This past weekend all three of my daughters were sick with bad colds, and I spent much of Shabbat afternoon curled up at the foot of one of my twins’ beds in the room all three of them share, staying with them as they coughed away and tried to rest their aching heads. I could not leave the room because then the baby—who uncannily seems to sense my presence at all times—would start crying, waking the toddler sleeping next to her, who would kick angrily and surely wake her twin sister by the window. I knew that the only chance that everyone would get well was if they took a long nap, and so I spent three hours in their room, getting up only to reinsert the pacifier in the baby’s mouth when necessary, or to help my daughter find her water bottle when she sat up thirstily, or to accompany her sister to the bathroom.
Keeping vigil in a sickroom does not sound like fun, but I had left the window shade open a crack, letting in just enough light to illuminate my page so that I could read from my perch at the end of the bed lining the window. I was reading a new collection of short stories by a young Israeli writer named Hila Amit, and I was utterly in thrall to the gripping story of a single mother who takes her children camping by a lake on vacation, only to wake up and discover that one of the children who had been sleeping by her side was missing. My heart raced as I turned page after page, and I found myself unconsciously casting my eyes over the three sleeping girls, counting their heads and listening for their breathing in spite of myself. I tend to get very absorbed in the books I am reading, but usually I do not have time to read when my children are home. Though I would never wish sickness upon my children, of course, I could not help but relish the opportunity to read for a long afternoon stretch with all my girls present and accounted for and calm.
People sometimes ask me if I enjoy being a mother, perhaps because all my children were born in quick succession after I lived alone for much of my adult life. I tell them the truth, which is that I enjoy—or I most enjoy—those aspects of motherhood that can be accomplished while reading. I do not mind holding my children’s hands and staying with them at night, or waiting on the side during their gymnastics lessons, or breastfeeding, which I always have done with a book in one hand. (My babies each learned to wave their free hand to check for the book, only then settling comfortably on the breast.) And I hardly need mention that my favorite aspect of being a parent is reading to my children, which I do all day long, at every possible moment. I always keep picture books under the stroller in case we are stuck with time to kill, and we read snuggling in my bed in the early morning, and over breakfast and dinner, and of course before bed.
For as long as I can remember, I have enjoyed anything in life that can be done while reading, and I’ve tended to avoid activities incompatible with holding a book in one hand. Perhaps that’s why I always prefer to walk than to drive or ride a bicycle—I am a master of reading while walking—and perhaps that’s why I never became very good at shopping or cooking or playing music. But many of aspects of motherhood require being fully present in mind and body, attentive to my children with both hands free. It has been a challenge, in recent years, to let go of that part of me that always wants to be elsewhere, immersed in a fictional world, caught up in the thicket of someone else’s plot. Sometimes I find myself writing my own plots, narrating our daily experiences in my head at the very moment they are unfolding, documenting life in real time and occasionally changing the ending to make for a better tale. Once I stood outside my daughter’s preschool trying the finish the last few paragraphs of a chapter before heading in to pick her up. But all of a sudden I heard my daughter calling to me through the open window, and I realized that even though I still had a few sentences left, I was already in the middle of a very different chapter of my day.
I have never managed to learn to meditate or do yoga—I lack the calmness and the focus—but motherhood, like these disciplines, is teaching me every day anew the value of drawing my attention back to the present moment and being in just one place at one time. “It goes by so fast,” people always tell me when they see me trying to fit three kids into a double stroller or struggling to quiet down one twin so I can hear why the other is crying. I imagine the pages of a book flipping by, turning faster than I can read them. And then I stop for a moment, put my finger between the pages to mark my place, and look up into my daughter’s eager eyes, setting the book aside.