Motherhood—the story of a transformed reader
Every woman who chooses to be a mother, I believe, has two distinct timelines in their lifetime; one that is Pre-Motherhood and the one after. The AM and PM hypothesis. While it may sound like an episode of The Big Bang Theory, this hypothesis is completely my own and has no academic backbone to it. That is the kind of article you are about to read today, one that is deeply personal, may or may not be a work of fiction, but has resemblance to every mother living or otherwise.
I had once read somewhere the artist Sarah Walker describing motherhood as discovering a strange new room in a house you already live in. In layman's terms: motherhood changes everything you knew about yourself and the world you had carefully curated for the past however many years you have been alive. Things you thought were categorically crucial in your life descend rapidly in your ever-growing list of priorities and matters you thought would be of no use to ponder over are most likely the first thought in your head each morning.
I stepped into this coveted position of Mommyhood 19 months ago, when the world was neck deep in the insidious reign of Her Majesty Queen Corona; and while the world changed for the worse under the despicable rule of this tyrant, mine changed in ways that were unexpected and for the most part quite wonderful. No, I am not here to sugarcoat the harsh realities and many challenges that come with being a new mother, I am simply here to tell you how my relationship with books transformed during my journey over the last year and a half.
Speaking of harsh realities, I will let you in on mine. While women in my mothers' group were flipping through pages of the classic, What to Expect When You're Expecting (1984) by Heidi Murkoff, the first book I had to pick up post the birth of my son was Karen Kleiman and Valerie Raskin's co-authored self-help book, This Isn't What I Expected: Overcoming Postpartum Depression (1994). No points for guessing what that brick-of-a-read was about; but the point is I knew at that moment that my relationship with books had changed forever. Let's just say that the PM me would not be caught dead in the self-help section of a bookstore. But without going into the morbid details (maybe a story for another day), parts of this book saved my life. Every damaging feeling that I thought was shameful and mine alone was not only validated but explicated in a way that was humane. Though never a substitute for medical intervention, the book handed me hope and invaluable coping mechanisms that aided me to see light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.
Motherhood also stripped away any pretentiousness I had in my past reading habits. As Tolstoy's 1,500-pager took a long hike to the very back of my bookshelf and Dostoyevsky's morbid philosophy was no match for my own, a new domain of literature made its presence known to me. I was pleased to discover the empathetic reader in me that simply enjoyed engaging stories and sparkling writing. Purely escapist yet riveting novels like The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid or Verity by Colleen Hoover would unfortunately never be on my reading list even a few years ago, but here I am, happily reporting, that these were in fact my fastest four-star reviews on Goodreads this year (I am positively miserly with my five stars).
Don't let me diminish the intellectual integrity of these books though. By no means are they fluffy or unversed. In The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (2017), Reid expertly illustrates the mesmerising yet unforgiving realities of the old heydays of Hollywood glamour while hooking you right at the get-go with an enigmatic mystery plot. Daisy Jones & The Six (2019), though not heavy on the plot, is a masterclass on how to treat a massive cast of characters and not skimp on providing each one with a full arc of their own. Reid's two "main leads", Daisy and Billy, sparkle, and even an unromantic, cynical potato like myself did not roll her eyes even once!
Colleen Hoover, meanwhile, forays into the world of thrillers for the first time with Verity (2018), and I do not know why she would ever go back to writing anything else other than this genre. Hoover doesn't strive hard to make her protagonist likeable, in fact you are suspicious of most characters throughout the narrative, without excessively hating or rooting for anyone. Yet the tale is riveting enough that you are guaranteed an all-nighter and some serious case of the dark circles the following day. No wordy prologues, no excessive world building, and usage of the dreaded thesaurus kept very much at bay, these books may never make it to the shortlist (or longlist) of the inundated universe of Booker Prizes; but they will keep you flipping pages insatiably and they will make you a reader, in my case a wholly transformed one.
What does motherhood have to do with changing tastes in the written word, you may wonder? Well, I could oversimplify and say it is purely the lack of time and brain functionality that a working mom to a toddler can afford at the end of yet another long day, which sets the inclination towards an escapist read. But this is simply not the whole truth. It is, rather, the expanding level of tolerance you gain as a mother which leads to exploring the world beyond your comfort zone. As a mother, you gain the ability to simply discard the cloak of intellectual snobbery and read what brings you unadulterated joy.
Interestingly, what has brought me tremendous joy is a medium of writing I would never have thought in my wildest whimsy I would be voraciously reading—graphic novels! I mean, who even am I? Of course, by no means have I bought myself a one-way ticket to Japan to thrive in the kingdom of the Manga or cosplay at the next Comicon, but I am unreservedly obsessed with political masterpieces like Maus (1980) by Art Spiegelman and Persepolis (2000) by Marjane Satrapi, and currently devouring Alison Bechdel's twisted gothic memoir, Fun Home (2006).
I have since wondered why, of all things, I have been experiencing this tug towards what are essentially "picture books", something that in the past I would consider juvenile entertainment. I realised that the answer is possibly rooted in that very realm. As a mother to a toddler who is obsessed with books, I am constantly reading children's picture fables to him. Maybe subconsciously my mind picked up on the astuteness of this unique way of storytelling through two of my favourite things in the world, art and literature. How wonderful is it to rediscover the world through a medium that captivates your children's mind?
So that is it folks—this Mother's Day, I welcome you to a new world that already resides inside of you; one that is untouched and unexplored. Keep rediscovering yourselves, Mammas. Books and children—they're the same really, both keep you up at night!
Sarah Ismail Bari is a full time corporate slave, overtime mom, part-time reader and a chronic daydreamer.