Every day, when four-year-old Moira comes home from preschool, she barely makes it through the door before she strips down to her underwear. The pile of clothes left by the door looks like a person evaporated from within, Oz-style. The next time I see her, she’s not four-year-old Moira anymore, but one of a cast of imaginary heroes who occupy my house from noon to bedtime.
We have Owlette, the female member of the PJ Masks.
We have Moana, Disney’s feisty young Polynesian.
We have Rey, the first female in the Star Wars galaxy to fully harness the power of the Force (though Leia does appear to have made some progress since the 1980s).
Thanks to her very indulgent grandparents (who were not, by my recollection, quite so indulgent with their own kids), Moira has the premium version of most popular princess dresses as well.
Watching these pop culture-inspired adventures is fascinating, hilarious, and sweet. But things really get going when Moira goes all-in on her own universe.
Using pieces and parts of various costumes, Moira creates her own characters named with her favorite words. Stand-outs include Spiral Girl, Chupacabra, and The Society Limpet. We usually sit back and watch her adventures until she needs to be rescued from whatever tree she’s climbed, or we hear the distinctive slosh of water being hauled in buckets toward the bedroom upstairs.
She’s deeply lost in these worlds, and I’m deeply lost watching her conquer them.
She will occasionally surface, in need of a snack, with a scowl on her face. Someone in Flower Girl’s world betrayed her. Or the Millennium Falcon crashed. Once, a rogue dinosaur ate the Shark Lady’s pet hermit crab. Her imaginary world is apparently beyond her control at times, and I wonder if this is simply how she is test-driving emotions like panic, fury, and despair. I can’t help but hope she will avoid these emotions in non-imaginary life. But when your world is safe and the size of your playroom, tragedy is just so intriguing.
Adulthood slowly puts catastrophe in perspective…for most people.
While I may rejoice when she finally learns what to do with her big emotions, I know I’ll miss the characters and tableaus Moira’s characters leave around the house. The shark and bison figurines wrestling over my toothbrush. The Disney princess dolls tucked in to sleep in my shoes. What will I do without that whimsy?
It looks like we might get a slight extension on our subscription to imaginary worlds. When our second child, Asa, was born, he seemed very serious. His brow was constantly furrowed, and he didn’t seem to be one for silliness. However, in the past month or so, he’s begun fishing out Moira’s first costume, a koala suit, and asking to put it on. When he put on his Easter basket as a helmet, I breathed a sigh of relief. An extra two-and-a-half years of absurdity, guaranteed.
It’s not all indulgence and whimsy, though. Moira deploys some characters to take on real-world challenges. The first imaginary role she ever assumed was a kitten. It emerged whenever 18-month-old Moira had done something deliberately antagonistic. As soon as she saw “the look” from me, she immediately wrapped herself around my legs and began to meow. “I kitty,” she would say, as though you can’t be angry at a cat.
As Moira grows into a more gracious person, the costumes have become tools for her in other ways.
Usually, while I work in the afternoons, our nanny takes the children to the playground near our house. One day I knocked off early to take them myself, and Moira decided to wear her Owlette costume. When we arrived at the playground, a woman greeted her.
“Hey, Sparkle Girl!”
Moira waved and updated her on the hero-of-the-day.
Other parents have also come up to me to ask if I am “Owlette’s mom,” “Evergreen’s mom,” or “Shark Lady’s mom.” They comment on her commitment to her wild imagination and we laugh. They say their kids look forward to seeing her, like she’s one of the characters at Disneyland (if Snow White were going the wrong way up the slide and inserting herself into your games).
But this woman seemed especially excited to see Sparkle Girl, so I introduced myself.
The woman was wearing scrubs and pushing a boy on the JennSwing—the ADA-compliant chair swing. She explained to me that her charge, a toddler with several developmental delays, absolutely loved Sparkle Girl. While the nurse didn’t know Moira’s real name, Sparkle Girl was now a regular feature in her occupational and play therapy sessions at the playground. It all folded into the Sparkle Girl persona, and Moira joyfully assisted.
As she’s telling me all of this, of course I’m crying. Because, really, is there any greater hope a mother can have for her child?
She won’t always play pretend. She won’t always wear costumes. But I hope she always uses what’s inside her to make the outside world better.