My daughter struggles with her selection for the first grade’s book swap. If she drops an old beloved story in the classroom box, she can trade it for a book a classmate once loved. The trouble is, she can’t let go. She wants to keep the stories that soaked through her brain in infancy and sparked her imagination in toddlerhood. I can’t say I don’t understand. Parting with a favorite book—especially if all the books are favorites—is like forgoing a part of ourselves. Are we ever done with a book, even if we never intend to read it again?
Together, my daughter and I scour the bookshelves. First in her bedroom, then the playroom, and finally drifting into her younger brother’s room, where a collection of truck and car and superhero books reside, and no, she won’t forsake those either. These are the tales from her early life that soothed her to sleep and entertained her through monotony when my voice was just a familiar jumble of sounds creating a lilting pattern of inflection and nuance.
“You’ll get a new book,” I keep reminding her, but this does little to ease the process of choosing. She finally picks up a skinny Golden Book—Winnie the Pooh—and clutches the cardboard ends with the famous shiny gold binding to her chest and releases a sigh. The way she holds the book reminds me of a time, not so long ago, when I held her to my chest, in vain, mostly, as I pined for a former state, pregnancy, when she was always with me, but my body was the one caring for her.
The early weeks of parenthood were strange and exhausting. I didn’t know what it meant to be a mother. I perused parenting books, I attended breastfeeding support groups, I dropped questions on our pediatrician like anxiety-filled grenades, and I asked everyone with a modicum of mothering experience for advice on sleep schedules and bottle brands. I still felt lost, a lonely traveler on a surreal, unending journey.
My daughter was blond and pale with large, wet blue eyes. She slept curled on my chest at night like a kitten, which I found terrifying, because the books and websites insisted that babies sleep separately from their parents, on their backs, to avoid the horror of SIDS and accidental suffocation. Each night I lay awake, my eyes as wide as the moon, afraid to drift off in chimerical slumber, even for a minute.
One afternoon, when my daughter was two months old and tucked into a stroller, I searched for an elevator at the local mall. Once I located it, I sweated with fatigue, fear, and an underlying notion of being unproductive—shouldn’t she be napping or playing or eating on a schedule instead of cruising through the mall?
A woman slipped into the elevator before its heavy doors rolled shut. She was older, grandmotherly, and stared down at my daughter as if she were her personal fairy godmother. “How old?” she asked. I told her, not wishing for a conversation, since my eyes were heavy from sleep deprivation, and my emotions were on overdrive over something I can now hardly remember. The elevator dinged and the woman shook her head in pensive thought. I prepared for the spiel about enjoying babyhood while it lasts, but instead she shrugged, smiled, and said, “All they need at this age is love.” And then she was gone, and I wondered if in fact she was my fairy godmother.
Later, when I arrived home, instead of reaching for Baby 411, I retrieved my early childhood “baby book” entitled The Baby’s Bedtime Book by Kay Chorao, a purple-colored storybook of nursery rhymes that my parents read to me during the earliest years of my life. I ran my fingers along the torn, scotch-taped pages, the musty smell tickling my nose hairs. I lay my daughter on a blanket on the floor of her bedroom and began to read a favorite by Alfred, Lord Tennyson:
Minnie and Winnie
Slept in a shell.
Sleep, little ladies!And they slept well.
Tennyson was one of the Victorian era English poets that caught my attention as an undergrad, in the poem “Tears, Idle Tears,” of which the first stanza reads:
Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.
I remembered a professor, plainspoken and owllike, discussing Tennyson’s metaphorizing of autumn as his former life and all that was lost along the way. But the line that described the autumn fields as “happy,” at least to me, suggested a hopeful future. Which was suddenly, in the moment, a relatable concept to me as a new mother. Tennyson’s words, though abstract in a dreamlike sense, at least toyed with the notion of the concrete. I was surprised to see that Tennyson wrote nursery rhymes. “Minnie and Winnie” had been a childhood favorite, yet as a college student when I’d read and raptured in “Tears, Idle Tears,” I never made the connection that the poet was one and the same.
I read many more poems aloud to my daughter and showed her the pastel illustrations of mothers peering into cribs and smiling softly, fathers in rocking chairs, holding their infants next to windows with sunlight pouring in or moonlight directing the flow of the night, and babies sleeping in cribs and dreaming of wild horses prancing above their heads.
Two bright stars
Peeped into the shell
“What are they dreaming of?
Who can tell?”
Tennyson’s poem was like a time machine to my early childhood home, I saw the room at the top of the stairs, its ivory-colored walls, the small television with bunny-ear antennas, and the maroon Barcalounger, where I squeezed between my parents with the book, and their love was all that was needed, before my siblings were born and life crept in. A slow epiphany unraveled in my daughter’s nursery that afternoon: Is this all my daughter needs? Love and peace and the rhythmic sounds of literature? This book, among others, I realized, can teach me more about motherhood than the latest nonfiction bestseller by an acclaimed child psychologist. A cloud passed over the sun, and when the light returned, I saw that my daughter had fallen asleep to the hum of Tennyson’s cadence.
I started reading storybooks every day. My daughter kicked around on her back as I read, and I noticed that the illustrations evoked the love between parent and child that the woman on the elevator spoke about. The depictions were soft, emotionally stirring. Fathers bumbled with their babies in fields with long blades of grass, mothers kissed the foreheads of infants wrapped in colorful blankets. Baby deer pressed themselves against their mothers, ducklings trailed behind theirs and nested, sleeping in tandem peace.
Absorbing these images, it became clear: motherhood, at least in its initial stages, is simpler than I’d originally thought. I worried less about my daughter sleeping on my chest. If the animals in the books could do it, it must be natural. Art and literature, after all, depict life, so I let my daughter nap when—and where—she needed. We snuggled and sang, and as the months went on, as my daughter blossomed into an alert and curious baby, and in turn, as my confidence gained speed, we embarked on our own seasonal storybook adventures. We watched leaves float along ponds and streams, and we marveled at bright red winterberry bushes in the stark grayness of winter. We traveled down bike paths and the grassy trails of nature sanctuaries. We listened to woodpeckers hammering birch trees, sparrows trilling and hiding in the canopies, frogs basking on rocks and giant fish blubbing away at the pond’s surface. The days were quaint, and the sunlight drenched into our skin, and all we had to push us forward was the aura of love basking around us.
“I guess this one,” my daughter says, holding up the Winnie the Pooh Golden Book.
My daughter doesn’t understand why giving up her books is so hard, but I do. They inspired her foundation, her love of ideas and her appreciation of beauty and stillness. She walks slowly down the stairs to her backpack and tucks the books inside, figuratively giving away a piece of herself. She’s giving away a piece of me too. Releasing the book means losing the mother I once was, being my daughter’s guardian, in its purest, simplest form.
After I drop her off at school, I find The Baby’s Bedtime Book in my bottom dresser drawer. I study an illustration inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Land of Nod.” A young boy, in the top left corner of the page sleeps in bed and the remainder of the page depicts his whimsical dreams, hiking along fanciful cliffs, encountering gentle creatures—including a cat playing a trumpet—and delicious berries, apples, and ice cream cones, stacked three scoops high. The speaker of the poem discusses the place he goes to at night, in his dreams, and his difficulty at finding this haven once he wakes.
I haven’t looked at the book in nearly five years. By the time my son was born, I was wrapped up in preschool drop-offs and playdates, dance classes and nap arrangements—I never had time to be with him the way I was with my daughter. The storybook voyages to parks and the observation of the quainter parts of nature became a song of the past. It’s harder to find the elusive Land of Nod as both parents and children get older. The loudness of the world takes it away. The lessons in the storybooks teach us that life, in essence, can be innocent. They portray only the untainted parts of life, and shield children from the uglier parts. Perhaps most poignantly, they teach new mothers more than any guidebook ever could.
The storybooks have shown me that I am a seeker of peace and beauty, and at my core I am filled with love and goodness. My early experiences with storybooks have made me this way, and I hope they’ve helped shape my daughter as well. My daughter has grown into an active child, and our days of quiet enchantment have passed, but the books are still there, and except for the occasional elementary school book swap, we never have to give them away.