I knew I had officially become a parent when my subscription to The New Yorker disappeared and Brain, Child took its place.
My twins were seventeen weeks old.
I can’t say that I didn’t see it coming. Within weeks of that first positive pregnancy test, reading for enjoyment became a luxury. Before, I would have had the newest copy of The New Yorker stashed in my bag for easy access; now, those clever covers - the illustrations of groups of recent graduates stranded on cleaved chunks of ice in an endless glacial landscape, or two elegant brides whose only facial feature is their lips, ready to say “I Do,” - received only a cursory glance when they arrived. Instead, the magazines formed unruly piles on the top of the coffee table; interspersed with Pregnancy and Newborn and whatever baby books I bought in futile preparation for what was to come.
There was so much to learn, so much to know before our two little people arrived. In the throws of nesting, I cleared a shelf on our book cases to make way for What to Expect the First Year, Twin Set, Twins, The Happiest Baby on the Block, Raising Bébé and a dozen other baby books. My husband arrived home, saw the bookcases in complete disarray, and asked: “What are you doing?”
“I’m reorganizing our bookshelves, but this is just the beginning. We have to rearrange our entire living space. You have no idea how much stuff we need. Just look at this list!” I shoved the two-page spread of baby essentials toward him, wondering where we would stuff a double baby stroller, two swings, two bouncy seats and a portable crib in our already crowded apartment. It wasn’t just the equipment, though. Twins overwhelmed our parenting plan of simply including baby in our current lifestyle. Dinner at our favorite restaurant without one or both babies crying? Not likely. All of the twin books warned: Be prepared to give up life as you know it. Kiss goodbye your modern loft apartment, and get used the baby gym obstacle course, otherwise known as your living space.
Sitting on the couch reading, five months into the pregnancy, I felt the now-common beat of blood rushing to my head, my chest tighten and the ends of my hair tingle. You just spent the last fifteen minutes of freedom reading about how you won’t have any time for yourself, my brain screamed. Enjoy yourself now! I chucked Ready or Not…Here We Come and its mantras “I will sleep again…It matters not if I shower each day or put on clothes” and “We would not have been given these babies if we couldn’t do this,” and grabbed The New Yorker. Examining the cover with monocled capitalists protesting against change, I smiled, and started where I always did, with the “Talk of the Town” section. Ten minutes disappeared. Fifteen. The blood that had been pounding my head cleared. Thirty minutes and an article by Elizabeth Kolbert later, I exhaled and, feeling accomplished, left the rest of the issue on the coffee table, ready for the next panic attack.
The problem became this: by the time I cycled through my baby reading and had another panic attack, which to me justified taking some personal reading time, another two or three issues had already arrived. For weeks, I would read the “Talk of the Town,” then leave it open on the coffee table to the first article that piqued my interest. Unnerved by the clutter, I straightened the piles, hoping their neatness would render them less offensive and dispel my guilt for leaving them unread. If I knew then that magazines would be the least offensive thing piling up, I would have happily let them be.
The stack continued to expand and the covers became obscured, folded over with only the columns of print visible. I glanced at them throughout the day, feeling both remorse and longing, thinking of David Denby’s reviews of movies I’d never see, and Peter Schjeldahl’s critiques of exhibitions I’d never attend. I hated to think that I might miss an article or essay by my favorite staff writer, Adam Gopnik, so one day I dug through the pile, scanning each issue for his byline. When I found one, I turned to that page and heard his voice reading it. That idiosyncrasy began one afternoon years ago, after I overheard a particularly observant visitor at the Whitney Museum of Art describing a Wayne Thiebaud painting to his two small children. The knowing simplicity with which he described the image of cakes stacked high, thick with creamy icing, was enticing. I trailed this man and his family, appreciating his explanations, across several galleries until his actual voice collided with my memory of his written voice. The feeling I had that he sounded vaguely familiar amplified into recognition when I put his spoken word together with the details of his life - one son, one younger daughter, as described in his book To Paris With the Moon - and realized who he was. Ever since that intimate glimpse inside his personal life, I consider him a more culturally-literate friend, and imagine reading his work as a conversation over coffee in a gem of a café in a part of town I’ve left unexplored.
Still, stacks of The New Yorker sat there accusingly, demanding attention, but I couldn’t bring myself to read or recycle any of them. When the paper tower threatened to fall, I cleaned off the coffee table and migrated the neglected issues to the shelf under the table along with catalogs from Crate and Barrel, GLASS Magazine, and my husband’s Journal of Infectious Disease.
On April seventeenth, my daughters were born. The first cover I remember seeing after becoming a parent was the May 7, 2012 issue with an image of fathers and their progeny at the playground in Central Park, a lone mother or nanny pausing as she enters the scene. I saw it in the incoming mail, smiled at the cover in recognition that even in my new role as mom, The New Yorker had something for me, but then relegated it quickly to the coffee table.
Instead of a vehicle for intellectual content, The New Yorker became a large coaster. Words written by the talented reporters and critics I love began to suffer the indignity of formula ring stains and spit cloth residue. That’s not to say that I didn’t try to find time to read them. One night when the girls were a few weeks old and I was waiting for a bottle to warm, I picked up one of the articles I had left open and read a few lines. Then I stopped. I started again, thinking I had missed something. Then again. But it didn’t help. The usual enticing beginning didn’t entice me. It felt like work, like reading graduate level literary criticism. I felt dumb, uncomprehending. I decided the dim lights and my sleep-deprived brain were no match for the Adobe Carslon font that I held so dear.
But I realized it was more than exhaustion. The truth was that at that moment my worries were about the littlest things that suddenly seemed to be everything. Was that a cough or did she stop breathing? If she doesn’t eat this entire two ounces, will she starve? Is she too cold? Too hot? Am I doing this right? Reading about the world beyond my apartment door required me to acknowledge that there were enormous problems into which I had brought these little innocents: global warming, political instability, human rights violations, chemical warfare, civil war. And these problems were all too large, too complicated and too unsolvable to face while caring for two six-pound babies.
For those first weeks of late nights, I abandoned reading all together. No books, no magazines, not even a blog. Instead, I sat on the couch, the portable crib less than an arm’s length away, and watched marathon viewings of Nurse Jackie. A few times, I glanced at the cover of BabyTalk magazine, the perfect infant sitting, alert and smiling -- the complete opposite of my cocooned caterpillars, swaddled in blankets so tightly they were unable to move. I had no idea how long it would take for them to emerge into the smiling cherubs on the magazine cover.
During one of my few evening escapes from the combined relentlessness and tedium of taking care of two newborns, I ran to Whole Foods to pick up something for dinner. Tired of the carbohydrate-filled casseroles I had baked and frozen in preparation for those first few weeks, I craved the crunch of a fresh carrot or cucumber. Waiting for the cashier, I noticed a Dr. Seuss-like illustration and three figures riding old-style bikes announcing the magazine’s theme and main article, “Weighty Matters” under the title, Brain, Child. It was just funky enough to make me look twice. Inside revealed no photos of smiling babies hawking Enfamil, Similac or Gerber formula. It was mostly text, in a clean, gorgeous font that looked, to my undiscerning eye, exactly like The New Yorker’s. “Perfect,” I thought, and laid it on the conveyor belt.
When I returned home, in the ten minutes after eating my salad bar dinner and before my brain collapsed for the night I eagerly read an essay titled Adventures in Fertility and Mortality in which the author, Zahie El Kouri, described her struggle with trying to create life while mourning her recently deceased father. Immediately, I identified with her and the abyss of desire and frustration that is infertility. It was the first time I’d read someone else’s experience of that emotional odyssey. Lying in bed, hardly able to keep my eyes focused on the page, my daughters in their crib in the next room, I was grateful for the reminder of how much we had overcome to get here.
From that evening on, Brain, Child occupied every free minute I could find with the right combination of smart, well-written, mother-centric topics. What I liked most was that it challenged some of my own beliefs by providing two sides of a timely topic. It asked: Should you try to diversify your child’s circle of friends? Immediately, I thought, “Yes, of course. I want my children to have a diverse group of friends,” but the debate provided new insights that made me think about how artificial it could seem trying to engineer the diversity I thought so important. I had found my new The New Yorker, only this one specifically for moms.
It seemed liked ages before the next issue of the quarterly Brain, Child came out. Each time I went to Whole Foods, my eyes scanned the magazine racks. Finally, months later, I spied the next issue. On the cover was a photograph of a mother and child. The mom held a bunch of balloons, wore a black dress and cowboy boots, and had a tattoo on her shoulder. The child by her side was dressed in a bowler hat, oversized suit jacket and jeans. The cover image was just the right amount of serious and expressive. I grabbed it off the display. But inside was another story. A letter from the owner-publishers announced, “However much it hurts you to read the next line, it pains us more. This is the last issue of the magazine.”
I had just found a magazine full of intelligent writing, thoughtful parenting and a community of other mothers with similar concerns and approaches to issues, and it was gone. Sitting in the rocking chair in the stillness of my daughters’ nursery, a baby in each arm, I read aloud an essay to them. To them, the words didn’t matter. The familiar sound of my voice comforted them; their eyes closed as their coos softened and they contentedly slipped into sleep. To me, however, the words were a lifeline. They soothed my fears, nourished my spirit and empowered me to be the parent I aspired to be. I cherished the issue, reading each piece with the bittersweet knowledge that this was to be the last.
A week later, I received a free issue of Parents magazine in the mail with a special offer of a cheap subscription for the year. It promised easy solutions to colicky babies and finicky eaters. Flipping through, I saw a few helpful tips on how to calm my newborns’ crying spells. The articles were just right for quick reading between feeding and playing and diaper changes. But they left me with an uneasiness similar to when I look at Vogue at the hair salon. Instead of being entertained by it all, I couldn’t help but compare myself to the model mothers, and ended up feeling jealous and frustrated.
A few months after my daughters’ births, my subscription to The New Yorker lapsed. I didn’t realize that my stacks of unread issues had stopped growing until my daughters could follow an object with their eyes, turn their heads toward the sound of my voice, and grasp for a toy. And when I did realize it, I wasn’t saddened or disappointed. In those few months, it became clear that my old life of long days at the office followed by having drinks and discussing a new exhibition was over, but that my new life was equally exciting. Yes, my work hours got longer, but I spend them dancing for giggles and reading rhyming books. My reading and conversations tend to be about the latest medical study demonstrating that pets decrease a child’s risk of developing allergies.
And thanks to an intrepid writer and mother of five, Brain, Child was rescued. Now, when I find a few free minutes, I savor the newest issue. It remains my community of smart moms, a sounding board for important issues and a retreat where good writing not only entertains but informs. As my daughters grow, and solving their problems is no longer as easy as changing a diaper or giving another bottle, Brain, Child will be there for me to help address the difficult issues.
As for The New Yorker, it remains under the coffee table but it has assumed another new role. Recently, my daughters discovered the delightful sound of crumpling and tearing paper.