I have been eagerly looking forward to writing about the parenting lessons we learn from King Triton in The Little Mermaid. I was planning to write all about parent tantrums or, in this case, merman-trums, because honestly, the last time I watched the Little Mermaid I was in my late teens and that is all I really remembered about King Triton. His epic collection-smashing, explosive-triton-of-doom-wielding, ultimatum-shouting mer-man-trum was burned into my memory. But as I go back and watch these movies with parenting lessons in mind there is always so much more than I expect to find, and Disney didn’t disappoint with The Little Mermaid.
First I want to give a shout-out to single parents. King Triton is raising seven girls—seven teenage girls, seven princesses—all by himself. Huge props to King Triton. He is holding it down for the most part. He is strict. Smash-up-your stuff strict. But he is also loving, and he shows remorse for his actions when he knows he has overreacted. This is a man trying to do his best to raise his daughters; he isn’t perfect, but he is trying his best. We see him reflect on parenting moments: “Was I too hard on her?” He looks to his tribe for support. Granted, his tribe is a crab, but still, he reaches out for help. And—something I totally overlooked the first time—he is crazy proud of his girls. He holds a huge concert to highlight his little divas. He is a pretty great dad. There is a fun scene where he gets excited at the prospect that his youngest daughter is in love, and we get to see King Triton be absolutely pleased for her. There are moments I totally disagree with King Triton’s actions, but it is clear he wants his children to find happiness. I respect that.
However, my biggest takeaway from parenting in this movie actually comes near the end. Remember in the story, Ariel agrees to this crazy three-day, no talking, fall-in-love-or-your-soul-is-mine plan with the sea witch Ursula? At the moment of reckoning, King Triton finds himself in a terrible position: lose his daughter or give up his own soul to Ursula. And he does what we expect any loving parent to do: He trades his soul for hers. She gets to live and have a happy life and he is lost forever. But that doesn’t make Ariel happy. He has been selfless, but has actually cost everyone terrible grief. This happens more often in families then we think. I mean, not at the level of the creepy seaweed soul beings we see in The Little Mermaid, but as parents, we often trade our happiness for the happiness of our child. Even quite often to our own detriment, we are willing to lose ourselves to see them be happy. Honestly, I am terrible at this, and I think that is why this moment hit me so hard. King Triton being 100% selfless did not make his daughter happy. Happiness only occurred for both when they each had to sacrifice something for the other.
It took us 10 years to grow our family. I often find myself trying so hard to be a perfect mom that I lose myself. I accidentally drown out what makes me special. I used to have a sign hanging by my bed that said, “Only you can give your kids a happy mom.” At first I loved it. That phrase gave me a lot of drive to do the things I thought my boys needed. Keep a perfectly clean house, prepare incredible meals, hold daily story time, make regular trips to the park . . . I had written a huge list in my head of what needed to happen. Consequently I totally got lost, because the truth is I never got it all done and I would get in bed at night and look at that sign and think, “Ugh, I failed again.” And then one day I had just had it, and so I was spending the morning in my pajamas, moping and watching Minions with my boys. And I realized: My arms were full of my boys and we were absolutely happy and I had not done one thing I had set out to do that day. That was the beginning of a revolution in my parenting ways. I still try to do the things on that “perfect mom” list in my head, but mostly I try to follow the “I am a mom” list of things I carry in my heart. None of which will win me a mom-of-the-year award, but I know that on those days when I slow down and also take care of me, we are all happier. We are more connected. I am the mom I actually set out to be.