My plan when I ran into Barnes & Noble was to use the restroom, buy myself a book, then hop on the subway to my next meeting. This might have happened had I not passed through the children’s section.
Like most parents, my husband and I absorbed the message that it’s important to read to your children. Studies have found that this activity promotes language development, supports parent-child relationships, builds self-esteem, teaches coping strategies and fosters positive attitudes toward reading.
So since my older son was an infant, we’ve done what we could to encourage a love of books. We read to him at bedtime, adopted a friend’s tradition of giving him a book each night of Hanukkah, introduced him to classics such as “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” and discovered new favorites such as “Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast.” We’ve even exclaimed, not subtly, “It’s so fun to read!”
Perhaps our efforts paid off, or perhaps our son would have gravitated toward reading anyway — it’s probably a combination of the two — but now at almost 3, he adores books. First thing in the morning, before we have our daily conversation about why he can’t wear pajamas to preschool, he asks me to read to him. At night, he requests “one more book,” then “one more book,” then “one more book,” swearing each time it’s the last one, knowing his mother is a sucker. Bedtime struggles aside, few things make me happier than hearing him say, “Let’s read a book together!”
It is somewhat embarrassing, then, to admit how few books I’ve read for myself in recent years.
Since I’ve become a parent, my life has become both fuller and more stripped down. I had my first son knowing my life would change, but I was also hyper-aware that I didn’t want motherhood to eclipse all other aspects of my identity. I knew I wouldn’t have the same amount of time to devote to activities I’d enjoyed pre-baby, but I would still be me, albeit with newfound diaper skills. Yet I didn’t expect to cut out so much almost entirely. Working out. Seeing movies in theaters. Breathing. (Kidding.) (Kind of.)
Also, reading books.
Not so long ago, I was a dedicated reader, picking up books for pleasure, sometimes writing about them for work. Now to estimate that I’ve finished 10 in the past few years might be generous. When a friend texted me last year asking for a book recommendation for a flight, I suggested one written by a journalist whose work I’ve edited — it was a good read, but also I didn’t have much else to offer.
I suspect reading books has gotten more challenging for everyone these days, with the onslaught of news, podcasts, high-quality TV shows and social media. But having children exacerbated the issue for me.
The lack of sleep, the demands of work, the extended exercise in patience that is bedtime (see “one more book”), the weekend time with my family, the pumping for chunks of time after each kid (and the interminable washing of pump parts) and the occasional meals with friends, all make it hard to imagine squeezing in much more. I see moms on Instagram, that perfect mirror of reality, posting about books they’re reading, and as Sir French Toast tells Lady Pancake in “The Case of the Stinky Stench” when they’re trying to get rid of an odor in the fridge, “I can’t fathom how.”
The enlightened answer to the tired question of whether women can have it all is supposed to be, yes, they can, just not at the same time. But I’m starting to understand that this wisdom doesn’t refer only to the push-pull of career and family — it refers to everything. Any time spent on one thing is time not spent on another. That’s how time works. I could shut myself in my room with a book on a Saturday, but is it worth missing my toddler yelling “Hi cow! Mooooo!” at the farm? I could stay up late to read, but is it worth being even more exhausted?
I recently mentioned the ages of my kids to a mom with slightly older ones. “Oh, you are in it,” she said. “It,” it was implied, is a certain phase of motherhood. “It” does not last forever.
My neglect of books isn’t permanent. My kids will always need me but not necessarily in the all-consuming way they do now. One day I won’t have to watch quite so closely to make sure my older son isn’t hugging his brother in a manner that’s sweet but also perhaps crushing him. One day the baby won’t wake up at 4 a.m., kicking off a whispered debate about whether he’s hungry or will fuss and go back to sleep, and how long we should wait to figure this out. One day books will feel like the engrossing hobby they once were and not an item on my to-do list that stresses me out because I never manage to cross it off.
It’s taken nearly three years, but I’ve finally accepted that it’s okay to put some of your interests on the back burner until you can get back to them. It doesn’t mean you’re a different person or those things aren’t important or you don’t miss them or you shouldn’t pursue them at all. It means you have a finite number of hours in a day and have to make choices. Yes, I have heard of self-care, but part of caring for yourself is giving yourself permission to let things go and not berating yourself for not doing more. I still try to read and run and do any number of things I did before baby — and I still get frustrated when they don’t happen — but I also try to remember that this particular period is just one slice of my life, one that’s imperfect but actually pretty good.
A few days after my trip to the bookstore, I went into another location and bought myself a novel. It was lying on my bed, not yet begun, when my toddler asked what it was. I told him it was my book, a grown-up book, and felt a pang of guilt: In addition to wanting him to like books himself, I had wanted him to see me reading and understand that it’s enjoyable at every age. His curiosity about this paperback signaled that I had not done this, that books that belong to Mommy, besides the ones up on the shelf, were not the familiar sights they should be.
He took it into his room and paged through it in his big-boy bed, asking what the numbers meant as I tried to explain the concept of chapters. I said he could read this book when he was older.
Then we put it aside and opened the first of his bedtime books.