I witnessed the moment my daughter connected with a book for the very first time. The memory is seared into my brain with full-color clarity; it smells like a fresh box of Pampers and it feels like sleep deprivation and happiness.
Cece was somewhere between four and six months old. The milestones were flickering by in a blur of wonder and excitement; she was smiling! She was laughing! She was rolling over! Then, out of nowhere, she was sitting up. For some reason, it was this miracle of baby stability that made it all click for me. Somewhere through the fog of neverending nursing sessions and diaper changes, I had forgotten that my baby was an actual person. A small person, sure, but one who was now looking around at the world and actually seeing it.
Life felt bigger after this revelation, full of possibility. I opened the curtains of our cramped, dark apartment. I changed out of my spit-up stained tank top. Instead of cursing at the sun and the racket of the birds outside (don’t they know a babies sleep is SACRED?), I smiled, because it was official. The newborn stage was over.
Like most celebratory occasions, this called for an immediate trip to Target.
I bought one of those squishy plastic bumbo chairs with a tray attachment and plonked her right down into it. It was the most amazing thing- I had a child who could sit. In an actual chair! Like all of the little milestones that pass in the first few years of life, the moment was both exhilarating and tragic. Just as I was beginning to tear up over the fact that she would be graduating from High School like, tomorrow, gravity won out. Her little body slowly keeled over and began to slide out of the chair. Her wide blue eyes met mine with that look- the one that says I need you. She might have been big enough to sit in a Bumbo seat (kind of) but she was still my baby.
A couple of weeks later, I decided to attempt some housework. Bold of me, I know. I sat Cece in the purple Bumbo chair and placed a selection of items on the tray in front of her. A rattle, an overpriced squeaky toy shaped like a giraffe, and an intriguing little board book called “Peek-a-Who?” Instead of folding the laundry, I watched her observing these items carefully.
As all parents know, watching carefully is a constant thing. Whether it’s because you’re making sure they aren’t about to catapult themselves down a flight of stairs, or because the very sight of them has your heart swelling up and you can’t look away. This time, I was watching carefully to see which one she would choose- the toy, or the book?
I am a book lover. If you are also a book lover (since you are here I am assuming that you are), and if you are also a parent, then you probably understand the almost primal need to obtain books for your children. It may not be entirely logical, but it is definitely unignorable. In my head it goes- Does she have food? Does she have shelter? Does she have enough books? (There are never enough books.)
By the time she was born Cece already had a fairly substantial collection to choose from. I’d been itching to break them open. I chose “Peek-a-Who?” as the first to try because it seemed a good size for clumsy baby hands, nice and square and sturdy. The book is vividly illustrated and has a short, punchy rhyming cadence, perfect for exaggerated voices and hand gestures. The last page has a mirror and the words “peek-a-YOU!” written on it. I flipped the book open to this page and set it on her tray, wondering if the mirror would catch her eye. Wondering if she would feel that same bone-deep rightness that I get when I hold a book in my hands.
Reading some deeper meaning into a baby choosing a book instead of a toy is obviously a stupid thing to do. She’s not going to prop it up against her bottle and read it- she’s going to chew on it a little and then throw it on the ground. Still, I was always searching for those tiny glimpses into her personality, any faint hint of an outline of her future self. It wasn’t that I wanted her to be or act a certain way when she grew up- it was that she was going to grow up, and she was going to love things that weren’t food or pooping, fear things that weren’t just loud noises, be hurt by things that weren’t fevers or tummy aches. And it was all totally out of my control.
Her whole life was a story waiting to happen and there I was, right at the very start of it, wondering desperately how it was all going to turn out. What part would I play in the person she becomes? How would she remember me when I was gone? To be fair, I’m that person in the bookshop peeking at the last paragraph of a novel I’ve never read. I’m that person who read the leaked copy of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows online the night before release. I love spoilers. The not-knowing is agony, and there’s so much of it in parenting. One long, anxious string of “what if?”
In her little purple chair, Cece smacked the tray a couple of times with the palm of her hand. It caused the book to shift and when the light bounced off of it she caught sight of the mirror. She paused to consider this intriguing development, rubbing her fingers over the squeaking cardboard. At the time, this felt like a victory. She chose the book! This was the thing we would share, I decided. Throughout it all, no matter what, we would always have that thread to bind us together.
I was right, but it wasn’t because she chose the book.
It was because I picked the book up off the tray and read it to her. Again and again and again. Cece stared as I chanted, “peek-a-CHOO-CHOO!” and wiggled the page of the book so it looked like train waved through the air. She giggled at “peek-a-YOU!” and the sudden flash of her own face in the mirror. I read to her every day, without fail, anything and everything we could get our hands on. I kept reading to her until one day she started reading alongside me, and then we started taking turns.
Spoiler alert: Cece is six years old now, and she loves books.
I could write thousands of words about the tangible benefits I have observed from the simple act of reading to my child (and I probably will at some point). But what I wanted to convey with this little nugget of memory is that it has also been beneficial for me. Days have passed where I struggled to enjoy even one single part of being a mother- and then I remember that bedtime is coming, and we have a new chapter of Matilda to read, and it all feels a little easier. Cece will continue to grow and change but this connection we have forged together will always be there to anchor us.
Fifty years from now when she picks up a book and holds it in her hand, she will feel that bone-deep rightness and think of me.