How to Read After
Becoming a Parent
Liz Moore Suggests Practical Ways to Do the
Impossible and Find More Time
I have a confession to make—a difficult one for a writer. Here it is: for a period of about three years, from the summer of 2016 to the summer of 2019, I stopped reading books for pleasure.
During those years, I still read in other ways, of course. I read for research while writing a novel, mainly nonfiction about the opioid crisis and the history of Kensington, Philadelphia, where the book is set. I read for the courses I was teaching—both student work and model texts I was assigning. And I read whatever popped up on my phone’s screen—social media feeds, articles, e-mails. In fact, I spent hours a day reading texts that fell into the last category.
But books I just wanted to read? Books that weren’t assigned to me, that I wasn’t obliged to get through? I can’t name any. Where it used to be a joy to anticipate and buy and devour books by authors I loved, and to discover books by authors I wasn’t familiar with, it had become an obligation. One more thing to feel guilty about not doing.
It wasn’t exactly a conscious decision, this booklessness, nor was it entirely my doing. What happened was this: shortly before my reading hiatus commenced, I became, for the first time, a parent. Leading up to my short maternity leave, I had stockpiled a stack of books I had always meant to read, thinking that, between long days of nursing on the sofa and long nights of nursing in bed, I’d finally have time to read them. I even bought a special reading light that was meant to be clipped to a book.
(From the present, a narrative voice: She never once used it.)
Instead, I found myself so sleep-deprived—and, in turn, so foggy-minded—that the dense text of a book page looked meaningless to me. Even mocking. On especially bad days, the words looked as if they were swimming around. Instead of reading while nursing, I ended up watching television while nursing. All of it. I watched all the shows there ever were. And I can tell you nothing about them.
That difficult stretch of newborn days passed. But it was followed by my return to work, and then began the impossible balance of working and parenting and writing. Reading came last—and thus came never. I got a better job, but then I had a second child. Two children meant staggered nap schedules, which meant—once again—no reading. And by the time my husband and I got both of them into bed, I lasted maybe five minutes before nodding off myself.
But this past summer, in the midst of my second round of newborn-induced sleep deprivation, I was sitting with my now-three-year-old daughter and my infant son and attempting to read them a bedtime story when my daughter asked me a very serious question.
I’ll preface this by saying that she is a child who loves to be read to—just as I was. She loves language—just as I did, and do. I have never yet found the limit of her focus when it comes to sitting down and being read to. If her parents had the time or inclination, I think she would happily listen as we read her every single book on her shelf, pausing only for snack breaks.
So her question, and the befuddlement with which she asked it, made sense to me. “Why don’t grownups read?” she asked.
At first, I didn’t understand.
“I’m reading to you right now,” I said.
And slowly, regally, with all the authority and self-righteousness that toddlerhood brings, she gestured to a stack of books that occupy the space under a nearby table. They were all the books that had been sent to me over the past few years, or that I had optimistically bought, or that I had borrowed from friends—meaning to read them. Never actually reading them.
“But why don’t you read your grownup books?” she said.
I thought about lying to her. I read them after you go to bed.
I thought about replying with satisfying, if slightly mean-spirited, honesty: Because my children won’t let me.
Instead, I said something like, “A lot of grownups read. I used to read more. I love it and I miss it. I want to think of how I can start reading again. Will you help me?”
That was in about August.
Since then, I have spent many hours attempting to build reading back into my life. In this endeavor, I am successful only some weeks. Other weeks feel impossible. But I have read about ten books for pleasure this fall—more than I had read in the three years before that, combined.
I should be clear about something, lest this become another article that is basically a guilt-trip to other parents about things they should be doing and are not doing.
Returning to reading isn’t only—or really at all—for the betterment of my children. Sure, it sets a good example for them, and yes, kids are likelier to imitate the actions of their parents than follow spoken instructions from them.
But my personal reading practice is more important for my wellbeing than theirs. The thing is, I’ve found that when I’m not reading, I’m a worse writer, and probably a worse human. Reading has always acted, for me, as a form of meditation—a way to offer fresh neural pathways to my brain, which otherwise tends to get stuck in ruts of obsessive thinking and anxiety, ruminating on unsolvable problems (or sometimes inventing them). Simply put, I feel calmer when reading, and more like myself.
What follows is an attempt to distill what I’ve learned about how to fit reading into a life that also includes working, parenting young children, and writing.
1. Set goals of either time or pages. I do this with my writing, too, so I recently began to apply the same logic to reading. Currently, I try to read at least twenty pages every weekday. For other people, setting a goal of reading for twenty minutes might make more sense.
2. Build reading time into the routine of your day. I usually try to read these pages at the start of a writing session. Not only does this mean I don’t have to make a decision about when to read, it also means that my writing is also impacted in interesting, sometimes unexpected ways by what I’m reading.
3. Listen to audiobooks while commuting, doing errands, or doing house-related tasks. You have all probably figured this out already. I’m not sure why it took me so long to understand that audiobooks are an excellent way to both fit reading into a busy life and to make unpleasant tasks pass more quickly, but it did. Now that I have discovered them, I listen while folding laundry, while walking from place to place, while packing school lunches. When purchasing audiobooks, I use libro.fm, which lets you buy them through your local independent bookstore.
4. Read—or listen—while exercising. This is a controversial one; I know some people who cherish exercise time as a way to listen to music, or who listen to nothing at all—they need to disconnect in a different way. Personally—as someone who is very happy to do the bare minimum when it comes to physical exertion—I enjoy reading on a recumbent bike at the gym. If I’m running (or jogging, let’s be honest), or using an elliptical machine, or on an upright bike, I listen to audiobooks.
5. Make independent reading time something you do with your children. Sometimes, in the middle of a long Saturday or Sunday at home, I suggest to my toddler that we have “family reading time.” Then I get out about a dozen books for her, and my husband and I each select one of our own books, and we try to sit in silence while my daughter looks at pictures in her books and we read words in ours. Full disclosure: we’re still working on this one. I think the longest she’s ever gone in silence is about thirty seconds. But when we stack these short bursts together, sometimes my husband and I can read a few paragraphs, and someday maybe we’ll be able to read more. Most importantly, it answers for my daughter the question she asked last summer.
Yes: parents read, too.
Long Bright River is out now from Riverhead.