I read the Maurice Sendak classic Where the Wild Things Are to my two-year-old twin boys many evenings at bedtime, though, in all honesty, it is not currently one of their top picks —they prefer Llama Llama Red Pajama, Go Dog Go, and the absurdist 13 Words, which they like mainly for the pictures of cake. That’s the light reading. On the heavier side, they make a daily study of a complete encyclopedia of all the characters in the Cars movies, cross checking the pictures with their toys and the characters in the movies as they appear on the screen. Anyway, by the time we get to Wild Things, they’ve usually ceased reading and gone on to other activities.
So I find myself sitting alone—at least in a literary sense, in a physical sense there’s often someone climbing on my head and diving off—on the mattress that takes up the floor in the middle of the room—the one that has been my frequent sleeping space (or shall we say “resting”, since on the nights I end up on the mattress, there is very little sleeping) since the boys’ birth, but that we are oh-so-close to being able to remove as we are oh-so-close to finally sleeping through the night. And I read aloud what I’ve lately thought to be the most beautiful line in all literature (maybe it’s COVID lockdowns that have given it a special significance, I don’t know), which happens when Max’s sparse room begins to dissolve, leaving him in a vast tropical wonderland: “his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around.” At that, my questionably clean mattress island and I sail with Max somewhere else, where no wild thing goes untamed, and if they devour you, it’s only out of love.
Of course, many adults enjoy this book for nostalgic reasons—I myself experience a momentary jolt into a childhood flashback when I look at the flyleaves, with their mysteriously abstract, strangely colored depictions of some kind of jungle-y foliage. But I think there’s something else that makes parents want to read it—it’s the way Max, though irritated with adult discipline, still mirrors those disciplinary techniques when he finds himself the leader of his brave new world. Children can relate to Max’s desire to flee the control of adults and create his own world and his own rules, but parents can relate to the frustration of trying to take charge in a place where chaos reigns despite all their best intentions.
Every morning I put on my wolf suit (coffee) and prepare to take on the wild things that are my three children. I begin by vowing that I will maintain control of the rumpus, which of course turns into chaos as those wild things I’ve created turned out to be autonomous and have minds of their own. Unfortunately for me, my exclamations of “Be still!” and “Now stop!” are less effective than Max’s, and when I tire of the wild rumpus, sending my wild things to bed without their supper and sailing back to my own (quiet) room aren’t exactly options. While the child Max imagines himself king of a world of ferocious beasts, my own imaginings of myself as the beneficent caretaker of children who enjoy quietly educating themselves with Montessori-approved toys and picking up messes are decidedly tame, though just as fervently imagined.
But once my children finally go to sleep, and I have taken a moment to breathe, and picked up a few toys before giving up and collapsing on the crumb-strewn couch, I think of them fondly in the way that parents always think fondly of their sleeping children. I helped to create a world with them in it, and of course, in the way that living creations do, that world quickly got terribly and wildly out of hand. Yet how amazing to watch it go awry. They are me and not me. They are mine and not mine. They, like the beasts in the world Max creates, are both terrifying and beautiful, and once I’ve realized that the world I’ve created around them is now theirs to shape, all I can do is witness the rumpus, hope they’ll be willing to sail back home in the end, and try to make sure that, when they do, their suppers are still hot.