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In a life of ups and downs, reading is a constant

I have been fortunate enough to cuddle, squeeze and smell two babies who were only months old recently. It has been a few years since my children were that little so it was a rare pleasure.

Their mothers and fathers – including first-timers embarking on the wild adventure of parenthood – are doing an amazing job caring for their little angels in these early months.

But understandably, they are very tired. Talking to them about how they are going, they told me they were so tired that they’re not reading any books at the moment, as they are asleep the moment their heads hit the pillow.

It made me reflect on my own experience of early motherhood, and the role that books played in my life at the time.

Unlike these mothers, when my children were at the same stage, I clung to books like my life depended on them.

I found first motherhood to be an incredible, overwhelming and exhausting time when I felt all at sea and somehow, I had lived my live up until that time with no real idea of what parenthood was like.

Our very, very, very alert baby was a dream come true, but I had never realised just how nightmarish it could be to wake up every two hours after having spent an hour settling a baby. Every single night for months.

And so, as I have done throughout my life at times of change and upheaval, I turned to books as my source of stability and familiarity. I read when I was feeding, I read when he was napping and I read to put myself to sleep between feeds.

While I glanced at Tizzy Hall’s book and the Baby Love bible in hope of learning the secrets to parenting, it was fiction that I leaned on.

Due to the general haze of early motherhood I retained little of those books, but I do remember the way they buoyed me during this time of intense love, bewilderment, self-doubt and exhaustion.

Similarly, during the instability of the COVID-19 pandemic and the many lockdowns we have faced in Victoria, I have relied on literature as one of the constants in my life.

There were so many aspects of reading that I loved during the past two years:

  • I enjoyed opening my bookcase to my friends and family who could not visit bookshops or libraries
  • I loved ‘talking’ about books in my new WhatsApp book group, providing a gentle point of contact without the intensity of Zoom catch ups
  • I cherished the moments after home schooling and working during the day when I would lie in bed and escape from the busyness of the day.

While some of my friends said that the pandemic had halted their reading, my experience was the exact opposite. As I walked, cooked or vacuumed, I listened to The Midnight Library, The Good Sister, The Labyrinth and A Spool of Blue Thread, and at night I read The Silence of the Girls, Geek Love, Still Life, Three Women, The Dictionary of Lost Words and The Plains. My worries about the work I wasn’t getting done while home schooling, and the home schooling I wasn’t doing while working, were forgotten as I travelled from Oxford to Troy to Florence and was introduced to characters unlike anyone I spoke to via Zoom.

Days that blended together were punctuated by the joy of receiving book mail. A new release from a favourite author reliably sparked joy as a counterpoint to rising infection numbers.

Other times in which I have found books to be a comforting escape and source of stability include when I was experiencing all of the emotions of a teen girl unsure of her place in the schoolyard or the world, when I was travelling and seeing new sites and experiencing new cultures, with the weight and reassurance of a book in my backpack, and when I felt homesick while living on campus at university, where I discovered kindred spirits who loved to talk about books as much as I did.

The familiarity of books was hinted at by author and editor Hazel Rochman when she said, “Reading takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere.”

And I have to admit that wherever I might be, I feel at home when I open a book.

I also love to be able to take a break from my own mind, and its tendency to worry or overthink. When I am tired, in particular, I tend to cast back to my greatest embarrassments or failures, and run them over and over in my mind like the worst kind of slideshow. But when I read, my mind is still and focused on a different story, and people who are not me.

American writer George Saunders said, “Reading is a form of prayer, a guided meditation that briefly makes us believe we’re someone else, disrupting the delusion that we’re permanent and at the center of the universe.”

I no longer pray each night as I did as a child, but perhaps that is because reading has taken its place, providing me with the comforting knowledge that, as Saunders said, I’m not the centre of the universe.

My doubts over my parenting, my embarrassments and my experience of a pandemic are tiny and temporary in the scheme of the wide and wonderful world captured in the pages of books.

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