing stuffycide in the middle of the night consider these important facts: they’re cheaper than American Girl dolls, they’re easier to clean up than glitter, and they hurt less than Lego when you step on them.
Not convinced? Come and see me. I have some clear plastic bags you can borrow.