Growing up, my wonderful single mother gave me everything she could, and for a long time, I assumed we had an upper-class lifestyle. I realize now, as an adult, that we didn’t. But she did everything she could to provide that image and environment. Though, one particular item somehow evaded my possession throughout childhood: a dollhouse.
As a native New Yorker raised in Manhattan, I’ve always relished apartment living, and still do. But lately, the marketing around “Barbie,” this summer’s blockbuster, and her luxurious dream house, has gotten to me.
Despite being 42 years old, I want one of my own: my first-ever dollhouse.
On playdates with richer friends as a girl, I lived vicariously through them while we enjoyed their enormous Victorian dollhouses — usually adjacent to a canopy princess bed, which I secretly yearned for too. I had G.I. Joes I loved just as much as my Barbies, yet a part of me dreamt of owning one of those dollhouses I’d see in my friend’s bedrooms.
But I grew up, and they became a memory. When my mother died unexpectedly from a cancer resurgence in 2010, I inherited all her belongings. I scoured each and every box, determining what would go and what would stay until I excitedly came upon two large designer shoeboxes. But there were no shoes inside. Instead, I found a collection of small, vintage accessories — a tiny table with chairs, a pot and pan and other housewares.
I hadn’t recalled my mom ever sharing stories of a childhood dollhouse, but I couldn’t bear to part with the mysterious finds. So I buried them in the back of my closet and promptly forgot about them — until recently.
In recent weeks, we’ve all been flooded with the machine that is the “Barbie” movie marketing. Beyond dolls, there are endless brand collaborations, limited-edition movie collections, nonstop memes and social media fervor. Some of the biggest imagery has been related to Barbie’s dream house. In the first full trailer for the film, Margot Robbie emerges from a pink shell-shaped bed and literally floats down out of her perfect, pink house.
The dream house has been evoked in real life, too. A giant, pink mansion in the California hills complete with pink water slide was spotted in June from a bird’s eye view camera, and prompted chatter and questions. It turned out to be an AirBnB version of Barbie’s house, available to rent for anyone with the funds.
As a city kid, it was instilled in me since birth to be an apartment dweller — and I still feel safest nine flights above. The sounds of the city lull me to sleep, and the thought of suburban silence terrifies me. I don’t want a giant house, let alone a hot-pink one.
And yet, something began stirring inside me after seeing the “Barbie” promotional push, especially that dream house. I started thinking back on all those dollhouses from my childhood — the ones I tried to pretend didn’t, in some ways, represent a version of something I wanted to have one day: a family. They symbolized an ideal I hoped to inhabit. A place — not measured by price or size, but by the contentedness of its inhabitants. Isn’t that what the dream house represents? The happy family — whatever that may look like — living inside.
Isn’t that what the dream house represents? The happy family — whatever that may look like — living inside.
After I fell in love, I was ready to fulfill my own version of a dream life. I wanted to be a mother. It never occurred to me that it wouldn’t be an effortless feat. Instead, I realized that for some, moving into a new phase isn’t always as easy as turning a page, or furnishing a dollhouse. After two painful pregnancy losses, one of which was in my second trimester, my husband and I turned to in vitro fertilization. But seven intense treatments (and one failed embryo transfer) were all unfruitful. Apparently the future I had envisioned for myself — even without a house — wasn’t easily obtainable.
The fictional Barbie world that has inundated us all since the movie’s premiere has made me flash back to that little girl who coveted her friend’s decadent playhouses. Enjoying the fantasy for only as long as the playdate itself. Inside all the movie’s flashy promotions, I recognized parts of my past.
It has been years since I’d thought of those homes. This time, however, I could satisfy my desire with an actual purchase.
Initially, the idea of buying a dollhouse in my 40s sounded ludicrous, like something out of a ‘90s body-switch movie where a young girl and a grown woman trade places. But as I started looking online for fun, what began as a private joke became more realistic with each click. Each 3D rendering of the rooms — even on a screen — felt like it was jumping out at me, waiting for me to fill it and engage with it.
I’ve never once partaken in the habit of Zillow window shopping, because, again, I don’t see the appeal. But looking at small, toy houses felt different.
I fell into a deep rabbit hole, perusing everything from $1,000 perfect white mansions at Pottery Barn and Bergdorf Goodman, to a house in my favorite shade of green at, of all places, Walmart.com. An Etsy search for adult dollhouses kept me up multiple nights, while I bookmarked favorites and explored a world I’d never before known. Many came as kits — wooden, blank slates that required care and effort. Enabling me to — in this dream world — simply paint the white picket fence right into my life.
Why couldn’t I buy myself a dollhouse? I wanted not only to reunite with my inner child, but to satiate her needs, too. When I ventured into my closet and found my mother’s shoeboxes, the dollhouse accessories looked older than ever. Dusty, but still intact from a decade earlier, as if waiting for me to uncover them. I marveled at the relics, feeling a sensation of nostalgia and sadness, but also comfort.
A small, wooden kitchenette was at the bottom of one box; next to it, a dining room table and four little chairs with flowers on them. The more I uncovered, the more compelled I was to complete my whimsical purchase.
So I did. I purchased a small, charming, cottage-style dollhouse complete with furniture accessories, and a special addition that sealed the deal — a hanging swing for the front porch!
A recent visit to see family in South Carolina was wonderful, but solidified my urbanite status. Yet weeks later, back in the bustle, I missed the peaceful sway of that front porch swing. Now, I’ll get to have a miniature version of my own.
My new dollhouse will be a gift to the young girl who remains somewhere inside me, but also for the adult I have become.
Barbie’s universe represents an escapist fantasy. Though my own life has been hammered by harsh realities, my hope hasn’t dissipated.
I don’t need to own a house, and I don’t crave perfection. But owning a dollhouse is a stairway between reality and fantasy — a healing connection to the little girl from my past, and a conduit to who I want to become. Until those forces collide, I’ll reside in a version of the dream.