There is that corner in my house. A particularly unpleasant one that I try to avoid.
Tight, uncomfortable, it’s easy to back into but often tremendously difficult to escape. At least, once you’ve laid down the law and explained the rule to your screaming three-year-old child: “THIS IS HOW THINGS ARE, AND THIS IS WHY YOU CAN’T.”
The other night, pressed for time before I left for my weekly track run, I set down two bowls of split pea soup and grilled cheese sandwiches on the kitchen table for Sam and Molly.
“I want to eat my dinner in my room,” Molly says.
Now, Sam, who is eleven, has eaten dinner in all kinds of places: on a blanket on our front sidewalk, in the bathtub, on the neighbor’s trampoline.
But for no apparent reason, tonight I decide to be inflexible and tough with little Molly. “We don’t eat food in our bedrooms, Molly. That’s what the kitchen is for.”
I’ve made up this arbitrary new rule based on the sudden twisted logic that is an amalgam of several free-floating ideas drifting around my brain, including: 1) There must be order in the house because if there isn’t, then what will happen? 2) If she eats in her room tonight, she’ll think she can anytime, and then what will happen? 3) I need to be a firmer parent, not all loosey-goosey and permissive, because if I am that way, then what will happen? I’ll tell you what. Terrible, terrible things. I don’t know what, exactly, but it will be very bad.
In response, Molly starts to scream. Ninety-five percent of the time, she is a rather calm child, but when she shrieks, windows howl and dogs shatter into a thousand pieces. “I. Want. To. Eat. In. My. Room! Sob. Sob. Sob.”
By now, I’m standing in a very uncomfortable position in that bad, bad corner of our house and don’t know how to escape.
“What does it matter, Mom?” asks Sam, very reasonably. By now, Steve has gotten home so I can leave, and he’s also giving me a look like, “What does it matter?” but he’s a complete mensch and never disagrees with my rules—however arbitrary and crazy making—in front of Sam and Molly.
It’s not right to leave Steve with this chaos that could last for over an hour, given that Molly rarely ever gives up a fight if she feels her honor—or a lollipop (we’ve had more tantrums over lollipops)—is at stake.
When I’m in one, I often forget. But here’s the thing about corners. When you are facing the wrong way, there appears to be no way out. You are trapped by walls. But then, idiot that you are at that moment, you realize you can walk right out of it anytime, if only you can turn around and see that it’s all quite simple. You need only take a step or two and then you have plenty of wiggle room. Not just wiggle room. Room to run absolutely free and do as you like.
Suddenly, I flash to a page from Where the Wild Things Are, just after the character Max has returned to his room after his romp with the monsters. On his side table is a sandwich and bowl of soup, “And it’s still hot.”
I realize, at that moment, that there is a logic driving Molly’s desire. We had read the book a few days before, and it was the warm dinner waiting for Max, more than the escape from home, that made an impression on her. “Molly, did you want to be like Max and have your soup and sandwich in your room too?”
“Y-y-y-yes,” she says with a sniff and clutching her soup bowl like a shield.
“Oh, now I understand,” I say, stepping further and further away from that corner, that oxygen-deprived vortex. “So let’s do something special tonight. Usually, we don’t eat in our rooms. But just this once, you can be like Max and eat in your room.”
Molly looks so relieved. She starts marching upstairs. Steve looks so relieved. Sam gives me a look like, “Why are you so dim?”
No one is crying anymore. I can leave the house. My very square and corner-filled house.
Time to move to a round house.