On one of my many daily scrolls through Instagram a few months ago, I came across one of those typically beautiful photos of a book and a coffee, the kind of aspirational post that makes it impossible for a book lover not to double-tap. But my friend’s caption gave me pause: “There isn’t too much I miss about my pre-baby life, but getting a break and sitting in a coffee shop for an hour to leisurely read makes me feel like the old me for a while.”
Once I confirmed I was indeed pregnant, I was shocked at how much time of the day I spent just thinking about it: searching online for medical advice, going to doctor appointments, anxiously awaiting doctor appointments, trying to decide how to answer sideways looks from my friends when they see me pass on a martini at the bar. I went through the entire first trimester without having made my way through a single book — a long time for me, and when Twin Peaks premiered on Showtime I only got two episodes in before I just stopped watching.
Unfortunately, you don’t have to be pregnant to be distracted in 2017. Social media is full of memes about the world burning down around us, and the endless stream of push alerts coming from the White House are enough to distract anyone from making progress on anything except therapy bills, much less the ability to focus on a great novel. But as I entered the third trimester I realized if I wanted to read, I had better do it now.
So what does one read when she finds herself on a one-way collision course with a major life-changing event that may prevent her from finishing any books in the near future that she doesn’t read aloud?
Before my pregnancy, I had never read Proust. In college I attended a lecture about Bloomsbury and Proust given by the brilliant Mary Ann Caws. When I shyly admitted that I hadn’t read Proust, she asked how old I was and told me that I shouldn’t read Proust until I was older, “with a little more life behind you.” Thirty-two and with child, I figured it was now or never, so I asked my husband to get on the ladder and pluck down the copy of Swann’s Way I had purchased at Shakespeare & Co. in Paris many moons ago.
Proust is a revelation. As a lover of Virginia Woolf, Swann’s Way brought her work back to life for me. I had flashbacks of long afternoons spent reading and underlining. And I could see the link between Proust’s endless, breathless sentences and the work of some of my other favorite writers, like W. G. Sebald, Javier Marías, and Thomas Bernhard. Maybe Dr. Caws was right. Reading the narrator’s obsession with his mother coming to kiss him goodnight in the Combray section not only made me think of my own childhood but of my baby as well. Would he wait in desperation for me?
The only problem with reading Proust is that it made me want to read all those other books again. I wanted to re-read To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, The Years — I wanted to re-read Austerlitz and The Emigrants and A Heart So White, The Loser, Frost, the second volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle! But I couldn’t rightly re-read now, there wasn’t time! There isn’t time. Also, reading Swann’s Way made me too full for anything else. I tried to read it on the train, but there kept being sections I wanted to underline, and no one would give me a seat. I tried to read it while waiting at the doctor’s office, but it was too emotional, trying to focus on Swann’s futile search for love while pregnant women endured the anxiety of waiting to hear their baby’s heartbeat, or for test results, to make sure everything was okay.
Even Swann’s Way remains unfinished at this point. I’m stuck at page 219. Should I keep reading? Who can say? I took a break to read — of all things — true crime. On a flight to Los Angeles I devoured Hampton Sides’s Hellhound on His Trail, on the manhunt for James Earl Ray. At first I thought: This is ridiculous, you should be reading Crime and Punishment. (I haven’t read the Russians, either. I’ve only read Anna Karenina; it’s shameful, I know.) But instead I was reading this book about Martin Luther King’s assassination! And though I still want to read Crime and Punishment, I’m glad I read Hellhound on His Trail. I was dumbfounded by just how little I knew about the crime. What kind of a parent would I have been with this huge hole in my knowledge?
But as you can tell, that just opens up a whole other can of worms. What kind of a person will I be — what kind of a parent will I be — if I’ve never read Crime and Punishment?
Then there are the new books. Rachel Cusk’s Transit, the second in her trilogy, has been out for a while, but I hadn’t gotten around to reading it, so I did so on the way back home from Los Angeles. Was I really reading, though? At this point my anxiety over finishing things had reached a fever pitch. I read Transit like a depressed person on a gluten-free diet reaches for that second doughnut. And believe me, that wasn’t just an analogy. Home and exhausted, I scroll through my Twitter feed for what feels like hours, reaching for that second doughnut, that we all know will end in guilt and self-punishment. At night, even though I should be reading . . . A Tale of Two Cities, finally finishing Middlemarch . . . I’m just amped-up on Twitter. And then, with visions of the apocalypse dancing in my head, I can’t sleep.
In one of the early episodes of the popular TV show This Is Us I caught a glimpse of Mandy Moore’s character holding a copy of Stephen King’s novel Misery under her arm while she was preparing breakfast for her many children. I thought: Well, she’s just getting in her reading whenever she can. Maybe it’s possible. Another friend of mine said that she read lots of books when her daughters were little — while she was breastfeeding — but only “trashy” books, scrolling with one hand on her phone.
Curiously, I didn’t immediately think to seek out reading that addressed the central fact of my life. But the same friend who had posted the caption about reading and time on Instagram recommended Rachel Cusk’s wonderful A Life’s Work. It immediately made me feel less alone and terrified — I wanted to give it to all the people close to me who were not pregnant, so that they could understand. “My experience of reading, indeed of culture, was profoundly changed by having a child,” she writes. Uh-oh. But she goes on: “In the sense that I found the concept of art and expression far more involving and necessary, far more human in its drive to bring forth and create, than I once did.”
Another deeply satisfying book on becoming a parent, Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors, acknowledges that there’s no time for reading, let alone writing. But, after her daughter was born, “the world seemed ludicrously, suspiciously, adverbially sodden with meaning. Which is to say that the puma [the baby] made me again more like a writer (or at least a certain kind of writer) precisely as she was making into someone who was, enduringly, not writing.”
So maybe it’s not so bad, after all. Whether you’re expecting, anxiety-ridden, exhausted from other means, or if your thumb is about fall off from refreshing your Twitter feed, maybe we’re just too hard on ourselves. The fact is, none of us know what’s coming. Our “expectations” are just that — expectations. I don’t know if my baby will sleep through the night, if I’ll be able to breastfeed, or if I’ll ever be able to have any time to myself ever again. None of us know when the next news alert will signal the beginning of the end, or if the sun will just cease to shine one day. A friend and father of two children said to me, “Look, lots of people are going to give you advice, and I realize I’m about to do the same thing, but . . . if you aren’t worried about something, don’t worry about it. Just enjoy it.” It seemed like an oversimplification of magnum proportions, but it actually makes sense. So instead of forcing myself to forge through War and Peace, I’m off to re-read To the Lighthouse. And I’m going to enjoy it.