What To Read While Ignoring Your Children

As Amy Fusselman writes in her beautiful memoir 8, “People can read books and watch children at the same time…Of course, both the reading of the books and the watching of the children will be performed in a way best described as half-assed.”

Since reading books, watching my children, and doing things half-assed are sort of my specialties, this statement really rings true. And just now are both of my kiddos finally big enough that they can be ignored for up to, say, three minutes at a time.

Here’s something about parenting –maybe you think you want to have children because you like spending time with children. What you don’t realize until you actually have children is that the ne plus ultra of parenting is in fact ignoring them. At first you can, since newborn babies are usually cool with hanging out in a sling or stroller and blinking at shadows for a few months, and then they start moving and for many many months you can’t look away even for a second, and when you do, it’s for something really really important, like cleaning up poop, or staring at your phone. I really shouldn’t ever even blink now, because this 1-and-a-half-year-old boy of mine is basically chaos incarnate, but there are, suddenly, occasionally, moments when they are both absorbed in looking at books, or hammering on the floor with a spoon or something, and I can steal a moment to read a page of something. (It’s not neglect, it’s modeling literacy!)

The challenge is finding the right books, books that can be read a page at a time, dipped in and out of. Right now I have three good ones scattered around the apartment, but quoting the above Fusselman bit reminds me that 8 is a lovely, heartbreaking book written in quickly-readable, petite bits of crystalline prose. It has the added benefits of being very short (i.e. you might actually finish it, moms!) and full of life-affirming parenting wisdom. So you could try that. I should warn you that it’s also about the author’s experience with a pedophile, a little, which is maybe not the best match for overseeing a game of “knock down each other’s block towers until someone cries,” but the book is beautiful, I swear.

I’m also misting my way through Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of her “Dear Sugar” advice column from the Rumpus. Again, totally heartbreaking, and strangely life-affirming. Like, you read one sad letter and Sugar’s wise and gentle and heart-swelling advice, and then you look at your children as they attempt to draw on their milk with blue markers and they look like life and goodness incarnate. (My Slow-Reader’s-Book-Group just read Strayed’s equally-heartbreaking novel Torch and man, can that woman write with compassion. Shew!)

Another good one: The Collected Works of Fran Lebowitz. Her pieces are short (this is crucial, you see), brutally funny, hilariously (and purposefully) solipsistic and generally misanthropic. A perfect fit for a day with 2 children under the age of 4.

And one I just started (I’ve been “reading” the Fran Lebowitz since probably February) and am loving is Dan Wilbur’s funny funny funny How Not To Read: Harnessing a Literature-Free Life. This is one of those books that reminds me that I am not a funny writer in the way that some people are able to be funny writers, and I stand in awe of them (Dan Wilbur, Sara Barron, etc). The only problem with this smart, hilarious, book-lover-nudging book is that it makes me snicker out loud until Harper suspiciously asks what’s up, and then I am caught and have to once again interact with my humans. Oh well.

Some day I will again read brain-scalders like Joyce and Plato or whatever it is I used to read. But, as Fusselman writes, “If you want to read your book in a non-half-assed way, you have to wait until you child is in kindergarten.” And that’s only like 4 years away! Maybe then I can reread the books I’m currently baby-ignoring-reading and get everything I’m missing this time. I can’t wait!

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