Adults and Mermaids

Adulting, I’ve recently discovered, is a word. It’s been a word long enough to become a hashtag and a web comedy-drama series. Now, Washington Post editorialist Jessica Grose has publically admonished the word, rather its usage in common social-media. Ms. Grose finds this usage self-infantilizing and a rejection of personal maturity.*

I disagree. I think it is an acknowledgement of personal maturity.
To adult is to do those common, quotidian tasks that adults have to do in modern society. We rotate laundry. We write rent checks. We shop for groceries. We clean the damn bathroom.

The parlance in which I was raised described adulting two ways: chores, or crap that needs to be done at home. And errands or crap that involves going to some other place to do them. Usually errands were consolidated into single, multi-tasked trips.

Service Fees and Pestilence

Personally, I got a late start on my adulting. Sure, I rotated laundry in my teens. I was tasked with various household chores (all of which I sucked at, and all of which supplied my elders ammunition for disapproval) Rather I took to adulting when I left the sanctuary of parental homes and started paying rent on my own.

There’s nothing like real consequences to turn mere interest in responsibilities into desperate urgency.

In my experience, adulting doesn’t count when we’re doing it because parents ordered us to. Kid chores are for allowance or to avoid mom yelling at us. In contrast, failing to adult results in serious consequences: Days in the dark without power; hefty late fees; legal nastygrams; liens and lawsuits.

Then there are natural consequences: Waking up covered in bugs (leaving food in my bedroom to fester); food-borne botulism (eating leftovers without having properly stowed and refrigerated them), Tinea Cruris (failure to frequently change into clean underwear.)

My parents did their best to warn me of these dangers. I didn’t listen.

Having experienced these conditions first hand, I do concur with their warnings and eagerly pass on their advice to all who might hear: Yes, all these things are really that terrible and you should avoid them. Beware!

But for not listening, and having experienced these horribles myself, I developed an ardent, perspective-driven zeal for managing such matters. Clean underwear is serious business. Food stays away from the bed and is otherwise bused to the kitchen with strict regularity. Rent and electricity bills are paid on time, every time. If, for some reason they’re not, landlords and utility companies are called in advance so they know about delays and why, and non-interruption of service is negotiated.

Without fail.

That’s what adulting is.

Faking It

But adulting doesn’t make me feel like an adult at all. Neither does the necessity of fulfilling adulting duties.

An adult, I imagine, would have moments of respite, in which everything is done. Bills are paid. House is clean. Children are in order. Food is cooked. It’s Miller time!

That never happens.

Instead, I triage. I consistently have to assess which tasks have been neglected the longest. Some tasks I ignore altogether, knowing consequences are far off.

So rather than feeling mature, I feel like a kid trying to pass as an adult. I’m the abandoned kid who doesn’t want to get thrown into foster care: so long as I pay my bills and sweep my front porch, no-one will question whether or not I deserve the freedom and responsibility of adulthood. And so I keep up the facade.

And I suspect that’s how most adults feel in the US, whether or not they give up and decide to mermaid a bit.


The opposite of adulting is mermaiding, as in I’m done adulting! Let’s be mermaids! This is, I’ve discovered, a known and celebrated meme. It’s a more proactive way of saying I’m sick of this bullshit.

As of this posting, mermaiding is in that linguistic limbo where gay was in the early 80s, when the dictionaries still defined gay as per we’ll have a gay old time, yet it was common knowledge (not yet to me) that it meant something different. Look up a dictionary definition or a Wikipedia article on mermaid, and you’ll find the aquatic fish-tailed mythological creature. Even the urban dictionary sports several definitions of mermaid that boil down to:

Sea hippies: beach combers, sunbathers, surfers and other folk who really like the sea. Also the hottie on the swim team.
Someone who drinks like a fish. Is three-sheets-to-the-wind. Staggering o’er the deck. Engaging in evasive maneuvers. Is in The Navy now.
In the tradition of Women are from Venus, a woman who is unrelatable, from the perspective of the sod who is frustrated relating to her.

Were I to hazard a guess, contemporary usage of mermaid not referring to a siren or other mythical fish-person may be related to the eponymous 1990 Cher / Winona Rider / Christina Ricci vehicle.

In this parlance (I continue to guess from context), mermaiding is to relax and frolic without guilt or self judgement. For me, it’s coping mechanisms like video games to survive high stress, or depression. At the most extreme, it’s risky, reckless, indulgent behavior (drinking, fucking, gambling, tearing up 80s ballads at public karaoke bars), but of the kind that reminds us why we continue to live and find it worthwhile having to suffer so much of this adulting crap.

Work and Play

Adulting and mermaiding have become the contemporary popular-culture parlance for work and play (given work and play have taken on other meanings.) It’s a way to linguistically separate serious business from jubilee and merriment.

This is to say adulting and mermaiding give us the language to acknowledge our inner children (forgive the cliché). More importantly, to recognize that all work and no play breaks both Jack and Jill. That even when there isn’t enough time in the week to get all of our adulting done, if we don’t mermaid we’ll go crazy. We’ll forget why we live. We’ll get sick or act out or skip over mermaiding and go straight to family annihilator or munchausen by proxy territory. This language gives us the words useful to identify our needs beyond those satisfied by adulting, and in so doing be better adults to ourselves.

Are We Not Men?

Are we regarded as adults by society? It depends on which part of society.

Our employers don’t think so. For those stuck in the bottom rungs of labor, we’re barely recognized as human. Our employers expect us to adult — for them — as much as can the most persistent of us, for as small a pittance as the cheapest of us can tolerate. They begrudge us our breaks, our needs, our children and our lives outside of being cogs in their profit engines. So long as there are more workers than positions, this won’t change.** Similarly, marketers and campaigners see the human masses as generally manipulable, that so long as they make the right promises (whether or not those promises are reasonable) we’ll cast rationality or consideration to the wind and choose their product or their candidate. The 2016 Presidential Election results seem to suggest they’re right.

We have to be adult for ourselves. And this means we have to define for ourselves what maturity means to us, and then strive to be that.

Maturity, I’ve come to realize, is not about holding jobs or getting laid or accruing material assets, rather it’s about being able to handle the trials and tribulations of real life. And when real life presents situations beyond holding together, maturity is about acknowledging the impending crash, and keeping it a controlled descent as much as possible.

The language of adults and mermaids helps describe this kind of maturity. For instance:

Sometimes I need to adult, to take care of business so that my affairs don’t fall apart. Also sometimes I need to mermaid, or I will come apart emotionally, and won’t be able to adult at all.

Sometimes there’s just too much to adult, and it’s going to overwhelm me. I need to triage. I need to organize. I need to hold together so that I don’t go crazy. And this means that I’ll need to mermaid a bit to stay coherent, even when there’s still too much adulting left to do.

This balance between adulting and mermaiding is one that every person has to find, and that it’s different for each one. Some people find it easy to adult for long periods, but forget to mermaid. Some find themselves binging on mermaiding and avoiding adulting. People are often dysfunction regarding this balance. It’s often a struggle. But no one is wrong or bad for how they do things. I need to give them the room to find their balance, even when it seems, from my vantage, disproportionate.

Our society gives too much respect for adulting and not enough for mermaiding. Our culture regards industry as virtuous and idleness as sinful. Hard workers are held in high esteem, even when they destroy their lives and their families in pursuit of of their careers. We regard loafers and easy-goers as lazy and worthless even though there is no discernible difference between sloth (idleness as a character flaw) and avolition (idleness as a symptom of depression).

Adulting and Mermaiding are contemporary terms for important duties to others and recreation for ourselves, and with those terms, we can acknowledge them both. We can consider their necessity in our lives. We can discuss how we balance them with each other.

Saying that we have to adult — to actively engage in being an adult — is not to say we aren’t otherwise adult persons. Nor is saying that we sometimes indulge in periods of not being an adult suggesting that we fail at being adult. Rather these are the language by which we describe how we do both, and how we set aside time and energy for each of them. This is how we discuss, and thereby take control, of our responsibilities to ourselves and others.

This is what maturity looks like.

* Jessica Grose actually said common use of adulting represents a rejection of female maturity. I’d argue that this would be the case only if a woman uses it with the implication that I can’t adult well because I’m a girl. I’m sure that most of us don’t adult well, largely because our society presses duties and responsibilities on us until we break (often seeking to capitalize on that breaking point). Adulting, our need to not adult sometimes, and our failure to consistently adult have nothing to do with gender, nor are they effective indicators of our maturity. Thise might, however, indicate high levels of contention between commerce-driven society and us individuals.

** Grose mentioned a pattern of folks posting their adulting tasks (say, completed ones) to their social networks. While I don’t have accounts for Facebook or Snapchat, I will chat my completions to my sweetheart, much the way friends on projects will keep a progress blog. The point is not that a reward is expected (We can buy our own kindergarten-style gold stars — or better yet, M&Ms — if we need them.) but by declaring our progress or lack thereof, it makes it observed. It means we’re being watched when we’re being lazy, whether we’re mermaiding or adulting. And this accountability helps us adult, even when it is monitored by no-one in particular.


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