Whether it was naivete or nerves of steel, despite hearing those tales from the dark side, I was never afraid of giving birth. What haunted me through most of my pregnancy, and what kept me from enjoying much of it, was the thought that my life was about to change irreversibly and forever. But I couldn't do anything to prepare for it. I couldn't try out my baby for a few nights or see him once a week and then go back to my old life.
Before my son Zachary was born, whenever I woke up at 3 a.m. with heartburn, made dinner, or walked to the subway, I thought, What can I do to keep myself sane, to not be bored, to keep from becoming one of those mothers who talk about nothing but the baby? My husband assured me that I wouldn't be bored, that I'd be busy changing diapers, washing bottles, and gazing fondly into the baby's eyes. My friends told me that I'd be too tired to care about much of anything, that the biggest goal of my day would be getting into the shower, and if I accomplished that, I'd feel a great rush of success.
But I knew that however much I loved the baby, I would still miss working, sleeping, and me-time. I had to hold on to a piece of my former self, so I decided that I wouldn't stop reading. I am not a voracious reader. I have never been one to read a book a day or even one a week, but I do love to read. I always have a book on my nightstand and one waiting on the shelf. I relish trips to the bookstore, and I'm always asking my friends if they've read anything good lately.
No one thought my reading plan was possible. I wouldn't be able to concentrate, they said. There just wouldn't be time. I'd never be able to hold a book while nursing. But I persevered. A month before my due date, I went to the library and checked out two books on CD. I chose funny books by authors who didn't use too many big words or spin complicated, symbolic plots. I thought I'd start with short stories; that way if I forgot what happened, it didn't matter. I could just start the CD at the next story, sit down, and nurse -- with both hands.
It wasn't a perfect system. Sometimes Zachary would cry and drown out the words, or he would spit up and I'd leave the room to change him, only to miss a chunk of the tale. But for the most part, it worked. I even managed to concentrate long enough to laugh at the funny parts. And when my husband came home, I could say, "Well, this morning I listened to this great story. It was about..."
I made it through David Sedaris's Naked and Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon Summer 1956, and then I got good enough at breastfeeding to multitask. I could finally keep one hand free, making it time for a real book. I was capable of reading something more serious now, but I wasn't ready for anything longer than 350 pages, in tiny print, or with lengthy chapters. When I rushed into the bookstore to pick a book before Zachary screamed or pooped and disturbed the other readers and browsers, I went for a classic, Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth. I figured I'd be happier with a good serious book than a bad light one. It was a tad longer than I had planned (357 pages), but the writing was straightforward and the story was extremely moving. I kept hoping Zachary would doze for a few minutes after eating his fill so I could read a few more pages.
I didn't sacrifice sleep for reading, nor did I read before bed, the way I used to. I read exclusively when I breastfed. I learned to move the book to one side of my body before pulling out the opposite breast; otherwise I'd have to sit and stare, frustrated, the book just out of arm's reach. Even when my nipples were sore, I looked forward to sitting every few hours -- book in one hand, baby in the other -- and remembering in a small way what life used to be like.
Distance has not made that bleary-eyed era seem rose-colored; I love my baby, but in many ways those first months were full of dreariness. Days plodded by: There were mind-numbing chunks of floor time and eternities spent aimlessly strolling Zachary around the neighborhood. Sometimes I felt overwhelmed, but I was generally just bored out of my mind.
The books, however, were bright spots. Zachary and I were each able to enjoy one of life's great pleasures together, one feeding the body, the other the soul. And I'm sure everyone I know is grateful that I had better stories to tell than those about my baby's poop and sleep and so-and-so's horrible labor and delivery.
Lauren Freer is a freelance writer, former English teacher, and mom of two in New York City.