Swimming in the wake of mermaids

Posted: Sunday, April 12, 2009

After babysitting our daughter, a friend of ours said "After she showed up, mermaids kept appearing everywhere." It is true. My daughter is surrounded by a wave of mermaids all the time. And lately it seems I am being washed over by them as well.

Unlike me, Adelie's mermaid fascination is a long-term commitment, stemming from a screening of "The Little Mermaid" somewhere years ago. She began talking about Ariel, wishing she had red hair and a fantasizing the color of her tail. I ignored her mermaid-centric monologue for a good, long time, having what I felt were reasonable objections to a character who wanted to marry at 16 and whose hair, were it real, would outweigh her tiny, perfect body by a long shot.

Compound this with my squeamishness about the Disneyfied commercialization of childhood and the results are predictable. We didn't buy the movie. I didn't buy her Ariel toys.

I told her if she wanted mermaids, she could save her allowance. So she did; the collection of red-headed mermaid dolls littering our house is testament to her single-mindedness. I, a level-headed parent, continued to ignore and shovel the dolls back in her room.

After years of mermaid mania, I had an epiphany: this is not going away. Her deep desire to have a tail, preferably an orange one, was unflagging. I realized my opposition was mainly to the fairy tale notion of girl and womanhood, but not the mermaid itself. So when she found a picture book of the original little mermaid story, the one by Hans Christian Anderson, I was pretty happy.

We read it, and just like many of those early fairy tales, it was gruesome. No big hair, no princess skirts, no "happily ever after." Substitute lots of remorse and unrequited love instead. After the reading, my daughter said, "That's not the real story." But to me, its message of universalism and wisdom was much more real than any Disney perfection. I found myself moving toward the mermaids.

Since I understood that the problem was not mermaids themselves, I felt almost desperate to quench her mermaid desire. I began buying and making her mermaid stuff. I sewed a mermaid on her backpack, made her a costume, found books about mermaid treasure. I spent hours on Etsy looking at the wonderful, unusual, and profoundly uncommercial hand-crafted mermaid products.

For her part, she was gleeful with her new mermaid attire. She will stay in her room for hours playing with the giant mermaid doll I made her, even though it is pin-headed and a little disturbing looking. And while I could lie and say that just making my daughter happy would have been reason enough for me to embrace the mermaids, I know that is not true. If the skirt with the mermaid scales next to my sewing machine validates her, I am thrilled. I am also glad I was able to help her past the expected to the surprisingly rich world of handmade, eclectic mermaid objects.

But, to be honest, I have another motive. One day, while watching my daughter sporting a pink mermaid sweatshirt in the hall with her kindergarten class, I realized that as long as she loved mermaids, she didn't have time to love other things: High School Musical, for example.

And while she doesn't long to be a rock star, she will not be drawn away from her childhood too soon, pushed into the modern girl's dilemma of becoming a preteen at age five, driven by media's voracious appetite for brand recognition. And though I could spin the mermaids into something more universal and less branded, I'm not sure I could do the same for Hannah Montana.

And while I am once again Googling "mermaid fabric," I do so knowing it is my own feeble attempt to retain a grasp on a fleeting childhood for just a little longer.

• Marie Ryan McMillan is a parent and teacher in Juneau.

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