It’s one of those spring afternoons where you can feel in your skin that longer days are coming. Through the open front door, the scent of lilacs wafts in.
My five-year-old jumps up and down in the sunshine. “MOM! Come on! You said you’d help with the fort.”
Cedar’s already got a treehouse that my husband, Rob, built years ago, and a cleared fort area in the bramble at the far end of the yard. But Cedar wants to create a new fort. I’m skeptical—he rarely plays in the others. Will he play in this one? But I’d already agreed to help.
“I’m coming,” I say, stalling by sending him outside ahead of me while I pour a cup of coffee. Through the window I see him wandering the yard, whistling, hunting for bugs.
I don’t want to go outside and help him. I know forts are good for kids. I want my son to grow up making forts. I grew up making forts, and yet . . . I’m bored.
I don’t want to admit it, but I’m bored with our little yard, bored of five years as a stay-at-home mom, bored with playing with my child. Good mothers are not supposed to say this, but I can’t help it. Motherhood bores me.
I grab my mug and follow Cedar outside. He picks a spot in the floodplain of our pond, under the canopy of an arching honeysuckle covered in hundreds of petite, trumpet-shaped flowers. In an open space under the shrub, numerous branches create the illusion of a ceiling. Honeysuckle is a tough invasive species and I’m sure that whatever alterations we make we won’t harm the plant.
“I’ll look for sticks and you put them up,” Cedar directs. He scours the yard and comes back with a few spindly sticks. I take them and hedge around the outside of the shrub, leaning the sticks up to create a wall. Cedar works inside, decorating with pebbles. With sticks secure, I crawl on hands and knees on the soft, loamy floor. There’s barely enough head room for an adult, and branches are poking into my back, but I huddle and sip my coffee, listening to his chatter.
Cedar suggests we make cozy leaf beds to lie down in. I love this idea and curl up to enjoy my all-time favorite game: Pretend Nap. With relief, I close my eyes. For thirty seconds. Until Cedar rouses me for the next project. There’s no time to rest during fort-building.
Our family spends a lot of time in our backyard; we skate on the frozen pond, catch toads, grow peas and tomatoes in the garden, and jump in piles of orange maple leaves. It’s a pleasant, outdoor lifestyle. A lifestyle I feel grateful we have. But a garden, a pond, a fort built into a honeysuckle bramble—these docile, divided fractions of nature are not very exciting. After five years, I still haven’t settled into domestic life, to the constancy of parenting, to the idea that this will be enough for me.
I grew up on a cul-de-sac in a bland New Jersey neighborhood. In this controlled environment, all the yards were manicured and mowed to perfection. The flower beds danced with color all summer long, and the trees were trimmed to prevent untoward branches. Beyond this suburban perfection was a wild world that I had read about in books like Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. I wanted to experience that world for myself, to explore, to travel, to move.
I didn’t know who I was or where I was headed in life, but at 23, I left the rules and propriety of my childhood, abandoned those perfect lawns, and donned a backpack, setting out to walk from Georgia to Maine on the Appalachian Trail. I slogged up steep mountainsides in the rain and trekked across wind-blown hilltops. I spent some nights alone in my tent, analyzing each crunch in the leaves outside; other nights I camped near a dozen fellow hikers, laughing around the fire. Sometimes the trail intersected roads with access to nearby towns, but I also walked glorious miles without passing a single human construct, surrounded only by the song of wild spaces. I whiled away hours next to remote ponds, swimming with yodeling loons, noticing the shadows change angles as the sun slipped across the sky. But mostly I just walked; day after day, up a mountain and back down the other side, watching the vast, magnificent landscapes glide past.
I had come to the wilderness to escape the rules and conventions of my childhood. And in my seeking, I found a love of adventure. I discovered the thrill of never knowing what I would find each day or who I would meet around the next bend. The trail pushed the limits of my ability—mentally, physically, and emotionally—and I surrendered to the experience. I let the path lead me where I needed to go, and it led me to myself.
The more I wandered, the more I wanted to wander. Movement gave me direction, and after finishing the Appalachian Trail, I spent years traveling, hiking, becoming. That path brought me, years later, to this small backyard under a honeysuckle tree with my child, where everything is predictable: each nap time, each meal plan, even which day of the week I clean the bathroom. Motherhood has locked me into a box of stagnancy. A box I fear holds no more adventure at all.
Cedar drags my attention back into the fort as he opens his bag of miniature plastic dinosaurs: blue, green, brown. We make them growl and talk and tell stories. We set up their bedrooms, complete with leaf blankets and rock pillows. Cedar crowns the king of all dinosaurs—T. rex, of course.
“This fort is like a cave, Mom,” Cedar informs me. He grins. “What if this was our cave, and there were dinosaurs all around? REAL dinosaurs. Big ones!” Soon fierce, gigantic, child-eating imaginary dinosaurs are stomping through our swampy property looking for a tasty human snack. When our old dog Gaia comes meandering by, we are sure that she is a T. rex. We hide, but the beast finds our cave and we must defend ourselves from its vicious appetite. Finally, it leaves us in peace and we relax.
In this moment of rest, it occurs to me that Cedar conjured the dinosaur scenario out of thin air and sticks, a game I would never have started alone, nor even conceived of. And yet, I urge him to be careful when he bravely leaves to search for more material to fortify our walls. I hang back, preparing for battle should the savage T. rex appear again, which it does, and though I try to distract it with the alluring scent of my coffee, it homes in on Cedar and he barely makes it back to the cave alive.
It’s a harrowing afternoon.
Playing with Cedar under the honeysuckle branches, I remember that I, too, spent my childhood playing in a tame place. In that cultivated New Jersey suburb, I spent whole days in the area where our sloped, mowed yard met a wide expanse of trees, balancing on fallen logs and climbing over branches and brambles. There, I created rock pathways to hop across and cities in the dirt to house my Smurfs. I left the grown-up world behind and let the stories and games in my head lead me. There, the door to another realm opened and I happily stepped through. Yet, once I began to explore real wilderness, I forgot about those realms that had entranced my youth.
Cedar is off again now, on a quest to outsmart the dinosaurs and bring back reinforcements to strengthen our cave. I watch my boy run across the yard, his brown, bowl-cut hair flopping, his every step filled with enthusiasm.
Where I see a yard covered in leaves that need raking, Cedar sees a landing pad for a supersonic jet plane. In our modest pond filling in with cattails, he discovers a vast ocean. He plunges his hands into the murky depths to feel what stirs beneath the cool water. I begin to remember that forts tucked into the honeysuckle branches are much more than what they seem. These small spaces are where the enchanted live. They harbor elves, or maybe dragons, or, in our case, long-extinct dinosaurs. Reality rarely matters in the backyard, no matter how manicured and mowed. Here, imagination rules.
With Cedar, I never know when T. rex is going to attack, or if we might stumble across Bigfoot, or when the next pirate ship will appear on the horizon. Maybe this tame backyard, this motherhood that feels stagnant, is simply a box I constructed, restricted by my own lack of imagination. My child is wild and free. I have no control over where his imagination takes him, where it will take us both. Maybe watching him grow is the adventure, seeing what places and people and ideas he brings into our lives. And maybe I’ve been missing it.
Cedar returns, dragging a large stick from the other side of the yard. The T. rex didn’t get him this time. He smiles big, urging me to keep building. His delight at this game is broad, encompassing, and almost tangible. He is joyful. Playing with him, so am I.
Cedar watches me use his findings to dinosaur-proof the cave. “Good job, Mom!” he says proudly. “This is the best cave.” In that moment, in a world made from thin air and sticks, with threatening and dangerous dinosaurs all around us, the door to a wild new realm opens, and I decide to let my child lead the way.