[Published 10/26 in Prometheus Dreaming]
I’m there in the book, conspicuous by my absence. From behind the scenes, I banish my son to his room, and after his 20-or-so-page tantrum, I leave him some supper. But I don’t hug him or kiss him, or pull him onto my lap…and there was never a day when I didn’t do those things.
Here’s what really happened.
We were sitting at the table and he was—as usual—picking at his dinner. It was the same dinner I had cooked for him almost every night for the last four years, since he was weaned from a bottle and switched to solid food. Oatmeal: 90 percent of the time, that’s all he would eat. No vegetables, no meat, no buttered corn on the cob, just oatmeal thickened to the point of wallpaper- paste and crowned with a mound of brown sugar. It was a vestige from his traumatic birth ordeal with surgery and feeding tubes: he had been cured, but he remained “orally defended,” in his doctor’s words. The other ten percent of the time he would eat Amy’s Mac-n-Cheese, but it was a poor second to oatmeal. I had even taken to carrying packs of instant Quaker Oats in my handbag; dinners out were impossible without them.
Sometimes, dinners in were impossible as well: now, he spat out a spoonful and said the milk tasted “yucky.” I sniffed the carton of milk and said there was nothing wrong with it. I didn’t express my reluctance to get up from my own meal and scrounge for something else that he most likely would (also) not eat. But he probably sensed it.
“I’d like you to try one more bite,” I said, and when he protested, I repeated myself more firmly.
He grudgingly took another bite, and promptly threw up.
“Uck,” I sighed with exasperation and leaned over to take off his soiled shirt.
“You’re not a nice mother,” he howled. “You don’t love me.”
If only he knew how very much I did love him, how he was the heartbeat at the center of everything. But I was tired and irritable, and he was sobbing as if the house were on fire.
I muttered, “I always love you, but right now I’m not liking you very much.”
Garden variety maternal irritation, but I regretted it immediately.
The book says I called him a wild thing, and he threatened to eat me up, but as is often the case, reality needs embellishment to be storybook-worthy. In reality, he wailed, “Are you going to stop being my mom?” and I said of course not, that was silly, and suggested he take a time-out in his room—the very one that becomes an imaginary forest in the book—so he could calm down. Meanwhile, I could clean up the mess and find something else for dinner.
And I could give myself a time-out, because the truth was, I needed it more than him.
After an advanced statistics class that day—the class in which I was an aspiring graduate student, and an in-danger-of-failing one at that—I went to my job as a research assistant where the project team discussed looming deadlines for funding requests. I was assigned some new tasks just in time to squeak out the door before five o’clock, the beginning of rush hour and the rat-race that was my ten-mile drive home in Boston traffic. Late pickups from preschool cost extra, and I didn’t have extra. I bought my own clothes at Savers and his toys from the off-season clearance rack at TJ Maxx—there was always a pile of presents piling up in the back of my closet by mid-summer so I had plenty to put under the Christmas tree in December. The pay from my job was scant, but a recent court appearance had substantially increased my child support, and I was able to buy him a well-made winter coat and boots. I might even be able to swing a vacation the following summer, if I saved. If, if, if: fourteen more years of “ifs” lay ahead before he left for college. I wondered what would happen then—would I still be a single mother? Would the sought-after master’s degree have proven the key to a better job? Would psychotherapy have banished my insecurities? Would I be less tired, less frequently sick, and most of all, less stressed?
I vowed not to lean on the horn at pokey drivers or shout curse-words at the ones who cut in front of me—I was trying to practice mindfulness of late—but everyone knows Boston drivers are the worst, and Boston pedestrians are in a category of their own. They step right into traffic against green lights, almost daring drivers to kill them. Then a helmetless kid on a bike—wearing earbuds, no less—came up behind me in the twilight and almost rear-ended me when I went to change lanes. I stopped and felt the beat of my pulse in my head, mindful—yes, mindful—that I had come this close—to flattening him.
Gripping the steering wheel, I wrote my own headlines and hook: “Bitchy working single mother callously collides with college student on bicycle. Mother in handcuffs. ‘For once, I just wanted to pick up my son on time,’ mother wails.”
Miraculously, I got to the preschool at 5:30 and changed the almond-eyed little boy (Mr. Sendak got that feature right) out of his slippers and into his outside shoes and hooded coat, all the while hearing but not really listening to his buoyant chatter but aware—with something like exquisite pain—of his small, trusting hand on my arm. Then I hoisted and plopped him over my shoulder like a sack of sand. It had begun to sleet—weird, Boston weather in November—and I didn’t want him to slip in the icy parking lot. From beneath his hood came muffled vexation about his afternoon snack, “fairy cakes” (the nickname given to homemade mounds of brown rice and vegetables to make them more appealing to kids) that he didn’t like. I knew that his lunch box likely contained everything I had sent to school that morning, possibly minus the brownie. That would mean my four-year-old hadn’t eaten since breakfast. I calculated how long before he devolved into hypoglycemic crankiness and mentally plotted what I would do upon our arrival: quickly dump backpacks, remove coats; heat milk for his oatmeal, and zap my Trader Joe’s salmon dinner in the microwave.
Jeez, I thought: I hope I have some wine to go with that. I really, really need some wine, even a splash. I know there’s a bottle of Old Granddad’s whiskey somewhere, but that stuff is like battery acid. While my food is heating, I can make his oatmeal, and maybe he won’t fall apart.
But he did fall apart, and after settling him with a book in his room, I cleared the table and poured a few ounces of week-old red wine, too vinegary to drink, down the drain. Sleet was pelting the windows, and cars shushed by in the slushy runoff, going (I imagined) to warmly lit houses with the smells of chicken soup or apple pie and a chirping flock of un-fussy eaters. Underneath my cold window, the burned-down pumpkin-shaped candle leftover from Halloween reminded me that there was no warm yellow light in our little kitchen, and that dinnertime was often the loneliest hour of the day.
I looked at the heap of abandoned sugar-glazed oatmeal and took a taste: surprise! It really was yucky. I had made my boy eat spoiled food, and he would be scarred for life. I felt sick from a tsunami of remorse: I sucked as a mother. But I couldn’t go to him to apologize just yet; I had to reckon with my own guilt and shame, sans the nerve-soothing wine. I would exploit a few quiet minutes to microwave some mac-and-cheese and empty his backpack. In it was a newsletter from the preschool, a sign-up sheet for snack-duty, and the discarded lunch, mashed and browned from having sat in his cubby all day. At the very bottom was a folded piece of newsprint that opened to a picture he had drawn of mommy, and daddy, and Keekee our cat, and cookies, spelled “cokeys.”
I stared at the lovingly crayoned red and blue stick figures, two big ones and two small, and felt my face grow hot. There had never been a daddy at our dinner table. His father left when the boy was a few months old, with me still healing from a C-section. It would have been a predictable split even without the stress of our infant’s life-threatening disorder; on the cusp of forty, we had wed too eagerly. A two-month hospital stay and mystery diagnosis shredded whatever pretext of a marriage we were clinging to. The boy had been cured, the marriage had not. Now the boy spent half his time with his father, along with his father’s new wife and her three children, but at my end, there was only me and our slant-eyed gray tomcat (in the book it’s a dog), who slept at the foot of the boy’s bed and mostly ignored me.
I slept alone.
Now I smoothed out his wrinkled drawing as if it were a love letter and thought of the poet Gwendolyn Brooks’ description of “snacking” on her child with a “gobbling mother-eye.” I understood the metaphor. Watching my son sleep, or smelling his warm hair, I could feel my eyes widen to take him in. Apparently, he felt the same. One day he said, “I can feel the love coming out of my eyes,” and squeezed them hard to shoot some my way. I pretended to catch it like a baseball in a mitt, and sent some back by blinking hard.
“I got it,” he announced, catching the love in his fat little hand.
But a single mother wasn’t a kid playing a game of catch with invisible jets of love. A single mother was a gobbler—no, a single mother was a crazed gobbler and a hoarder too, storing up her child’s kisses and milestones and crayoned family portraits as if her life depended on it. It went beyond photographs, though I had those too. Everything from his newborn mewling to his first crude letters had been carefully recorded in a book that I stashed in the back of my underwear drawer. When he was away with his father, I took the book out and studied it as reverently as if it chronicled a miracle—because it did.
At ten months, I said, “Give Mama some love,” and pretended to eat the syrupy finger he took from his own mouth and put in mine. For a long time, his version of a kiss was one that perhaps only the woman who birthed him wouldn’t find unappetizing.
At 18 months, noticing the tears I tried to conceal, he crawled in my lap, put his hands on my cheeks, and said, “More a-ha-ha, Mama, more a-ha-ha.” I forced a chuckle; he slid off my knee and resumed watching Elmo. I remember being simultaneously grateful and guilty that the mere sound of my laughter, even inauthentic laughter, had the power to right his world.
At 2 ½, he insisted that I “sing the baby Jesus song,”—his favorite carol, “Away in a Manger”—while we were in the ketchup aisle of the supermarket. I explained that it was summer, and Christmas was a long way away, but he yelled so insistently that I gave in and sang him loudly through our entire shopping trip, indifferent to the stares of other shoppers. Singing in the grocery store was not too high a price for the contentment of a toddler who started out in life with a heart and respiration monitor instead of a crib-mobile.
When he was three, he said of the bright moonlight illuminating his room, “I’m gonna take the moon out of the sky and put it under a tree because I don’t like it. It will be cold in my hand, and it will melt.” And I thought: my kid is a budding poet.
When he was almost four, he watched me putting on makeup. “Don’t worry, Mom,” he said out of the blue. “You’re just a little bit fat,” and I knew he had heard me bemoaning my thickening forty-something body once too often. And that it was time to start dressing with the bathroom door shut.
Every mother has such stories; over time, they become almost biblical. Remember the time you insisted you were a snow elf and called your poop “twinklies”? Remember when you would only listen to me if I spoke while wearing your monkey mask? Remember the time you painted a blue wiggly-worm on the hardwood floor, and when I scolded you, you laughed, “I’m a funny boy!” with such wicked glee that I could not be mad? Remember when you said, “Look what I can do!” in the bathtub, and put your finger in your butt as if you had just done something ingenious? (I thought instantly of how my own mother would have scolded me: “Shame, shame, shame!” and I said out loud—with gusto—“Wow! You found your bottom.”) Remember when you sang “Old MacDonald had a wild thing”—also in the bathtub, so much creativity was cultivated in the bathtub—blending two stories together start to finish, and I thought, my kid is a freakin’ genius?
Ha-ha-ha, a mother and her grown kid laugh in unison, the one-of-a-kind memories binding them together like the stitching on a quilt. But when the kid isn’t there and the memories come up, the mother doesn’t laugh. She feels something like a cold wind blowing on the inside, a longing for which there is no balm. Everywhere she looks she sees presence of his absence: his finger-paintings affixed with magnets to the fridge, the family of toy mice that eats at a miniature dinner-table next to the real one, and even the aloof tomcat who continues to snooze on the boy’s bed even when he isn’t there. She pours a glass of red wine and listens to Nina Simone singing “Ne me quitte pas,” if she can bear it: “I will hide to watch you,” go the plaintive French lyrics. “Let me be the shadow of your shadow.”
Sometimes, as much as she misses the boy, she ignores the stashed memory-book entirely, because she doesn’t have it in her to cry. “It faut oublier,” croons Nina, it is necessary to forget. And to forget as well the times she was sick of the entire big fat lot of it, motherhood, and tired as well of her own anger wanting and needing to be touched by another adult. Tired of the times she was tempted to shout, “If you don’t like it here, you can go live with your dad.” The times it was easy to imagine putting on makeup, going to a bar, and finding a stranger to bed—to embrace rather than fight the bad mother her son’s behavior suggested she was.
There it was: the truth. A single mother was a wine-hungry, crazed gobbler and a compulsive hoarder, a dark lover of chanson and an onanist too, but not like Ann Sexton’s lonely masturbator. A single mother lies awake at night, pretending that the hand skimming the curve of her side is the hand of someone she loves instead of her own. Sometimes she will lay the back of her hand across her lips and lightly kiss it the way a virginal teenager does, but unlike the teenager, she is trying to remember what she already knows, because it has been so long, and she is so tired that she can’t remember the last time she was desired in that way. And she misses it.
But a kid can’t know all this—shouldn’t know all this. That night, all the boy knew was that his grumpy mother set down a plate of yucky food and made him eat it, and when he barfed it up, she lost her patience and shouted (though, in truth, I didn’t shout; more accurately, I groused. But it probably sounded like shouting to a four-year-old).
What kind of a mother does that?
The answer may lie in Sendak’s picture book. Not obvious at first, on closer look his wild things have maternal features—the soft-belly pouches from having born children, and the bedraggled bed-hair and un-manicured claws borne of self-neglect. Maybe Sendak understood that the mother of a wild thing herself imagines hopping a little boat, and sailing a tumbling sea through night and day, away from traffic and task-lists and rainy autumn nights and loneliness, and in and out of weeks, to where the wild things are.
In the tribe of maternal wild things, a mother could unapologetically roll her terrible eyes and gnash her terrible teeth and show her terrible claws. For her persistent showing up, day after day, at work and school and for boo-boo knees and story-time, when she was sick or worried or carved out by fear of eternal aloneness, for all of that she would be given a staff and crowned queen of the wild things. And someone would bring her a flagon of red wine, and she would cry, “Let the wild rumpus start!” and she would howl with abandon, for a little while anyway. And when she was spent and empty from the howling and carousing, and missed her boy and his cool cat, she would sail into the autumn evening of her very own warmly-lit kitchen and magically find a ready and waiting supper.
The moral of the story is this: The moral of that other story is the same for mothers as it is for kids. Occasionally, when the choice is crying versus howling, it is wise to howl, as Sendak’s invisible but astute mother knows. A soulful rumpus with our imagined monster-kin might save us from being truly monstrous, to one another.
I stood half-hidden—“the shadow of his shadow”—in the doorway and watched with a mother-hungry eye as my son studied his picture-book. Then I did what wasn’t in Sendak’s tale. I went in and sat on the edge of his bed. I couldn’t fix his disordered eating or guarantee myself eventual job success, but I could take a detour in my imaginary boat and invite my little wild thing to share the trip home. Because, when I was not a maternal wild thing, I was a good mother—warts and all.
I stroked his brown hair, kissed his cheek, marveling—as always, as if it were the first time—that the skin was peach-soft, and whispered, “You were right: the milk was yucky. I’m sorry I was cranky. That wasn’t very nice of me.”
Unlike an adult, he didn’t say, “I told you so.” Instead, he pulled me close for the small tight hug that had the power to right my world. Ours was a common want, the closeness of one who loves us best of all. So he gave up being a lonely king, and I gave up being a queen.
“You must be hungry.” I nibbled his ear. “How about some mac and cheese?”
I scooped him up and carried him into the tidy little kitchen where our supper was waiting.
And it was still hot.