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Confessions of a mother/reader

By Kate Haas

I curse the brainwashing that prompts mothers to question our every move. What my son needs is a parent who feels like a human being, and reading is what keeps me sane.

My two-year-old got a tea set for his birthday, a brightly colored plastic one with cups, plates, a pitcher, sugar bowl, and the all-important tea pot. He’d long coveted the set at a friend’s house, and it was a happy day when Simon received one of his very own. The tea set has been the longest playing hit we’ve had in our house, and the obsession shows no sign of abating.

“Oh, that’s so Montessori,” approved a friend, when I told her of my son’s delight in pouring his allotted half-inch of water endlessly back and forth from the pot to the cups. “Pouring is great for hand-eye coordination.”

Huh. Hand-eye coordination is all very well, but I like the tea set because of what it does for me.

It gives me time to read.

As any parent will attest, it is entirely permissible to stare vacantly into space with aimlessly twiddling thumbs while one’s child plays contentedly on the floor. But employ those same thumbs to pick up a book or, God forbid, actually attempt to read it, and the baby radar will go on full alert. If I have the audacity to open a book in Simon’s presence, his usual tactic is to march over and close it. “The end!” he says firmly, like a tiny librarian announcing closing time.

But oh, that tea set! Once he’s settled at his little table in the kitchen, pouring water back and forth, he doesn’t notice a thing I’m doing; he may as well be hypnotized. I can perch on the counter, pick up my book, and read away for up to half an hour at a time. Or until I notice that all the water is now on the floor.

In How Reading Changed my Life, Anna Quindlen quotes Jamaica Kincaid on reading when she was supposed to be taking care of her little brother: “I liked reading a book much more than I liked looking after him (and even now I like reading a book more than I like looking after my own children…).”

I feel this way quite often.

Some time back, I read A Girl Named Zippy, a memoir of growing up in a small town in Indiana in the 70’s. Zippy’s mother was always depicted on the couch, a stack of library books at her side. She took a detached interest in the life of her family, and it was clear that the books were by far the most important things in her world.

I remember reacting to this portrait with unease. Could this ever be me? Before I had a child, I had plenty of time to read, and I read a lot. I still do, but now I read in the fringes, on the edges of Simon’s time, in stolen snatches. I shouldn’t feel guilty about this (he’s having so much fun with that teapot— really, he is!) but sometimes I do.

Every morning I make Simon his oatmeal, click his high chair tray in place, and get him settled for breakfast. Some (most?) mothers would proceed to make cheery conversation of the, “My, what a big bite!” variety. I used to do this myself. But then he figured out eating, no longer needed my assistance, and stopped picking out the raisins and throwing them at the cat.

Now, as soon as Simon is secure in his chair, I whip out my book. He eats, I read. Sometimes I look up from my book to find him watching me. And I wonder: is he going to miss some crucial aspect of socialization? Does he feel neglected, eating all by himself? Shouldn’t I be more interactive?

Then I think about the entire rest of the day during which I do nothing but interact with him, and I curse the brainwashing that prompts mothers to question our every move. What Simon needs is a parent who feels like a human being, and reading is what keeps me sane.

I meet mothers who claim to love reading, but talk of nothing but their children. When, in an effort to turn the conversation away from teething and mysterious rashes, I ask if they’ve read anything good recently, they laugh and ask who has time to read now?

They are not real readers.

Real readers read despite the circumstance of parenthood. They make the time or they read in stolen fragments of time, or they just sit on the couch and do it and let the kid cut paper into ever-tinier fragments which are then scattered all over the carpet, because the soul-satisfying bliss of finishing another chapter now far outweighs the minor irritation of hauling the vacuum cleaner downstairs later.

Sometimes I worry that Simon is going to grow up resenting the books that compete with him for my attention. But most of the time I think he’s going to want to learn to read as fast as he can, to get in on the action. He takes such pleasure in his favorite book (Sandra Boynton’s Hey, Wake Up), that I am more than willing to set aside my loathing for the perky rhymes in this paean to early rising and indulge him in it over and over. His first sentence was, “Bookmark in book.” That’s my boy.

Reading seemed as necessary as breathing to me before I became a parent. Now, my stolen interludes with a book help to maintain my sanity by reminding me of the person I used to be, the woman who could sink so deeply into the world of the word that hours would pass unnoticed. I don’t get hours now, but my brief immersions serve as a crucial respite from the daily work of mothering a small boy.

Fifteen minutes spent in the delectable company of Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey are enough to recharge me for another round of singing, “The wheels on the digger go round and round,” or for my budding nudist’s favorite activity, “Naky baby on the bed!” After that, maybe I’ll let him play fire hose with the vacuum cleaner tube. He loves it so much, it’s not that dirty - and I’ll have another chance to grab that book.

mmo : October 2004

Kate Haas publishes Miranda, a zine about motherhood and other adventures www.mirandazine.com. Her writing has appeared in Brain, Child, Nervy Girl, and Phillymama.com. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two sons.
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