Photo credit: Michael Lionstar
Like many things about motherhood, reading to my kids hasn’t turned out the way I envisioned it before the kids came along. When I was a girl, perhaps beginning around eight or so, the age my older daughter is now, I imagined having a daughter with whom I could share the books I adored. Long before I began desiring what went with that wish — finding someone to love, having sex, getting pregnant — it seemed to me that the romantic epitome of adulthood was to have a child to read to. And maybe also to write children’s books myself.
I don’t remember my parents reading to me, though I’m sure they paged through their share of earnest and goofy and tender picture books. But my memory of my life in books begins with learning to read in the fall of first grade. Not that I remember the process at all. I recall only the feeling of pride that came from suddenly (according to my mom) flying through chapter books by Carolyn Haywood
and Laura Ingalls Wilder
. A shy and lonely kid, I’d found the thing I could do by myself that didn’t make me feel lonely, but rather connected to other people, mostly to girls, like L. M. Montgomery
’s Anne Shirley, Lois Lowry
’s Anastasia Krupnik, and Frances Hodgson Burnett
’s Sara Crewe. They were dreamy, deep-thinking, awkward, orphaned, living in the past, living in England. They were impossible to meet, yet divinely companionable, and things happened to them, as they didn’t quite seem to happen to me.
I grew up and decided I wanted to write stories for grown-ups rather than children; searched for kindred spirits beyond the pages of books; taught writing to college students; met my partner, who also teaches English and writes poetry. We had a daughter, and three years later, another daughter. I was a late bloomer (first kiss at 23, debut author at 43), and I’ve long struggled to reconcile what I think I should have done by a particular age with what I’ve actually done. It would have been better, for a number of reasons, if I could have written my first book before having kids, but I could not have, because the stories in my collection are about the experience of becoming a mother. Not until I encountered pregnancy and new motherhood — the wonder and loss and frustration and revelation and sense of determination it brought me — did I find the material I was both passionate enough about and sufficiently dedicated to that I could make a book out of it.
It was slow going, though, and motherhood (not unlike writing) was a constant attempt to reconcile an idealistic vision with the unruly, flawed reality. Between the daily caretaking and domestic chores that needed doing, my various part-time jobs, and the commingled pressure and desire that prodded me to finish a manuscript already, I felt overwhelmed, incompetent, deflated. I did not spend much time blissfully reading to my children. Too often, it seemed like yet another task, an item to check off on the torturously long nightly bedtime routine.
My first daughter and I did, however, develop a ritual that suited us both, beginning when she was about a year and a half old. In the late afternoons, after I collected her from daycare and before her dad came home, I’d ask, “Do you want books on the couch?” She’d repeat it, “Books-on-the-couch,” like it was its own word. I’d set a stack of board books beside her on the living room couch — P. D. Eastman
, Sandra Boynton
, Eric Carle
, Nancy Shaw
— and then go to attack the dishes still left from the previous evening and figure out what to do about that night’s dinner. From the kitchen I could hear each book hit the floor when she was through. Was it a purely visual and tangible experience for her, or was there an element of language in it too — some memory of the words from when we’d read them to her before, some shape of a narrative she was recreating in her mind? I was charmed by the image of my pixieish daughter peering into book after book, grateful for how they occupied her attention, and a bit guilt-ridden that I’d left her alone to make of them of what she could.
When she got a little older, she’d memorize books and reel them off: Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed
; Maurice Sendak’s One Was Johnny
; a 1950s Golden Book called We Help Mommy
, brought by my mother, which I’d liked as a little girl, and whose representations of gender now troubled me. When her sister was born, she wanted nothing but new-big-sister stories. The baby and I slept in my bedroom; the three-year-old and her dad shared a double mattress on the floor in her room. Before they went to sleep, he read great books to her — P .L. Travers’s Mary Poppins
and Mary Poppins Comes Back
, E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web
and The Trumpet of the Swan
— and I was moved by this wonderful literary bond they were building, and also jealous of it, of how cozy and easy it seemed: pure snuggling and reading pleasure.
Because my daughter’s fifth birthday, in October, fell just outside the September cutoff for public school kindergarten, she continued on at her Spanish immersion preschool, in their young fives kindergarten-level class. I knew her teacher was starting to teach the small group to read (in Spanish, no less), but I had no idea as to the extent of my daughter’s progress. If you’d asked the younger, childless me whether I’d be involved in teaching my child to read, I would of course have thought I’d be instrumental to that process. As it was, when my daughter asked me how to spell a word, I would occasionally try to get her to sound it out before telling her which letters came next. When I read a simple book to her, I would sometimes put my finger under each word as I said it, so that she might possibly follow along. But that was about it.
In November, my partner went out of town just as I came down with a case of laryngitis. I could barely speak above a whisper, and I knew that whispering could further damage my voice. The best thing to do was not to say anything at all — but a five-year-old and a two-year-old were not going to accept that their mother just wouldn’t be talking to them for a while. My younger daughter was especially indignant, and when it came time for the requisite bedtime book, I desperately prevailed upon the older one to help us out. I put Dr. Seuss’s One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish
in her hands. “Can you try to read it?” I croaked.
It turned out that she could. There, on the double mattress on the floor that my daughters now shared — the fall I turned 40 and my firstborn turned 5 — I witnessed her entry into the particular world I loved most. My memory of her birth is not of the best-day-of-my-life sort. I’d had a long, difficult labor, and then a C-section, and then I plunged into breastfeeding struggles, postpartum depression. I found new motherhood so shattering I couldn’t write about it for over a year, and then it was all I wanted to write about. I had failed at being the mother I’d wanted to be so many times. I’d stood angrily by the crib in the middle of the night when she wouldn’t go back to sleep, cursing my baby, cursing books, while she demanded that I keep reading, screaming “One more, one more.” And now here she was, a reader.
In the three years since then, I’ve brought home scores of books from the library for her, many of them the disposable, churned out kind about rainbow fairies and candy fairies and such, but also some enduring classics with the companions from my own childhood: Ramona Quimby
, and Betsy-Tacy
, and the All-of-a-Kind Family
girls. I’d planned to make up for my Harry Potter
deficiency by embarking on the Hogwarts train with her, and then last summer she barreled through them all on her own. These days she reads to me occasionally, though we never make enough time for it.
My younger daughter, now five, is on a different developmental timeline than her sister. “When will I learn to read?” she asks plaintively, as if it’s something I can tell her. And in that query, I hear a larger one, the one that plagued me as a girl always waiting for my real imagined life to start, a question that no one — not even your mother — can answer for you.
I hug her to me. I tell her, “Soon.”
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of the story collection Look How Happy I’m Making You
. Her fiction, essays, and book reviews have appeared in The O. Henry Prize Stories, The New York Times Book Review, the San Francisco Chronicle
, and The Millions
. She lives with her family in Ann Arbor, Michigan.