Although I do quite of bit of my own reading, I never read my own books 40-50 times in a row the way I do the children's. Tonight's post may be a testament to the fact that I have spent a bit too much time with the Berenstain Bears. I am troubled by what is happening in Mama and Papa Bear's marriage.
In the early days, they were both competent and hard-working. Take The Berenstain Bears' New Baby, first published in 1974. Papa Bear and Mama Bear seem well-matched in this book. Papa has made a home for them from a large tree, and furnished it with his own handiwork. He takes Small Bear out into the woods one morning to make him a bigger bed. He sharpens his axe on the grinding stone, he tests it to see if it is sharp, he chops down a tree and splits it into boards, he makes a new bed for Small Bear, chipping and shaving it smooth and neat, and finally carrying it back to the house and up to Small Bear's room. While in the woods, Papa Bear has a man-to-man discussion with his son about the upcoming arrival of a new baby.
Mama, meanwhile, brings the vegetables in from the garden, has breakfast on the table when the men come down the stairs in the morning, and while they are gone for the day, manages to move the small bed to a new room, give birth, and get the baby all dressed, complete with a pink bow, in time for the men's arrival. There is a comforting image of Papa Bear with his arm wrapped around Mama Bear as they watch Small Bear meeting his new sister for the first time. Another tender scene is depicted of them saying good night to Small Bear, Mama Bear holding the sleeping baby, Papa Bear still with his arm wrapped lovingly around Mama. They are a unit. They are two adults who love each other and work together for the good of the family.
Now it is 1981 and the story is The Berenstain Bears and the Sitter. They are older now, but Mama and Papa are still working as a team. While Mama is on the phone trying to find a sitter, Papa is explaining to the cubs why they can't go with them to the town hall meeting. Now Papa and Mama are walking off together to attend their meeting. At the town hall, they are on the same page, both worrying about how the cubs are doing back home. They go together to call home, Papa dialing, ear to the receiver, Mama behind him with her hand resting on his shoulder. At the end of the book, we see Mama and Papa walking back home from the meeting, arm in arm.
It is still 1981, and now The Berenstain Bears Go To The Doctor. Mama and Papa Bear are still working together, tucking the cubs into bed, driving them to the doctor's office the next morning, sitting next to each other in the waiting room. But Mama is a bit more of the heavy than Papa now, a tad more mature and competent. She announces tomorrow's visit to the doctor, while Papa assures the cubs that there is nothing to worry about. Sister asks Mama if she ever gets checkups. "Yes, I do," Mama answers. Papa, on the other hand, brags that he doesn't need checkups anymore because he never gets sick. In the middle of this statement, he sneezes, and Mama comments on what a sneeze it is. Papa assures the family it is just the dusty road. The next time he sneezes, Mama says "Bless you!" and Papa blames the bright sunlight. In the illustration, his eyes are wide and sincere, while Mama looks back at him over her shoulder with a frown on her face and a look of mild disgust. Papa keeps sneezing and claiming that he never gets sick, but eventually the doctor insists on examining him. He has a fever, a red throat, and a stuffy nose. On the final page, Papa is home in bed, the cubs are feeding him some gooey pink medicine, and Mama is standing behind them looking rather satisfied with herself, holding a thermometer. Papa, smiling weakly, says "Well, I hardly ever get sick."
Here we are just starting to see a subtle shift to what becomes a pervasive pattern in future books. Over time, Mama becomes the lone parent, while Papa devolves into the incompetent third (or fourth, after Baby Honey is born) child. Papa gets more and more buffoon-ish, while Mama grows increasingly aloof. You don't see them touching each other like they used to. They seem less and less well-matched. What is the cause of this? Has Mama never gotten over giving birth to Sister Bear alone while Papa was out in the woods for the day? Has Papa had an accident we are not aware of, resulting in a closed-head injury that has fundamentally altered his personality? Is the marriage of Mama & Papa Bear's creators, Stan & Jan, on the rocks?
Mama may have looked cute in her blue and white polka-dotted mumu as a younger bear, but after all these years of marriage and family life, has she completely given up on herself? Why can't she ever wear anything attractive, sexy even? It is like she is not a woman anymore. She is Mama, and that is all. She doesn't even remember her first name, and neither does Papa.
Papa, on the other hand, has been emasculated. Mama's low expectations of him over the years have rendered him as incompetent as the cubs, if not more. She is the voice of authority and reason now, and he is nothing but the comic relief. I ask you, dear readers: How much longer can a marriage like this survive?