Is it only a coincidence that this year, which marks the fiftieth anniversary of Maurice Sendak’s masterful picture book Where the Wild Things Are, is also the year our firstborn son turned two? Thanks to that milestone, plus the arrival of his new baby brother, Marty has been going through a “difficult” phase. Hoping a little time alone with Mommy would help, I took him to the bookstore. I wanted to introduce him to Max, the mischief-making wolf-boy in Sendak’s story who imagines himself taming wild beasts with his powerful “No!”

After fifty years, Where the Wild Things Are is still unsurpassed. It’s beautiful; it’s lucid; it’s funny, it’s warm; it’s real. And when I first read it to Marty, it made me cry.

Did I mention that I’d just had a baby? Blame it on the hormones, then, but in Max’s struggle with authority and his sojourn in the wilderness I saw a reflection of my suddenly rough relationship with my sweet son.

Marty’s Jekyll-and-Hyde act took us by surprise. Until recently our firstborn had been cheerful and eager to please. Now, having discovered that he can refuse to cooperate, he seems compelled to do so, even when cooperating would bring him pleasure. He wants to climb the stairs by himself—“Marty do it!”—but when we set him down, he goes slack, draping himself across the landing. The urge to assert his independence pulls him in opposite directions. We go back and forth, up-down, yes-no, until he’s sobbing and we’re baffled and defeated.

If he were a happy little demon it might be easier for all of us to ride out this phase, but he’s as anxious as we are. He helped me fill the bathtub the other night, then ran shrieking when I tried to put him in it. When I cornered him at the end of the hall his eyes were wild with fear. He’s not afraid of the bath—moments later, after I’d wrangled him into the tub, he was giggling and pouring water over his head. He seems afraid of himself, of the power he has discovered and his inability to control it. In his happy moments, we walk on eggshells, afraid of setting him off. He’s a teenager in 2T clothes.

I get the brunt of his negativity, because I had the temerity to bring a baby (of all things!) into our happy family. Marty truly loves his brother, but he can’t understand why my attention is suddenly divided, or why that big belly of mine disappeared just when he was getting fond of it. I am clearly not the trustworthy adult he took me for.

We sat down together with Where the Wild Things Are at the end of a particularly difficult day. Marty was perched on my knee, temporarily consenting to be held but ready to bolt at any moment. I wondered whether he would recognize the emotional turbulence that undergirds Max’s fantasy, the way I could see Marty in each of Sendak’s charming illustrations—Max’s face sulking, confident, lonely, unrepentant, relieved.

Among the relatively few words in Sendak’s text were many Marty didn’t know: mischief, gnashed, rumpus. But Marty, normally full of questions, didn’t stop me; he seemed to understand it all. I felt guilty for my own impatience when I read the exchange between Max and his unseen, scolding parent: “His mother called him ‘WILD THING!’ And Max said ‘I’LL EAT YOU UP!’ so he was sent to bed without eating anything.” Did Marty identify, as I did, with the ambiguity of the bond between the wild things and Max? “Oh please don’t go—we’ll eat you up—we love you so!” they beg as Max, homesick and exhausted, prepares to leave them behind. Max, of course, answers “No!” What else would he say?

Within a couple of days, Marty could fill in all the dialogue as we read: the mother’s angry “Wild thing!” as well as Max’s defiant “I’ll eat you up!” and confident “Be still!” And as the weeks have passed, he has regained some of his equilibrium. His wild impulses are a little tamer, his happy moments not so fraught. “It’s nice to see you two getting along,” my husband teased when he saw Marty sitting in my lap one evening—not tentatively, but comfortably, with no tantrum on the horizon.

Marty still puts on his wolf suit now and then. I think of Max’s mother and try not to yell. I try to let him explore the wild places in his rapidly expanding world. I know he can’t always control where his emotions take him. I know I can’t always comfort him. But I can read him books, and I can keep his supper warm while I wait for him to come back home.

Published in the October 11, 2013 issue: View Contents

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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