Parenthood: It’s the best of times and the worst of times. Even on good days, you can still feel like you have no idea what you’re doing. Back when I was a new parent and bona fide book person, I gathered all the best reviewed and recommended parenting books and stacked them on my bedside table, ready to dive in and learn. Instead, they collected dust. I occasionally cracked one or two in search of advice for specific problems: i.e. my baby’s not sleeping or my baby’s not eating. But when it came down to actually reading these books from cover to cover, they didn’t have what I wanted–which was a good story and a means of escape from the drudgery and responsibility of everyday life.
At some point, during my tumultuous first few months as a new parent, I decided to turn to memoirs. I picked up Anne Lamott’s beloved and oft-recommended book Operating Instructions about her first years as a parent. I recognized and admired her honest voice and style, but it was just too raw and too real for me. I had been hoping for a hopeful blueprint for how to get through this period of my life with my sanity and personality intact. But Lamott was struggling even more than I was and I just couldn’t deal.
Eventually, I realized that what I wanted was what I always want from a book: hope, excitement, distraction, and maybe just maybe, ideas to live by. This isn’t to say that Lamott and the other parenting books I browsed couldn’t provide those things. Rather, they just weren’t speaking to me personally, at that time in my life. Eventually, I tucked that stack of parenting books under my bed, and picked up a YA novel with an unreliable teen narrator who has a complex relationship with the truth (Liar by Justine Larbalestier). It was totally absorbing and sensational and I read most of it by book light in the rocking chair next to my newborn’s crib. While it’s true that I didn’t pick up any specific advice on parenting in this book, I did approach the story differently. For the first time, I related to both the teen protagonist and her parents. I paid new attention to the interplay between them and thought a lot about what kind of parent I would be with my teenager.
Not long after, I read The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls and Heavier than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain by Charles Cross. Both books featured lengthy descriptions and insight into some questionable parenting. Again, I found myself reading without so much judgement as curiosity, empathy and sympathy. Parenting is challenging in ways you cannot even begin to be prepared for. And you never quite know how you will react and what kind of parent you will be. Reading other people’s accounts, fiction and nonfiction, of the interplay between kids and adults turned out to be the best parenting guide I could find.
Approximately 23 months after the first kid, I had a second. This time, I was prepared and I didn’t even attempt to read a parenting book. Instead, I read ebooks on my iPhone in the dark, while nursing my newborn to sleep. I read a modern update on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw called Tighter by Adele Griffin and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. And well, neither of those necessarily provided me with parenting insight as much as they provided me with entertainment and distraction during those endless nursing sessions in the dark. I had a million things to do and I was so tired, but hell if I was going to lose valuable reading time when it presented itself. Turns out this was a valuable parenting lesson too: Take your reading time whenever you possibly can. Even if it means rocking your newborn longer than you’re supposed to and reading on a tiny iPhone in the dark.
Now, as a children’s librarian, kidlit enthusiast and parent of two elementary aged kids, I find that I am still analyzing all stories featuring kids and parents for ideas, tips and insight. I recently read Becky Albertalli’s excellent Simon vs. the Homosapien’s Agenda and besides loving it to death, I feel like I learned so much about positive (and not so positive) ways to talk with kids about their lives; about the delicate interplay between letting them have their own private life while also letting them know that you are there for them emotionally, no matter what. The fact that Albertalli is a former clinical psychologist, who specialized in working with children and teens, probably explains a lot about why I gained so much insight from this particular book!
Even if the book you’re reading isn’t written by a mental health professional, chances are you can probably find some apt life advice within–even if it’s just of the DON’T DO THAT variety. As I continue my parenting and professional journey, I look forward to reading more books with my new and ever expanding perspective as a parent. And I have no doubt that there will never be a shortage of material to choose from.