Before my boys were born, I used to read a few hours a day. Some days, I read for six hours, some days just for two. I read every night before I went to bed. If I didn’t have a book, I read a shampoo bottle. If there was nothing available with words in a language I understood (English, Swahili, some French and Spanish), I wouldn’t be able to sleep. I went to great lengths to make sure I was never in this situation, packing three or four books for a weekend trip, two books for the night, and one book whenever I left the house, in case I was caught in traffic or a doctor’s office. My husband tried to limit me, citing luggage so heavy it strained his back, but he is a geologist, and sometimes packs rocks.
When I was pregnant with my first son, I stockpiled books for the nursery. While other moms washed brand new onsies in Dreft and pored over stroller specifications, I placed War and Peace next to my nursing glider. No, I’m serious. I really did. I thought that with time to nurse, I would finally get through Tolstoy’s classic. I almost hoped for a baby who didn’t sleep – I would read all damn night! (I thought child care involved being awake, albeit reading, while the baby squirmed and gurgled next to me.) I figured that time to read meant books consumed. It seemed like a simple equation.
But I hadn’t taken one thing into account: my brain.
When my water broke, I headed to the hospital with a perfect bag of thunderstorm CDs and ginger shampoo, stopping first at the public library so I wouldn’t begin motherhood with overdue books. The next hellish day-and-a-half does not need to be outlined, except to say that Pitocin is the work of the devil and my son was perfect.
But the old me was gone. I remember standing in the hospital shower a few hours after labor and thinking, “The person I used to be thought I would care about ginger shampoo.”
When I sat down to read, seeking familiar solace, the words seemed to swim in front of my eyes. I would read a few sentences, then have to go back and re-read. The joyful process of scanning my eyes across the page and stories blooming in my mind was short-circuited. Technically, I was reading. The book was open and I was looking at it. But I was thinking about nursing, the shape of my son’s tiny skull.
Lots of mothers I spoke to found that they had no attention span after childbirth. Marritt Ingram, author of Inconsolable, says, “I read young adult fiction for a while. I think the first book I finished was Hatchet.” Hatchet, it must be noted, is the story of a boy who, following a plane crash in the Canadian wilderness, must learn to survive with only a hatchet and his own wits. Sounds like a metaphor for motherhood to me, though my own experience might more aptly be called Chardonnay.
Another mother told me, “I couldn’t read fiction again for ages. When I did return to books, my tastes had REALLY changed. Good-bye, literary fiction, hello ‘cozies.’ I think the first fiction book I read after the baby was The Number One Ladies Detective Agency. For quite some time I liked mysteries about animals who solved crimes.”
Animals who solved crimes. Enough said.
One hundred percent of the women I polled said they began devouring cheesy magazines during the blurry months of new-mom-hood. “I read a lot of Us Weekly when the baby was very small,” admitted a friend, “A short article at a time was all I could handle. Stars – they’re just like us! They buy lattes! They put money in the parking meter!”
Another mother gave me hope when she said the first book she finished post-baby was Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Then she added, “I can’t remember a blessed word of the book.” Even highbrow mothers agree that the attention span is gone with the wind. A friend liked “Trollope, because it’s very episodic. Pick it up, put it down, pick it back up two days later.”
One thing every mom seems to have in common is the inability to read books where something bad happens to a child. “From the time my eldest was born until about the time my youngest went into first grade,” a poster on Readerville.com, a site for bookworms, said, “I couldn’t read adult books where kids were kidnapped or threatened or killed. As my kids got older, my troubles with books with these plots disappeared.”
An Austin friend emailed, “I just can’t read anything heavy or too sad anymore. I feel like I’ve got enough weighing me down without seeking out books or films that are a downer to my mood! Like this summer, my husband wanted to watch the movie Blood Diamond. I bawled like a baby through the whole thing just feelingOne thing every mom seems to have in common is the inability to read books where something bad happens to a child. awful that children could be treated that way. Even though many books and films are based on real events, I find that after having kids I have a lot more trouble separating truth from fiction.”
I thought this was fascinating, so I contacted Katherine Ellison, author of The Mommy Brain, which argues that motherhood makes us smarter. “The fact is as new moms we’ve basically got our priorities, and brains, rearranged, so that protecting this new life form goes to the front of the line,” Katherine said. “That would make us much more aware and sensitive to threats and dangers, just as Mother Nature would want.”
She also offers some justification for the unopened War and Peace that’s still sitting on my nursery shelf: “An inability to focus on some things merely means we are switching our focus to the incredible job of learning all about this new universe of being a mother and having an offspring in our trust. A great deal of our bandwidth, for a relatively short period, is taken up by that challenging project.”
A friend had another scientific take: “I read somewhere a long time ago that babies get their brains from their mothers. I’ve decided that’s why some of us are complete dingbats while pregnant. The baby is sucking all our smarts out!”
Nonetheless, seven months after my second son was born, I finally finished a book. It was Leaving Dirty Jersey, a Crystal Meth Memoir. I ignored raised eyebrows at the playground and kept turning pages. Somehow, the story of a paranoid man desperately seeking a sense of peace and a few hours of sleep spoke to me.
Next up: Tweaked, a Crystal Memoir. Then I’ll dive into Tolstoy, right after I finish this week’s People and Cat Crimes for the Holidays.