How I finally learned to appreciate Goodnight Moon

By N. Gates

When I was pregnant with my first child, I envisioned many a peaceful evening soothing my daughter to sleep with the gentle rhythm of Goodnight Moon. But my baby had other ideas, and our bedtime ritual resembled more an abstract swirl of tangled limbs than the clean lines of that great green room. Stumbling around the house, carrying my inconsolable child, I mocked Brown’s words in a bitter interior monologue: goodnight unwashed dishes, goodnight uneaten dinner, goodnight unidentified stain on the living room carpet.

Alternating between nursing, rocking, and joggling my daughter, I grew to resent the only adult figure in Goodnight Moon, whose entire philosophy of nighttime parenting appeared to revolve around the occasional utterance of the word “hush.” I somehow doubted that quiet old lady of limited vocabulary ever found herself pacing the floor during the wee hours of the night, cradling a wailing bunny in her aching arms.  

One evening, my foggy brain registered an aspect of Goodnight Moon that I had never noticed before. “Goodnight clocks, goodnight socks.” Goodnight clocks, huh? I wonder how long the bunny’s bedtime routine takes?

And suddenly it hit me. On the first page, the clock reads seven pm, yet by the time we have said goodnight in rhyming couplets to all the objects in the room, it’s ten past eight! Though it appears as if relatively little time is passing (enough time, say, for a mouse to nose around the room), it takes a full hour and ten minutes before the baby bunny finally succumbs to the goodnight noises everywhere. Each time the reader returns to that calm bedroom, the clock has advanced ten minutes.

I began to wonder about those missing minutes. Did Goodnight Moon’s tranquil portrait of nocturnal nirvana conceal a chaotic reality that more closely resembled my own? After all, every time we say our goodnights to the kittens, the mittens, the mush, and the moon, ten full minutes are passing in that great green room, ten minutes in which anything can happen. 

Perhaps while we are saying goodnight to the moon and the surprisingly athletic cow, the bunny is scampering out of the room and down the hallway, asking for a glass of water, returning to jump back in bed just before we turn the page. For when we return, the bunny is only halfway under the covers. Is she getting back into bed after an extended romp? Or simply fluffing up the pillow? Whatever the reason, I happily noted that while the baby bunny’s bedtime appeared much calmer than the jumbled writhing that occurred at my house, in terms of actual time spent getting our bunnies to sleep, the old lady only edged me out by a whisker.

My sleep-addled brain gleefully imagined possibilities. What if, while we step out to say goodnight to the little house and the mouse, the quiet old lady finally loses it? Maybe after the third time of seeing her bunny close her eyes and almost fall asleep, only to arch awake again, she abandons her ineffectual “hush” for a more direct approach. I envisioned her slamming her knitting to the floor, startling the kittens (who are noticeably absent from the next scene), lunging out of her rocking chair and threatening to tan that bunny’s hide if she doesn’t get her cottontail ass back into bed pronto. After all, it’s 7:50 by this time, and the bunny in the picture is either getting back into bed, or poised for another escape, depending on one’s interpretation of the visual clues.

Feeling both better and worse for her tirade, the frazzled lady takes a few pages to compose herself before her next appearance, ensuring that the reader only sees her studied pose of quiet presence, knitting in lap, paw suspended by her lips. But does that paw signal “hush,” suppress a yawn, or barely muffle a scream of frustration? 

The closer I looked at that calm room, the more cracks I spotted in the tranquil façade. My house may have looked like it had been hit by a dirty laundry bomb and subsequently lacquered with grime, but the great green room wasn’t going to win any prizes for cleanliness, despite its simple lines and coordinated colors. The persistent presence of a mouse in a child’s bedroom suggests a level of filth that goes beyond occasionally leaving a bowl of mush on a bedside table. I could easily imagine the extended family of the lone mouse, brothers, sisters, and multiple cousins scrabbling their way just behind the graceful cow and the bears on their little chairs. Perhaps, I giggled to myself, the “goodnight noises everywhere” included the surround-sound scritching of thousands of tiny claws.

The peaceful bedtime presented in Goodnight Moon obviously concealed a much messier reality. The clean lines of the narratives we tell each other as parents often excise the unsavory details as well, and I wondered how freeing it might be if we were more honest about the missing ten minutes in our own parenting stories. Yet I also understood the need to create order from chaos, even if it meant suppressing tales of meltdowns and mayhem. Maybe what I needed was the aspirational idea of a great green room, rather than an accurate reflection of my hapless attempts to settle my baby bunny for the night. 

As the years have passed and my bunny has grown into an independent college student, I too have grown to appreciate the temporal paradox of Goodnight Moon. The contradiction between the apparently brief recitation of “goodnights” and the significant progression of the clock’s hands perfectly captures how time passes for a parent, at once lightning and glacial. Months can pass in the blink of an eye, but the minutes last forever during a day of teething pain.

While I attended to the daily minutiae of parenting—keeping track of the mittens and the mush—the clock kept jumping ahead, as my bunny progressed from chunky-cheeked baby to gap-toothed girl to confident young woman of many talents, not least of which is her astonishing ability to fall asleep by herself. 

Goodnight Moon may offer an unrealistic portrait of nighttime parenting—I still harbor vaguely murderous thoughts toward that quiet old lady—yet I appreciate its slyly accurate depiction of “parenting time.” And those missing minutes provide imaginative fodder for the observant (or sleep-deprived) reader. In the end, I can forgive Brown her tidy picture of a child’s bedtime in Goodnight Moon, content that I know the untold story that quivers in the wings.  

Just don’t get me started on The Runaway Bunny. . . .

N. Gates is a professor at a small college in the Midwest and a mother of two. She does not normally become enraged when reading childhood classics. She can be reached at:

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