Ever since I was quite small, I’ve been in the habit of skipping ahead in my reading, trying to glimpse what lay in my future. When I was a Brownie, I snuck peeks at the Girl Scout Handbook, agog at the dozens of badges that would one day be sewn onto my sash (and, indeed, I ended up with an overfull sash, thick with those colorful fabric discs). When I was admitted to my first-choice college, I pored over the orange catalog, gazing endlessly at the photos of bearded students lounging on the grassy quad. I traced the paths of the campus map with my finger, imagining myself living there without my family.
Before I searched for my birth family, I scoured the shelves of the college library, coming away with an armload of books that would become my psychological maps for that journey. One was Betty Jean Lifton’s classic, Lost and Found, which for the first time gave words to my experience; another, a slim collection of British adoption case studies, followed a dozen adoptees who searched for their origins after British birth records were opened. I absorbed their tales into my psyche, trying to imagine what it would be like to find my birth mother in a psychiatric ward, or a cemetery, what I would do if she slammed the door on me and said, “I don’t know you.” Although many of the stories were painful, they girded me, gave me courage to face anything, and to know that no matter how difficult it might be, I wanted the truth more than I wanted to stay in the dark.
I devoured traveling stories before I embarked on my postgraduate cross-country trip, striking out to find myself a new home in one of the continental forty-eight states. My favorites were Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and a big, hippie handbook called Vagabonding, about groovy life on the road: how to hitchhike and find cheap food and offbeat, wonderful towns and people.
I ended up in California, three thousand miles from where I’d grown up. I eventually met a man for whom I was willing to give up my beloved studio-built-for-one apartment, with its red door and minuscule deck and the plum tree that dropped fruit into my breakfast bowl. I moved into his hillside cabin, but not before reading Nolo Press’s legal and practical guide, Living Together. Then I read a stack of books on marriage and long-term relationships, and we got married.
When children were still a mirage on the horizon, I felt drawn to books and magazines about parenting – I scanned the glossy headlines at the grocery store: Get Your Baby to Sleep Through the Night. Packing a Lunchbox They’ll Love. I couldn’t imagine stepping into those waters. Those publications felt almost forbidden, off-limits to those who didn’t have, at the very least, a positive pregnancy test.
We were traveling when I took that first test, at a women’s clinic in an unfamiliar city (home pregnancy kits were almost unheard of then). I called them from a mall pay phone to get the results several hours later. When they said, “Congratulations! It was positive,” I rushed into the nearest bookstore and emerged with What to Expect When You’re Expecting and a half dozen others. I soaked up a whole new vocabulary, thrilled and awed by words like colostrum, amniocentesis, episiotomy.
When my daughter was barely three months old, I happened upon a book called Don’t Stop Loving Me: A Reassuring Guide for Mothers of Adolescent Daughters. It was about navigating the rocky terrain of adolescence, and how to avoid the seemingly inevitable distances and battles of those years. A chasm had opened up between my own mother and me when I was a teenager, and it took decades to even begin to close it up. The idea of having a teen daughter of my own frankly terrified me. I read it while stroking the thick dark plush of her small head, whispering, this will never happen to us.
But of course, it did. We have had to live through the experience day by day, just like everybody else, and no amount of reading could have made us immune to it. The rub is, of course, that you can read all you want, but nothing fully prepares you. You don’t know what it’s really like to parent, until that baby is there 24/7, and you’re bleary with sleep deprivation and heart-exploding love. You don’t know what it’s like to have a parent die or to have the roles suddenly reversed so that you are taking care of the other parent as surely as he or she took care of you. I can read and read and read, and still, it is nothing more than a hint of what it is to come.
Now I find myself dipping my toes into the literature of the next stage ahead. I’ve just finished an anthology called The Empty Nest: 31 Parents Tell the Truth About Relationships, Love and Freedom After the Kids Fly the Coop. Love? Freedom? Those were not the words I would have thought of. The stories written by parents of adult children have made me laugh and weep and bite at my fist. I want it to happen, I don’t want it to happen. No matter what, there’s little choice in the matter.
I’ve always believed that reading like this helps me brace myself, to see what’s around the corner, to prepare. Despite my literature-based lust for a foretaste, I’ve learned there’s never really any true preparation other than living the experience. The current book on my bedside table is called Happiness Is An Inside Job, by Buddhist Sylvia Boorstein. It’s not about what’s coming up in the future. It’s about being kind, accepting change, and living in the present moment. Perhaps this is the book I’ve been looking for all along.