I don’t read to my babies.

When Bub was born, I immediately started reading him books of all sorts. I read aloud from my own books while he was nursing. I read board books, novels, and picture books. I’ve read to him almost every day of his life. In his first year, he heard Dr. Seuss, Tolkien, Beatrix Potter, E.B. White, John Klassen, and maybe even a little Jane Austen. One day I pulled out every children’s book we owned and tried reading through them one by one. I read because I loved books. I read because I knew the importance of reading to language development. I read because I knew it was a powerful bonding experience for parent and child. I would spend as much time as possible reading with my baby, and surely would with all my babies!

It’s never too early for The Lord of the Rings.

Fast-forward to baby number two, and I wasn’t. I was still reading to two-year-old Bub lots every day, but reading to Jaybird took a backseat. I had two kids to care for, which made it harder to sit down with a baby and read, what with a toddler running around tackling cats. Being a baby and all, he never brought me books himself like his older brother did, so I often didn’t even think of it. He was a very active, antsy baby. When I did sit down determined to read to him, it never went well. He’d squirm away or grab the book and throw it, or some other gesture of total disinterest.

I felt horrid. I love books. I love reading to my children. I believe in the amazing power of reading aloud to all ages. Here I was, dutifully reading to one child, while another’s reading life was woefully neglected. I worried he’d never love reading like his brother, because I wasn’t making it happen. I worried I was delaying his language development and neglecting and important bonding experience. I worried I was not being a good mom.

Jaybird not cooperating.

Then one day, around fourteen months, he started bringing me books. And then he kept bringing me books. He asked for one book after another, he asked for his favorites again and again. We went through a huge pile of books every day. I might have been annoyed at how much time it was taking if I weren’t so ecstatic that I hadn’t ruined his reading life after all. When Grama would visit, he would monopolize her whole visit with reading. When friends would visit, he would crawl into their laps with a book – even if he’d never met them before. When Dad was getting ready to go in the morning, he would insist one more book. He was a man obsessed, and he still is.

Make a home where books are part of life

A book can’t solve every problem, but it can make anything just a little better. Jaybird picked up on this without any baby reading regimen. He did not need me to force him to sit through books when what he wanted to do was move and explore. He didn’t need me to teach him to love books or feel driven to learn. He needed a home where books were part of life. He needed an environment where books were available whenever he was ready, on shelves he could reach himself. He needed an atmosphere where reading was a delight, not a chore or an item on a developmental checklist. And, of course, he needed parents who were available, so whenever he was ready, he knew he could toddler over with a book and be welcomed with open arms. Babies are always paying attention: environment, atmosphere, and availability go a long way.

Babies love to do what the family does, so when reading is something the family does, babies will join in – when they’re ready. Though baby Jaybird wasn’t sitting down with a book often, books were woven into the fabric of his daily life. He was paying attention, and what he learned is that reading is joyful, loving, and ubiquitous. He saw Mom and Dad reading for their own pleasure, he visited the library, he saw books in every room of his home, he heard countless books as we read aloud to his older brother, he got books for gifts at birthdays, Easter, and Christmas. He got the message – reading is just another part of life, and a pretty good one at that. When he was ready, of course he wanted to join the party.

Changing his tune.

I’m not saying I won’t or don’t ever read to my babies. If your baby loves to read, by all means, READ! But if your baby, like Jaybird and Pantsa-Pantsa after him, squirms away or throws the book across the room, please don’t sweat it. If you aren’t finding time to read (or even remembering to try!) amid the errands, chores, and endless tasks of motherhood, give yourself a break. Give your baby the environment, atmosphere, and availability they need to grow into reading. Your baby is paying attention. When books are valued, your baby will learn to value them too.

Pantsa-Pantsa is just over one year old now. Sometimes she’ll bring me a book, but usually after a page or two she rips it out of my hands and goes about her business. It’s okay. She’s okay. Books are part of her daily life, and she is paying attention.

Happy Belated Bubsday

At the end of December my Bub turned five. It is hard to believe it’s been five years since I became a mother. So hard to believe, in fact, that I put four candles on his birthday cake and even almost bought a number four candle. As you can see on the picture, I corrected the problem, but only because my husband noticed as I was lighting candles. (Also, Bub insisted on having a triangle cake. In the immortal words of Leonard Cohen, “I did my best, it wasn’t much.”)

To be honest, I’ve been afraid of writing this post all year. Age four has been tough. It’s not an easy age for parent or child, even if you don’t add a baby, a very emotional two-year-old, and a mom with PPD to the mix. I was afraid to write this because my relationships with my baby and toddler are so simple, those posts so easy to write. What does it say about me if it’s not as easy to write about Bub?

Benefits of being five? First library card!

But he’s growing up. As he grows, our relationship will grow, too. It will become more complex than it was at one or two. It will go through rough patches, and periods of adjustment. This is okay. It was a tough year, but we got through it. (pro-tip: Motherhood is easier when you’re not depressed. If you think you may have post-partum depression, get help – for you and for your kids.) Reflecting on this not-so-easy year, I’m seeing everything with a fresh perspective and learning some amazing things about my child.

Bub is so thirsty for knowledge. He is curious and inquisitive and wants to know the reason for everything. Or reasons, plural. (Actual conversation – Me: “You can’t go into the street, ever.” Bub: “Why?” Me: “Because a car could hit you and kill you.” Bub: “What’s the other reason?”). I couldn’t ask him to do or stop doing something without hearing, “Why?” This got very frustrating at times, but, I have no doubt that kid is going to learn a lot in his life and he’s going to love the process.

Bub is highly sensitive to his emotional environment. He is so perceptive and keyed in to those around him. Practically, this means if I’m feeling off, he’s feeling off. Of course this is challenging for me, but much more so for him. He’s too young right now to know what to do with all the emotional input he picks up on. It must feel uncomfortable to know intuitively when your mom isn’t at her best – especially when it lasts for a long time. With emotional maturity, this trait will develop kindness and empathy in him, and that is worth some temporary challenges.

Bub never does something just because everyone else is doing it. I can’t tell you how many social situations where I thought, “This would be so much easier if you would just do what the other kids are doing!” He needs to know the why, and “because everyone else is doing it” does not suffice. This may make some awkward parenting moments for me, but I’m proud. I’m making a point of giving a real answer to why, and he responds so well to getting a real, respectful answer – often one I’ve never considered before. It’s amazing how much we just do without ever questioning why. This certainly won’t be a problem for Bub, my little individual who insists on a good reason for everything.

Happy belated blog birthday to my Bub.

Reading Roundup: Spring & Summer 2021

When I started writing this, it was a midyear reading roundup, to be posted promptly on July 1. So this is a third quarter reading roundup instead. Because I’m a few days late on July 1.

My reading and writing (and life) struggles all began with Daylight Savings. Yep, it’s almost October and I’m still stuck on Daylight Savings. Usually, I get up about a half hour before my kids and read before starting my day, but these days I’m always sleeping in. My kids had an equally hard time adjusting, so bedtime is a battle that can run pretty late. That leaves me too tired for reading most evenings.

Despite the struggles, I find at least a little time for reading most days. I still read in the mornings, which adds up even if it’s less time than before. I squeeze a page or two in when my kids are playing nicely, and when insomnia strikes, I read on my Kindle in the dark. I become a mood reader when stressed so I pick up whatever strikes my fancy, start twelve books, and finish none.

The rest of my reading time is credited to my Mother’s Day gift – a triple stroller! Thanks to this monstrosity (“The Big Caboose”), I’m getting in more audiobook time than I’ve had since Pantsy was born. I got an Audible trial to listen to a book club choice and ended up loving it (though I hated that particular book). I’ve always been too cheap for Audible, but I’d be loath to give it up now. One of my favorites below was included, and the wealth of such “free-ish” books and the chance to listen without waiting on Libby holds won me over.

The Big Caboose! Reading time in disguise.

Now for the good stuff.

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. A friend recommended this book and it’s my favorite read on this list. Right at home with some of my favorites, Pride and Prejudice and Middlemarch, North and South is a slow-burn love story centered around well-developed characters you’ll love to root for. Margaret is strong and thoughtful, and not at all your standard Victorian heroine. When her family must move from a quiet, rural southern town to an industrial northern town, she encounters self-made factory owner Mr. Thornton. The north/south culture clash sows plenty of discord, but mutual respect leads them to reluctantly learn from their differences (and fall in love and stuff). I loved the audio by Juliet Stevenson, which is included with an Audible subscription.

Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan. This biographical fiction tells the fascinating story of Joy Davidman, the woman who married C.S. Lewis late in life. I knew nothing about her going into this, other than that A Grief Observed was about her. She is a fascinating woman, and a talented writer (the chapters begin with excerpts form Davidman’s lovely poetry). This is a compelling story about two incredible people coming together, and Callahan’s obviously meticulous research shows on every page.

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. Inspired by the above, I picked up this classic which I originally read at 18. It holds up so well. It’s easy to discount C.S. Lewis when it’s been a while. His books seem almost too simple, but when you read, they are so insightful, perceptive, and uniquely Lewis. Simplicity is not a shortcoming, but the key to Lewis’ lasting appeal and value.

Reading People by Anne Bogel. This set me off on a huge personality kick. Bogel shares concise, practical summaries of several different personality frameworks and what they mean in everyday life. I was blown away by the chapter on cognitive functions, which unlocked a whole new understanding of myself as an INTP (like why taking a test today might mistype me as F or J). Fellow INTP Personality Junkie is a great resource for learning more on cognitive functions.

The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit. I was surprised to find this children’s book from 1906 so fresh and delightful. This is a story of three wealthy children who lose their fortune and end up in a small town, where they love to hang out at the railway station. Shenanigans, adventures, and charming friendships ensue. This reads a lot like Frances Hodgson Burnett, but somehow both more cheerful and less saccharine. A great read-aloud that can be enjoyed by both adults and children (I’d say five and up). I loved the free LibriVox recording by Karen Savage.

Parenting Without Power Struggles by Susan Stiffleman. This book came recommended by my favorite parenting resource, Janet Lansbury. After hearing the author on Janet’s Unruffled podcast, I ordered this book. It’s about helping parents avoid power struggles so they can be the leaders their kids need and respond calmly to difficulties without threats, bribes, punishments, and blowups. I use what I learned from this book every day.

The Call of the Wild + Free by Ainsley Arment. I’m starting homeschool this year and this book was a fabulous introduction. I learned so much, and walked away feeling more confident about my choice. I appreciated the wealth of resources and practical advice. Most of all, I loved the positive and encouraging attitude of the author, who shows in this book that homeschooling is exciting and valuable in itself, not a place to hid from some big bad wolf.

I love my pants.

Fall is a special time for our family. We’re ready for fall sometime around June and rejoice when the cool weather finally arrives. Of course, we have the everyday wonder of colorful leaves, sweater weather, hot soup, and, well, everything everyone loves about fall. On top of all that, we celebrate my birthday in October and our anniversary in November. Fall always brings back fond memories of birthdays, newlywed days, and anniversaries spent at a cabin in the woods.

Last year, fall gave us another reason to celebrate: the birth of our first girl. Pantsy Pants made her arrival on a beautiful Saturday in October. I had been through days and days of false labor. We had my mom stay at our house twice during the week, because we were SURE she’d be born in the night. Friday night, we knew. Because Jaybird was 20 minutes shy of being born on the highway, and we live far from our hospital, we drove out late that night to stay at a hotel near the hospital until it was time to go – probably in an hour or two. Then I fell asleep and woke up to no contractions at all. We spent the morning around town hoping with some walking and time, the contractions would return, but nope. Though it was frustrating at the time, Pantsy was giving us a gift. We enjoyed a lovely morning alone together talking and enjoying the beautiful fall day. It’s one of our most memorable dates.

We drove back, sent my mom home, and spent the day like a normal Saturday. We took the kids on a hike, made a nice dinner, and had a movie night. Near the thrilling conclusion of Giant Robber Crabs (now a family classic), my water broke. I started freaking out, because last time this is where I went immediately into I’m having a baby mode. My mom’s Grama senses must have been tingling, because she was already halfway to our house when we called.

We call Pantsy our easy one; that started with pregnancy, and continued in labor. After twelve hours of active labor with Bub, and a whirlwind, barely-made-it-to-the-hospital labor with Jaybird, I had no idea what to expect. She turned out to be our Goldilocks baby – not too fast, not too slow, but just right. She kindly waited until we got to the hospital before labor started in earnest. Things progressed steadily, without stalling or going terrifyingly fast. I ended up making a last-minute decision to have a water birth (a great choice). After about two and a half hours, Pantsy was born. For several minutes I just held her, no idea if I had a boy or girl in my arms, just so happy to have my baby (and to be not in labor anymore).

Photo Credit: Kara Jo Prestrud

This girl’s default is to smile. She loves to meet new people, keep up with her brothers, and explore the world. She loves to grab my hair with a death grip and laugh at my distress with the cutest baby giggle. After two boys with stick-straight hair like Dad, I was delighted to see her hair grow into perfect ringlets. Pantsy takes her time with everything she learns, but once she is ready, she is determined – it is impossible to hold her when she wants to practice her new skills.

Every time I meet a baby, I am struck by how unique they are – how much personality radiates even from a sleeping newborn, and how many new things there are to learn from them. Pantsy girl’s personality has charmed us from the start. She has a cheery disposition and can-do attitude; she delights in learning, trying, and making friends. And there is still so much to learn about this little lady. I can’t wait. Happy birthday, Pantsy Lou Who.

Happy Birthday, Jaybird

In this new year, I have been reminded in many ways that I cannot take my three healthy, wonderful children for granted. Some of these reminders have been joyful, like Bub seeing a display of heart-shaped balloons at the grocery store and declaring we HAD to get one, “For Jaybird!” (Update: Jay somehow popped his balloon before two minutes had passed.) Some of these reminders, however, have been painful, but all have shown me what a great gift is each day. So today, Jaybird’s second birthday, I am thankful to God for every one of his 731 days, and every one we may be blessed with in the future.

Two years ago, around three in the morning, I went from, “I’ll probably have a baby some time in the next 24 hours,” to, “I’m having a baby right freaking now!” It had been a very snowy few weeks, but I lucked out and went into labor in one of the few hours it wasn’t snowing. Otherwise, we would certainly have welcomed our baby on the highway. Twenty whirlwind minutes after arriving at the hospital, my Jaybird was born.

Photo Credit: Kara Jo Prestrud

Since then, he’s lived up to his dramatic arrival – when he decides he wants something, whether it’s a toy, a new skill, or just to be born, he wants it now and goes for it. Jay lives in the moment like no one I’ve ever met. He is always 100% where his is, what he is doing, how he is feeling. As someone decidedly lacking that quality, I learn from him every day. I’ve never really been able to imagine Jay aging, because he perfectly embodies whatever age and stage he is in. When he was a baby, he was SO BABY. Now, he is SO TODDLER. He is a strange and wonderful combination of id and quiet wisdom.

When Jay is upset, you can be sure we hear about it (along with everyone in the county) and no attempt at distraction can calm him. This Sunday I was sick, and watched church at home; I could hear Jay in the background crying on and off throughout the service. Upon taking his seat at church, he decided he wanted different shoes, and refused to be consoled…for over an hour! He will not be diverted from feeling his feelings to the full. And when he’s done that, he throws himself into the enjoyment of whatever is next.

He tries new things with aplomb and, undeterred by failure, keeps trying until he succeeds. Jay fearlessly says words he’s nowhere close to saying correctly; he watches his older brother, sure he can do all the same things (usually he’s right, and we nervous adults are wrong); and he tries to solve problems himself before asking for help. Basically, he assumes himself capable, and doesn’t get discouraged by imperfection. At the same time, he is perfectly content to do things at his own pace, and won’t be pressured to do what he’s not ready for (or not do what he is ready for.) This is how I ended up with a baby who crawled before he could sit upright, and climbed around playgrounds before he could walk.

Two years old!

In a season of life where I’ve often had to sit with some uncomfortable feelings, Jay teaches me to let myself feel it rather than trying to distract it away. He teaches me not to compare myself to others, to accept what I’m not ready for and to assume myself capable of what I am ready for. He teaches me to live in the moment.

Which brings me back to the beginning, because living in the moment is the best way to combat a tendency to take things for granted. I try not to take my family for granted, but often that has turned me to fear and anxiety about the future. But anxiety grasps what it fears to lose, it doesn’t cherish what it is grateful to have. So I’m trying to be like Jay, to live in the moment with gratitude for all I have.

Happy birthday, Jaybird. By the grace of God, may I cherish every moment I am blessed to be with you, and continue to learn from your wise little soul.

Great and Powerful Oz, Make Me a Good Mother

I’ve been listening to L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz with Bub. (This free Librivox recording is excellent.) It is much less scary and more four-year-old appropriate than the movie, I promise. The characters are so convinced of their failings that they cannot see they already have what they seek. The Scarecrow, so sure he has no brain, cannot see how his cleverness, logic, and ideas get him and his friends out of scrapes. The Tin Man, though he is in love with a munchkin girl and shows compassion to all he meets, believes he has no heart. The Lion, scared of every noise and shadow, fails to see how he faces these fears to help his friends without so much as a thought for his safety. They constantly demonstrate the very things they believe themselves lacking.

It struck me as I listened that we all do this; we often believe ourselves sorely lacking the characteristics and abilities we value most. I struggle with this particularly when it comes to motherhood, and I rarely meet a mother who isn’t similarly self-critical, at least some of the time. A mom will declare herself a “terrible mother” for all sorts of reasons, from losing her temper to taking time for a shower. But she cares about being a good mother, as the Scarecrow cares about brains. She would go to the Emerald City at all costs if it meant she could really be a good mother. I often fixate on this idea of a good mother, and the thing is, it just becomes whatever I am not. Sometimes I can think of nothing but my mistakes and shortcomings as a mom – even when I do something right, I lament that it isn’t enough. When we believe we do not possess the characteristic of being a good mother, we are blind to all but our failings.

“You people with hearts,” the Tin Man says, “have something to guide you, and need never do wrong; but I have no heart, and so I must be very careful.” With this reasoning, he walks through the woods with careful attention so as to avoid crushing any living creature; when he does step on an ant, he cries until his tears rust his jaw so that he cannot even ask for help.

How often does mom guilt take us there? How often do we think, “You people who are good mothers have something to guide you! But I am a terrible mother, and so I must be very careful!” In the mom life, we will fail; we will step on ants. It is impossible to be a parent without making mistakes. But, like the Tin Man, we try our hardest and recognize when we fail. So, I’m trying to take a lesson from the Tin Man – beating myself up will only paralyze me. A friend of mine often says, “Bad moments don’t make bad mothers.” A good mother isn’t a perfect mother, but one who cares enough to try.

We all know the ending of this story. Dorothy discovers she always had the power to get home. The ruby slippers (or silver in the book) she has worn the whole time transport her back to Kansas. Do you worry that you are not a good mother? Stop worrying. You are wearing the ruby slippers already.

Find more joy in reading to your kids

Before becoming a parent, I already knew I wanted books to be a big part of my children’s lives. I wanted them to grow up surrounded by great books, reading with us, and reading on their own. Knowing I’m a huge book lover, both sides of the family independently came up with the same baby shower idea – instead of a card, bring your favorite children’s book – and sent almost identical invitations that looked like cute, old-fashioned library checkout cards. I can’t think of a single book I received at these showers that I did not love.

I also was the happy recipient of whole collections of baby and toddler books from friends whose children had outgrown them. This also got me so many wonderful books. But it yielded some of the most awful books I’ve ever seen in my life. We’re talking poorly written books with computer graphic illustrations that made me want to gouge my eyes out when I saw my son toddling over with them; books I shoved under the couch when Bub wasn’t looking; books I threw across the room when I was done reading them just so he would have to spend at least a few seconds retrieving it before I was subjected to the torture of reading it again. (Yes, I seriously did that.)

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Jaybird reads about animals in a favorite hand-me-down book we received at a baby shower.

These terrible books made up at least half of the collections I’d received from friends. I felt sure the friends who gave these books did not like them either. These are the same friends who gave me wonderful books at my baby showers. They have great taste. So, why did they keep these awful books throughout their child’s early years? Why was I keeping them? I think my friends and I wanted our children to have access to lots of books, and believed that children’s books are just like that. I mean, won’t we hate anything we’ve had to read 27 times in one day?

But amid these little horrors I was reluctantly reading, there were also books I really enjoyed. Timeless, memorable, charming. Books I could read 27 times in one day without hating them. These weren’t just the classics–these were old and new books, well-known and obscure, longer and shorter…I even found some baby vocabulary books that were fun to read. I was slowly learning what C.S. Lewis already knew, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” One day, I looked through all our children’s books and did something I never expected myself to do: I got rid of most of them.

Looking at a donate stack as tall as the keep stack can make a book-loving parent nervous – isn’t it better to have more books for my kids? Not if those books are a huge drag for parents. Kids are very perceptive. They know if you’re not enjoying yourself, even if you’re trying your darnedest to cover it up. You child’s attitude toward reading will mimic yours–loving reading yourself is so valuable to your child’s reading life. If you hate reading a book, let it go. Even if your kid likes it (I mean, I wouldn’t take a book they carry around like Linus’ blanket or anything, but you get the idea). It’s okay. It will not hurt your child to have fewer books. I believe it will help them love reading when you are finding more joy in reading to them.

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Reading a family favorite, The Giving Tree, with Bub and a coffee machine.

I donated more than half our children’s books, and our collection is much better for it. Some of our books are timeless classics and Caldecott winners, but some are forgettable books that we just enjoy reading. Some I will give to my grandchildren someday. Some will leave us when my kids get older. I’m sure some I just haven’t seen enough of yet to hate. The important thing is, my kids love reading these books over and over, I love reading these books to them, and I have stopped shoving books under the couch in despair.

I was going to round out this post with some guidance on weeding your children’s books, but I realized it’s really a personal thing. There’s no magic formula for a collection your family will love. My advice is simply this: if you don’t like it, let it go. Your child’s reading life will be better if you find more joy in reading together.

PS – Starting next week, I will be sharing short, weekly posts featuring my family’s favorite children’s books. I would love to hear all about your family favorites as well!