When my husband was three, my mother-in-law was convinced he could read. After all, he flipped through the pages of Where the Wild Things Are as he spoke the words out loud with perfect timing. But it just happened that he loved it so much that he memorized the entire thing, word for word.
While I never memorized it myself, Where the Wild Things Are too holds a special place in my literary canon. As a teenager, I remembered it fondly, along with Winnie the Pooh and Alice in Wonderland.
But then a series of events illuminated how much the book still speaks to me, especially since I’ve become a parent.
Insight into a Children’s Classic
The first was seeing the Where the Wild Things Are movie, written by one of my favorite authors (Dave Eggers) and scored by one of my favorite bands (Arcade Fire). While turning a 40 page picture book into a film seems incomprehensible, they did an excellent job. Instead of a series of fart jokes and action pieces – Dr. Seuss adaptations, I’m looking at you – Eggers meditated on the emotional weight of childhood and parenting. Although my previous concentration on the “wild rompus” obscured these themes, the movie brought them into focus.
The second was Maurice Sendak’s interview with Stephen Colbert just before his death. Rather than the quiet, gentle old man I’d imagined, he was charmingly cantankerous. He outplayed Colbert, eviscerating his “character” while respecting his larger point. He talked honestly and openly about his struggles. In particular, he addressed ncluding his frustration that people thought his books could harm children because he was gay. I absolutely loved him.
Re-Reading Where the Wild Things Are as a Parent
Of course, the last turning point was reading the book out loud to Sprout. As I devoted energy to each line, their multiple meanings emerged. Not surprisingly, the namesake line of this blog especially caught me: “I’ll / We’ll eat you up.” Max first says it to his mother, angry at being punished for his unruly behavior. The Wild Things say it to Max out of adoration, adding on “We love you so!” While Max wants more freedom and the Wild Things want less, they both speak from simultaneous love and frustration. The intense love between a parent and child threatens to smother Max in his role as both the child (to his mother) and parent (to the Wild Things). In the end, he finds his balance, realizing that even when he ventures out into the world, his mother will be there at home with his meal “still hot.”
The book’s exploration of these themes made me consider my own journey. Before I was pregnant, I was afraid of whether or not I was selfless enough to be a good mother. Like Max being overwhelmed by the Wild Things’ demands, I worried that I’d be too self-centered to find the energy to properly care for a child.
Raising My Wild Thing
Now, I realize that you just do what needs to be done. You find the energy to get up over and over again at night. You summon the patience and back strength to bounce on the yoga ball a little longer to calm your child. You come home straight from work because otherwise you’ll miss bedtime.
But being a good parent also means giving your child space to learn. Max would have never visited the Wild Things if his mom let him continue his mischief-making. Max’s mom gives me hope that I can find the balance between compassion and requiring responsibility.
The book also has a stark reminder of how being a parent can be isolating. Just as Max is lonely when the Wild Things have gone to sleep, so are so many new parents. Surrounding yourself with support is essential to both the parent and child. We never see Max’s mom, but I like to think she has multiple people close to her. Maybe that group includes a husband, mother, sister, church group, or set of close friends. These days, even though I sometimes see my friends less, I appreciate them more. I also greatly value my own parents and in-laws, finding their steady emotional presence reassuring.
Now, when I read Where the Wild Things Are to Sprout, I think about how my little Wild Thing will one day be both angry and loving, happy and lonely, desiring and fearing responsibility. And I’ll remember that I too feel that way sometimes. But as the parent, it’s my job to teach him how to process all of those emotions, whether by imagining his own fantasy or knowing he can rely on a hot dinner when he comes home.
Since first writing this post, our family has embraced our love of Where the Wild Things Are by dressing as the characters for Halloween! To follow our adventures, be sure to like us on Facebook.