I can recite Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak in its entirety. Sometimes when I’m exhausted, I keep my eyes closed through the bedtime ritual. The words have worn my voice into a song-like cadence when I turn the pages. Long before bedtime stories were anything more than a blurred lullaby of voice and closeness, I’ve been reading this book to my sons.
I reach for it on tired days when I’m ready to send my kids into the far-off realms of sleep. I understand Max’s mother, trying all day to instill love and discipline and nourishment, when he just wreaks destruction and defies her. I’ve shouted, “I don’t care!” to whining and complaints, and held the door shut to keep them in time out. The irascible nag I try to suppress overrules the patient, smiling mother I aspire to be. When it’s finally bedtime, I pick up Where the Wild Things Are. My voice rises and falls over the familiar words and phrases as my kids’ bodies go soft and heavy and they become sweeter and quieter. We rock in our soft recliner like a boat on the sea, sailing into the safe harbor of sleep and a new start in the morning.
I have hazy memories of my mother reading the book to me before bedtime—the colorful leaf design on the endpapers, the weird beauty of the wild things. My bedroom was carpeted in blue, and after being kissed goodnight, I would imagine my bed was a private boat rocking me across the sea to mysterious lands.
I’m sitting in my parents’ garage, sorting through boxes of books. They used to be piled on the bookshelves in my room, but it isn’t my room anymore. Vintage records are no longer tacked to the wall, and the lime green accent wall I painted in high school has been subdued to pewter gray. My prom dresses are still stuffed in the closet, but my mom has been asking what I plan to do with them.
It’s a natural process. I don’t expect my old bedroom to be preserved like a shrine to my childhood, but the lack of a permanent touchstone leaves me unmoored. I move a lot—my husband is in the military, so every home is temporary. A part of me loves the change and adventure, but another part of me feels blown about in the wind.
When I go to my parents’ house—what used to be home—I lose my impulse control. I go through the cupboards, looking for the hidden stash of Oreos and M&Ms. I stay up late reading in bed, even though I know my kids don’t sleep well away from home and will undoubtedly be up through the night. Sibling rivalry rises up between my sister and I as if we were still toddlers tussling over the prettiest Barbie dresses.
I wrap the towel around me and step out of the shower. My sister is at the mirror, arranging her crown hair extensions. “Have you seen these before?” she asks (as if she hasn’t been tagging me in Instagram giveaways for them for the last six months). “Alan got it for me for Christmas. Mom has some too, I think.” She unzips her makeup bag, pulling out sponges, foundation, a couple of mascara tubes.
“Your hair looks great,” I answer. “So much extra body.” I rub on eye cream, tinted moisturizer, bronzer, mascara. Done. Before I pull my hair out of its top-knot, I hear a shriek. My sister applies her second layer of mascara as I throw on a bra and t-shirt and rush downstairs.
My mom is sitting at the dining room table with her vanity mirror. She never does her makeup under the fluorescent bathroom lights. My oldest sits across from her, peering at his magnified face on the other side of the mirror. “Are they okay?” I ask. “I heard a yell.”
“Nolan took a toy from Cal,” my mom answers. “They’re fine now.” She unscrews her mascara (waterproof only—the regular kind makes her lashes go straight). “I want to talk to you.” Always worrisome words. “I’m going to take your sister shopping this afternoon. There are some stores downtown that she’s been wanting to go to.” She pauses. “I don’t want you to get jealous about it.”
“Um, okay?” I scoop up the baby. “I need to change his diaper.” The critic in my head starts ranting. They have more fun without you. You’re the odd one out in this family. They don’t want to shop with you because you’re fat. I tell myself that I wouldn’t have been bugged by this special shopping trip if it hadn’t been pegged as a special shopping trip, but I’m pretty bothered now. Even when my sister tells me she wants me to come with them and I find a great outfit (on sale!). Insecurity drips through the rest of my interactions with my mom and sister like poison. I pout as they swap makeup tips and laugh together, feeling like a martyr as I haul dirty diapers out to the dumpster in the snow.
My sister is a first grade teacher and and has to leave a few days earlier than I do for work. The morning after her flight, my mom’s fraying patience snaps. She tells me my attitude has soured what was supposed to be a weekend of family togetherness. She details my selfish actions: my inability to let offenses go, my jealousy, my obtuseness in thinking a mother could love one daughter more than another. Hurt, I only hear the accusations and ignore any undercurrent of love. I don’t know how to expose the vulnerabilities fueling my moping attitude, so instead I yell accusations of my own.
After the fight, I go upstairs and scroll through my phone, searching for flights home. I can’t imagine staying here for another two days, but I give up after a few minutes—the prices are exorbitant, and I knew my boys wouldn’t understand why we had to leave Grandma’s house early. The rest of the day is an awkward dance of playing with the boys while avoiding eye contact with each other. By dinnertime, we’ve reached an unspoken truce, but our talk remains stilted. We are both hurt and surprised, I think, at how easy it was to build walls and hurl stones.
That night, my toddler pulls my old copy of Where the Wild Things Are from the bookshelf. I zip through it, trying to get him to sleep so I can retreat to my room with a novel and escape the horrible day. Usually as I read this book, I relate to Max’s frazzled mother, who sends him to his room without dinner after a day of wildness. But tonight, Max resonates with me. Sentenced to a lonely night in his bedroom, he escaped to a faraway place populated by a coterie of monsters who crowned him their king. Finally allowed to do everything he wanted, he nevertheless found himself longing for home. He had complete freedom and complete power. He was in charge. But after a day of rumpusing through the bushes and trees, “he was lonely, and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.” I choke through those sentences.
Once the boys are asleep, Where the Wild Things Are back on the shelf, I lie in bed, journal open on my lap, and escape into my own faraway land peopled with monsters.
They roar their roars and gnash their teeth and roll their eyes and show their claws, and I’m not quite as bold as Max. I want to hop right back into my private boat and sail away home into comforting arms and external assurance that I’m good enough. But the wild things have me now, and they won’t let me skulk away unnoticed.
Guest post written by Lorren Lemmons. Lorren is a mama to two blue-eyed boys, a military wife, a nurse, a bibliophile, and a writer. This summer she is moving from Washington state to North Carolina. She blogs about books, motherhood, and her undying love for Trader Joe’s at When Life Gives You Lemmons. Her work has been featured in several publications including Mothers Always Write, Upwrite Magazine, Tribe Magazine, and Parent.co. You can find her on Twitter.