Saturday, February 19, 2011

Finding Time to Read

A few weeks ago now, Hope left me this comment, ending with a question for me:
As a mom to two young kids (4 and 2), I've only just begun getting back into regular reading in the last 6 months or so. Though, it is a big challenge, I find that it helps to keep me from losing myself in being a mother and wife. I was always an avid reader as a child and thoughout my adolescence. My question to you is how do you make time for it with your busy schedule? And how did you make time for it as your kids were growing, particularly when they were young and in those demanding years?
The time lapse between her question and my answering post demonstrates those demands that impinge on all our schedules these busy days, but it's a worthwhile question and one I'll try my best to answer.

First, I'd like to acknowledge Hope's emphasis on the importance of preserving some sense of self during those years when we risk losing that to motherhood and being a wife, partner, employee, or whatever other identities we may be juggling. Because reading is such a solitary and inward journey, we might fear that it is selfish -- and it is, but in the best possible way. Nurturing a self, in considered acts of self-ishness, means there will be a self to offer others. My mother, who had twelve of us to care for and raise, insisted on a nap every afternoon -- I doubt she ever fell asleep during this naptime, but I know she worked her way through a prodigious number of library books, always stacked beside her bed. We learned to respect that small pocket of time she reserved for herself and learned that books were worthy entertainment for kids as well.

I followed my mom's example when I had my own. I had grown up dependent on books for entertainment and escape and solace and just generally learning about a big, exciting world, and I confidently assumed my daughters and son would be just as keen on reading. This proved to be the case, and we rarely went anywhere without a few books stashed in my bag for instant entertainment. Library storytimes were a weekly event, and I doubt a day went by that we didn't read four or five picture books together. Meanwhile, my own reading happened at naptimes and after the little ones went to bed at night -- I was very, very fortunate that our family sleep schedule was pretty consistent with pre-schoolers always in bed by 9 at the very, very latest, and all my kids afternoon-napped 'til kindergarten. Sorry, it's the truth. I'm not sure how I managed it, but it wasn't a gift horse whose teeth I checked, believe me! And I did my best not to clean while they napped -- this was me time, although, as argued above, I believe that ultimately translated into a benefit for the family. So that was a huge pocket of reading time, right there -- naptimes and those glorious hours between the kids' bedtime and my own.

Of course, I wasn't working outside the home -- I had a private music studio, but the hours were generally after school, so I didn't have to sacrifice precious kiddy naptime to anything as sordid as earning money. And that put me at a huge advantage over those moms who rush to get little ones ready for daycare drop-off in the morning, then work at their desks all day, before rushing to pick up little ones, feed them, play with them, bathe them, and finally fall asleep with them before getting up to start the whole thing again. My daughter does that routine right now with our two-year old granddaughter. Even so, Bronwen manages to keep ploughing through her share of books -- some she reads on the bus commute to work and back each day. I know she does what I used to do and she reads in the evening before falling asleep. And I haven't asked her, but perhaps she sometimes reads while eating her lunch at work -- I used to do that, even before kids, balancing the need for some social time with co-workers against the need for some time on my own.

Carrying a book everywhere is a simple way to salvage all those precious minutes lost to waiting -- something that's not too heavy, that's absorbing enough to shut out other cranky commuters. I'll often tote a mystery for that reason, saving reading that demands a more focused concentration for those times when I get a more protected quiet.

The other way to steal some minutes for reading is to think very carefully about just how clean and orderly your home needs to be. This is an intensely personal as well as family-specific decision, representing a melding of your own and your partner's family/home cultures. But in my experience, housework can be never-ending if you let it. Someone is always spilling something on a floor you've only just washed, or knocking over a pile of laundry you've carefully folded. For me, it worked to set some basic standards for hygiene and organization, figure out which weekly or bi-weekly hours could or should be devoted to achieving those, and then tolerate the slippage from those standards in the in-between times. If I knew that the toilets had all been scrubbed, for example, on Thursday morning, and would be again, next Thursday, I could ignore them on Wednesday in favour of my book, if I happened to find seven minutes because someone got picked up early for skating lessons and I was on my own.

But besides accounting for the difference between my working at home and a mom doing the daycare-work-home commute, I'd have to answer Hope that a huge difference between her experience and mine would be the competing technologies for her leisure time. Without an iPod, heck, without even a computer until my youngest was seven or eight (and even then, only with dial-up access and a text-only Internet environment), books had only to stand up against television's paltry offerings -- not much of a contest really. We didn't even own a VCR (old-school video player) until my youngest was in high school, preferring to rent occasionally rather than have the easy temptation so close at hand.

Now, even as committed to reading as I am, I spend hours daily on-line. And there's no question that much of this time is frittered away. When I talk to people who wish they could find time to read books, I'm generally tempted to ask them how much time they spend "plugged in" -- between e-mail, blog-reading, texting, youtube-watching, or time spent at the iTunes store, I suspect we could find them each at least thirty minutes daily -- time for a chapter or two, right?

I hope to get back to this topic in a future post, 'cause I'm not quite done yet. But I'd love to hear what solutions you've found for carving out time to read. . . . Did you read when your kids were growing up? Do you still? Any advice for Hope? Chime in, I'm listening . . .


  1. This is a tough one. Of course, if you work outside the home, you can bring a book with you and either read during your commute (if that works) or during a break. I enjoyed reading magazines when my child was young. They went well with a glass of wine and a piece of cheese as I ignored things banging around in another room.

    I hate to say it, but I think eventually - if you want to be your "own person" you're going to have to find a way to give the kids to someone else for an afternoon or weekend. At least until they're old enough that they can occupy themselves.

    The challenge improves, but doesn't abate for many years - I'm estimating 18 :-) I have an 11 year old and I have been known to prioritize my own activities over spending time with her. (Egad, did I just admit this out loud?) I'm a working mother, though, and in order to have time to do my own things (of which I have many), I have to make a call.

    In a perfect world there would be time for everything. But I know, one day my child is going to go off and have her own independent life, whether I spend every minute with her or no. I only hope I've taught her that her interests are worthy.

  2. I never stopped reading when both of mine were tiny (although neither of them ever napped consistently and had both given it up by 18 months!). My reading time has always been before I go to sleep at night. As spouse (although a reader) likes to watch TV at night, once the kids have gone to bed (often by 8.30pm), I go down to our bedroom and read until about 10.30pm. Occasionally I will watch telly or a DVD with him, but generally I'd rather read. The only time I read during the day is when I'm sick in bed (obviously not too sick to read!) ...

  3. K: Thanks so much for your contribution to the conversation -- I think it's so important that young/new moms hear that it's okay to have time and activities of their own. I realize that I omitted an important element of sanity from my child-rearing days. As soon as we could (barely) afford it, I booked myself a day or an afternoon a week of baby-sitting. It wasn't always easy to find the right caregiver, but where there's a will . . . And when I couldn't, I swapped playdates with other moms just to earn those three or four hours to myself, daytime hours when I wasn't too exhausted to enjoy my freedom.
    My grown kids seem to feel they were always well (enough) cared for, and they seem to appreciate that I have a life of my own. . .
    Tiffany: I think yours is perhaps the answer I should have given, as being the most straightforward -- reading every night before sleeping is such an engrained habit. . . .

  4. Mater, thank you so much for such a thoughtful response! I think a lot of what we're talking about is not feeling guilty about taking the time for ourselves. As K.Line has pointed out, in order to set an example for our children of what a well-rounded and independent adult looks like.

    After the birth of my second child, my doctor (female) even encouraged me to get out and work if I felt I wanted to, or find outside interested away from my kids. She said she had seen too many women who end up lost by the time their children are grown and don't need them as much.

    Like Tiffany, I have started getting back into the habit of reading at night— when I'm not too exhausted! Though I was able to stay home with my kids for more than a year after each birth, I am now a full-time working mom.

    In all honesty, I have to say that as hectic and exhausting as it can be, I think a part of the journey of finding myself again has been going back to work and interacting with the greater world again. I found that my self-esteem plummeted when I was a stay-at-home mom as there were many days when I could be in my yoga pants and ratty t-shirt all day and starved for news of the "outside" world by the time my husband came home at night.

    In addition to getting back into reading, I have rediscovered my love for the arts and starting going out to the theatre and ballet again. I didn't realize how starved I was for arts/culture until I brought it back into my life. I know that as my kids grow and become more independent, it will become easier to do my own things but ultimately I think I'm going through what every woman who has a family knows all too well: after the kids come we must all in a way redefine who we are and who we will become and balance that with the need to do a good job of raising our children to become healthy, functioning members of society.

    I also have a short commute to work each day and it allows me to get a little reading into my schedule. I think I just have to realize that it will sometimes take me weeks to get through a book but at least some reading each day is better than none.

    My last point: I do find that magazines alone just don't cut it for me. I'm realizing that I need a good book to escape pop culture and the media in order to feel as though my soul has been nurtured. Lately I've been enjoying non-fiction (which is unusual for me).

    So sorry about the long, rambing post! —Hope

  5. Hope, I'm so pleased to have been able to offer a forum for you to think out loud -- and get some feedback -- about how to find time for yourself, reading included, in the busy life of a mom who works outside the home. Sounds as if you're well launched -- I won't say it will only get easier from here, but the most physically demanding years are almost behind you, at least.
    I've always loved reading magazines -- at least two or three every month, a small fortune over the years -- but, like you, I find it a different kind of reading. Sometimes it's all I can manage, but generally I need a book as well for a different kind of sustenance.

    Feel free to chime in from time to time about what you're reading, even if it doesn't match up with anything on my list . . . talking about reading is always fun!

  6. Thank for the encouragement, Mater! You are definitely a good role model for how to balance it all!—Hope

  7. I laughed when I saw Runaway on your book list, because my first thought in response to Hope was: Try a collection of short stories--by Alice Munro! Reading short stories helps one avoid the sense of failure that comes with being too tired or distracted to get through an entire novel or work of non-fiction (those bookmarks sticking their tongues out from Chapter 1...) and Munro's stories are all jewels.

    I would also remind Hope that it is not a bad idea to read in your children's presence. They are at the ages when seeing you deeply absorbed in something (other than them) will be intriguing. Hand them their own age-appropriate books, and encourage them to "read" along with you. They will try to distract you, of course, but if you stick to, "Sorry, I'm reading," you will make an impression, and raise a couple of children who are eager to find out what's so wonderful about books!


  8. Thanks for your perspective, C. That's a great idea! My husband and I have been reading to our kids since they were babies and continue to do so but I've always saved my own reading for when they are not around to distract me. Though they do see us read the papers every day. My four-year-old sometimes remarks on some of the pictures and my two-year-old son always points to the "caw" when he sees the car ads.—Hope

  9. C., these are good points -- although I find, personally, that "getting into" a new short story sometimes takes more of a certain kind of reading energy than does just moving into the next chapter of a book whose terrain I've already begun constructing mentally.

    I'm so pleased that you generous readers, with the toughest kid-vs.-reading years behind you, have stepped up to give Hope some, well, hope, and encouragement that reading and kids can be compatible, that she will someday again have a satisfactory adult reading life.

    And Hope, it's lovely to see that you've been checking in to this discussion that you started. I'm so happy to have carved out this tiny cyber-space for thinking and talking about books, together.