My daughter is nine months old, and it is late. I am nursing her on the twin bed that we share in the small rented room that we also share. There has never been a night that I have not nursed her, and tonight I have been nursing her for hours, hoping she’ll drop deeply enough into sleep so that I can place her in her crib and do chores or spread out more comfortably in bed. My breasts are tender and achy, and my skin is crawling because I cannot bear to be touched and clung to anymore. She appears to have fallen asleep so I gently remove my nipple from her closed and still slightly pulsating mouth. The cool air and the distance soothe me for a split second. She wakes up and cries, demanding back my breast. But there is no milk left, nor patience.
“Go to sleep!” I whisper harshly to the baby.
“Go to sleep,” I tell her, “or I will put you outside and leave you there for the wolves to get you!”
I cry, and I don’t understand, and it feels like I both mean this and don’t mean this.
I either begrudgingly allow her to continue sucking while tears stream down my face or I place her in her crib and let her cry, disturbing the others in the house, both of which feel terrible and are making me tired beyond words.
There is nothing outside of this: the baby (my baby), me (what is left), this crowded room. The wolves I use to threaten are not outside at all—they are inside, howling from too close a distance, and I wear the fanged grimace and growl. There is nothing I can do with my anger and despair here, no room for it, so I try to displace it, make it exist in other bodies outside of this room and this house, somewhere beyond this frame: It’s the wolves that would harm you, not me. Not me. It is their wild anger.
Saying out loud that I want the baby to be outside, exposed to the wolves and the elements (my emotions) feels both relieving and guilt-inducing: It allows me to think myself alone in this frame for a moment, which means to imagine her being left adrift among predators in a snowy wasteland.
It’s not that I really want to be rid of her, but this circumstance, this frame I exist in is constricting, and I want out into somewhere more open but I can’t get out. I want to remember what it’s like to move without carrying someone or something, and I don’t, and it makes me want to run very far away. If I visualize myself, the way my body feels, I am breaking up, crumbling. Then I imagine the world crumbling, because that way I could give up. I wouldn’t have to hold up for anyone or anything anymore, and there would be no more of these impenetrable walls closing in on me.
My daughter is four years old, and it is in the hour before her bedtime. She is drawing pictures in a blank Golden Book that I bought three years ago at the thrift store thinking one day I would make her a picture book myself. After drawing the pictures, she tells me the story to write to accompany the images, and I do my best to form a narrative around her situations. I enjoy seeing her self-depictions and imaginings, in most of which her body presses towards the edges of the frame that she shares with a line of blue sky, tufts of green grass, and flowers she designates as nasturtiums. She creates a world in which she is allowed to envision herself as the competent center, and in which she is empowered to tell her story, to make choices, and explore the contours of difficult emotions. She pushes at all the edges and navigates what is beyond them.
In one drawing, she is in a meadow, she says, and there is a wolf somewhere beyond, outside the frame, unseen but sensed. She hears the wolf howling in the distance, coming closer, and she buries herself underground to hide. When the wolf arrives, it doesn’t see her, and she is safe. She doesn’t call for me or any other adult, she draws on her own resources of intelligence and creativity to evade danger.
She seems concerned with self-definition beyond her relation to me and her place in this frame as my daughter, in the worlds of her drawings she doesn’t request my protection, guidance, or assistance like she must repeatedly do or have imposed on her in everyday life. The frame of the page is her space, her meadow.
I am not a visible or named presence in any of these drawings, but I still wonder if I inhabit a symbolic presence: Am I outside the frame? The wolf haunting the edges, sniffing around and howling, threatening to enter the meadow? Am I in the frame? The earth that she can crawl under and inside? Am I, as mother, both at once? Is it wishful or self-centered thinking to entertain the idea that I am represented at all, even in such masked and unconscious ways?
In any case, I am here with her outside of the frame to provide at least one thing: narrative is a need here. She insists, “Mom, write it like a story.”
I am trying to work on a writing assignment for class while she plays nearby. I am supposed to imagine a scene into King Lear, and I choose when Cordelia and Lear are imprisoned and Cordelia is taken to be hanged and Lear tries to save her, unsuccessfully. She asks what I am working on, and I tell her and ask her if she would like me to read her the scene. She does, and so I read it to her. My imitation of Shakespeare is not at all good, I have flattened it, there are holes and inconsistencies in my plotting of the scene. She says it’s the best thing anyone’s ever written. She wants to play King Lear and Cordelia now. She asks questions about the character’s actions and motivations. She asks me why I wrote this, and I say I am practicing, trying to become a better writer.
“What do you want to write?” she asks.
“Lots of things,” I answer, “but poetry mostly, I am studying and writing poems.”
Her eyes tear up and on her face grows a worried look. She puts her head down.
“What’s the matter?” I ask, “You look sad, are you?”
“You’re not going to exclude me are you?” she asks. “Leave me out?”
“No, I won’t leave you out. We can write poems together. I would like that a lot.”
“You can put some of my words in. My weird, funny words that I make on the typewriter.”
“Thank you. That’s a great idea, and those would make great poems.”
“Ok, mom, let’s play King Lear now…”