Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood

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We're having a breakthrough discussion about an ongoing problem, my seven-year-old daughter and I. At this moment, she's calm and open to talking with me.

"You know, if used responsibly and in moderation, it can be a good thing," I explain. Her head tips toward mine, and I let it rest on my shoulder.

"It is a privilege, not a right," I add. "If it interferes with other things . . . "

"But I just can't help it," she answers.

I nod in understanding. I was once there, too.

This is good progress. Isn't the first step recognition of the problem?

Flashback to minutes earlier and things are not this calm.

"Stop that reading thing!" I cry, and reach for the treasured book.

"Don't ever take it away from me!" my daughter sobs.

"If you can't read responsibly -- " I yell.

"I can so read and eat!" she screams back, denying the problem that has made her late for school daily, now, for over a week.

What to do? As it is with many problems, I begin by thinking of quick, little fixes. For example, I've long ago given away our stash of sippy cups, but lately I've been wishing I'd kept just one. How handy it would be during this developmental phase.

She tilts her head sideways to reach the mug she's drinking from -- she knows the milk will spill if she tips it toward her mouth, so her mouth instead tips toward the cup, not once averting her eyes. Milk trickles down her chin, and she stops bothering to drink. She's reading, and all other activities are merely annoyances, pulling her away from the task at hand. Eating, drinking, sleeping -- done only because we insist that she must.

The Reading Thing also keeps her up too late at night. It prevents her from eating a proper meal and has repeatedly made her late for school. She reads while brushing her teeth, while eating her breakfast, even while changing into her clothes. This tends to slow things down and greatly impedes the process of getting out the door. And I miss her, dammit: her full and complete presence and those sweet conversations we used to have before she started sticking her head in books.

"Bookie, bookie," she calls in mock baby-talk for her beloved object if she realizes it's not with her, as younger children cry out for blankies or favorite toys. She runs to where she might have left it. It's her favorite thing, her passion, the thing she does not want to do without.

I understand this newfound love for reading, and I am glad she's hooked on something that will open many doors for her. I smile when she yells out, "Listen to this, Mommy!" and then shares a particularly witty passage or well-worded phrase, knowing that I will love it, too.

Yet, it's starting to concern me, the intensity of the infatuation. Does she, perhaps, read too much? Is this the beginning of an obsession that might get out of hand?

I remind myself that she's genetically predisposed. She comes from a long line of obsessive readers. My father read the Clinton tome in six sittings. My grandmother carried books of Yiddish poetry in her purse, ready at any spare reading moment. And I know now that I've done damage by my own role-modeling. She has seen me so many times, during the seven years I've been her mother, bent over a book and ignoring the world around me, such as the ringing phone and the dirty dishes. It's my respite from a far too busy life.

I also hold myself responsible for her habit by being her co-dependent. I bring her book into the car as she requests when I could just as easily say, "Oops, forgot it!" If I had, then she wouldn't have missed the deer family of five that flew across the road. I even aid and abet by procuring not only the books themselves but also helpful reading tools -- bookmarks and a metal book support, so now she can read hands-free.

Lately, The Reading Thing has become a problem in other unanticipated ways. During a recent playdate at our house, my daughter stood up from the pretend-we-have-a-whole-lot-of-kittens game she was playing with a classmate -- they were disagreeing as to where the kittens' bed should go -- and announced, simply, softly: "I'm going to go read."

Her friend looked up, surprised, unsure of what to do. I suppose I must mention that I was sitting nearby -- yes, reading, and quite happy for the free moments with my New Yorker magazine. But I jumped into action; this incident necessitated an impromptu lesson in reading etiquette. I quickly listed the dos and don't of reading in the company of others. Designated, mutually agreed-upon reading time: okay. On a playdate when the friend doesn't want to: absolutely not okay.

Normally, my child enjoys her many friendships; she's a lively companion and full of creative energy. This withdrawal from social interaction comes unexpectedly.

After the playdate, which we did cut short by a bit, we read together for several hours, me finishing up my magazines, her completely absorbed in Harry Potter. I don't know how much longer she'll be happy reading next to her mother, so I'm enjoying this while I can, the two of us curled up together, our legs entwined, our minds lost in worlds beyond, doing our favorite thing.

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised the next day when she announced that reading is far more interesting than school. I flash forward to her as a bookish teen, one whose giggling friendships are a thing of the past. I wasn't one of those teens -- opting out, distant, sitting in the school library. I did read, but usually at home or on the bus. At school, I loved being with my friends. I want her to be able to separate her reading life from her friendships, and not miss out on either one.

I list the positives of her school -- mention her friends there by name, the felt gnomes they're sewing at center period, the fort in process by the creek. I joke, facetiously, "So, you just want to stay home and read Harry Potter all day?"

She looks up at me, her eyes wide with hope. "Could I?!"

Sure, I get it; she'd rather be in Divination with Madame Trelawney, peering into crystal balls, or growing baby mandrakes in Herbology class. I'm sure this is not a unique problem among Harry Potter readers who attend non-wizard schools.

I've felt that way, too, not about Harry because he hadn't been written yet, but about Meg in A Wrinkle In Time and the Bobbsey Twins. I wanted to hang out with them, join in their adventures, be part of their world. I tell her this. I explain that Harry will be waiting for her after school, on her booster seat, which is such a strange image that I actually take a photo of the 870-page book laid open to the page she's on, just as she left it on her car seat that morning.

I'm sure that I'll look back on the beginning of her reading obsession with fondness and pride. I don't know where it will lead, although its passionate and early start bodes well for it continuing. It may be just a phase or, perhaps, the beginning of an everlasting habit she'll have to learn to balance with the other experiences of life.

As we wait to find out, I can at least vow to be a better role model and read less often, at least when she can see me. I'll pick up the ringing phone. Schedule designated reading time. Put on a timer. Remove the book support from the kitchen counter.

And if all this fails, I might just go out and buy her that sippy cup.

Joanne Catz Hartman, lives with her husband and daughter in northern California. She wrote the Literary Mama column Mother Angst and was also a columnist for San Francisco’s J . Her work appears in the anthologies Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined, Using Our Words, and The Knitter’s Gift. Prior to motherhood, she worked for a New England public television station on an award-winning feature magazine show, was a reporter and photographer for a sailing magazine, an editor at a wire service, and spent a decade teaching middle school.

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