In late spring, my wife and I enrolled in a childbirth class. During the first meeting, we had to go around the room and talk about our favorite birthing books. I had not read any birthing books—not because I didn’t want to, but because I know that given the smallest unstructured bit of information, I immediately fall into the trap of endless Googling for this and that. I’ve done this exactly once since my daughter was born. I ended up reading about infant dementia for an hour. I don’t recommend that article to anyone.
When it was my turn to discuss my favorite book, I sheepishly mentioned Leslie Jamison’s essay at the Paris Review, “Reading While Nursing.” Jamison’s essay beautifully recollected the experience of her changing (physical and emotional) life in relation to care and the act of reading. As she put it, her daughter, “taught me how to read with one arm, in stolen chunks of time, in half-delirium, in the long hormonal soup of the fourth trimester.”
After my daughter was born, I remember holding her in the recovery room and feeling that first burst of physical love. I couldn’t focus upon anything but her small, warm weight pressed up against my chest. From that weight came a tingling that radiated outwards through every nerve ending, as if my fingertips were pointed up to the sky bringing the lightning right through me.
Everyone had warned me that I would be up at all hours with a newborn, but I had no idea how much she would sleep, dozing off with twitches, smiles, and open, shifting eyes. She was always a good sleeper, but she especially loved to sleep on my chest, giving me two or three hour chunks of time where I, as a good bed, had to remain perfectly still.
A perfect chance to read.
I began with Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, gripped by Isabel’s travails across Europe. From there, I couldn’t stop. Perhaps because I was so anchored to whatever position I was in when she fell asleep, I was drawn to books with a sense of place, family, and movement. I read, one after another (sometimes all in one sitting), Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses, Sharon Bala’s The Boat People, Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field, Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us, Dina Nayeri’s Refuge, Xhenet Aliu’s Brass, and Irina Reyn’s Mother Country, before finally returning to Henry James once again with The Turn of the Screw.
And then, without warning—at around eight weeks—she didn’t like to sleep on my chest anymore. It probably began to feel too much like tummy time, which as any parent knows is hard work for a newborn. Sleep experts always say that one should never work on their bed.
She’s six months old now and loves riding on my shoulders, cackles with joy when I hold her in the air. I’ve found that the joy of children can be mired in cruelty: she keeps growing and each step takes her away from me. She moves, into her own life, when all I want is to hold her close, feel that warm weight, pass my time with a book in my hand, turning each page with a finger alive with that electric arc of love.
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