My daughter was born on August 25, 2014, and during the interminable lead-up to her birth I was, like all new parents, subject to a deluge of unsolicited advice, warnings and thinly-veiled threats from family, friends and complete strangers about what I could expect as a new parent. One of the warnings I heard most often was that the time I had for reading was going to be severely curtailed.
Maybe my friends didn’t appreciate how dedicated I was to my routine, because I soon discovered that it was actually pretty easy to carve out the three hours I needed in order to stay on top of the steady stream of books that I had begun purchasing early on in my wife’s pregnancy as a way of offsetting my anxiety over not reading enough.
For starters, I used to bike to work. But once I realized that I could eke out at least forty minutes of reading on my daily commute, I started taking the metro to work, thereby forgoing the last form of physical activity I practiced with any sort of regularity.
Another threat to my reading habit was the immense amount of time required to help my daughter sleep. Newborns spend a lot of time sleeping, but they are notoriously bad at it and require assistance (referred to as ‘soothing’). This basically amounts to walking the streets of your neighbourhood with your baby stuffed into one of those obnoxiously priced “carriers.” Once I was over the new-dad jitters and was no longer trying to impress passersby with the baby I had strapped to my chest, I got into the habit of doing laps around the pond at Parc Outremont while reading from a book that I held in front of me. I made my way through Michael Hamburger’s translations of Paul Celan this way, and while I typically have little memory for poetry, many lines from this work are now frozen in place, triggered every time I pass a fountain or leafless tree. And one of the most memorable reading experiences of the last few years is the time I spent on a cold bench at Parc Saint-Viateur with my daughter sleeping in the carrier as I read the final pages of Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams while kids dressed up as penises made their way to Halloween parties.
” …the time I spent on a cold bench at Parc Saint-Viateur with my daughter sleeping in the carrier as I read the final pages of Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams while kids dressed up as penises made their way to Halloween parties.”
My aforementioned friends, the ones who warned that I would have to sacrifice my love of reading to my role as a new dad, were also an enormous tax on the time I had for reading. By refusing dinner invitations, birthday party invites, brunch for babies, etc., typically blaming my absence on my daughter, I was not only able to keep up my reading schedule, but, after I had refused enough of these kind invitations, they no longer came in with any regularity, which also spared me the enormous time-suck of responding in a considerate manner something to the effect that “I would love to! But…”
While it turns out that my friends were wrong about finding the time to read, there is one aspect of parenthood they were right about, but that I’d never taken very seriously: I may still manage to find a comparable quantity of time, but the quality of that time has been seriously degraded. I can sit for hours with Knut Hamsun’s Pan in front of my face, but I regularly find myself rereading the same line over and over again. Or an hour passes and I don’t even make it to the bottom of the page I started on. I’ve managed to read an impressive number of excellent and difficult works, but I’ve hardly retained anything. Within a week or so of finishing a book, I even struggle to remember what I had just read (except for the Celan). So while I have plenty of time to read, I can’t maintain the level of focus and attention I had in my pre-paternal reading sessions.
Which brings me to the final obstacle to my reading habit – writing. Before my daughter was born I used to try to write at least a few lines every night, but even this small commitment now seems to take an inordinate amount of time away from doing the thing that I really enjoy (it would be quite a stretch to say that I enjoy writing). On account of the soul-wearying exhaustion I feel at the end of every day, I find it pretty easy to excuse myself from writing for the night and to settle into a good book. And by “settle into a good book” I mean “read the same line over and over again until I eventually pass out on the couch.” My friends say that it’s perfectly natural to neglect my writing for the next year or so, and that eventually I will find the time and energy to start up again. I hope they’re right. Goodnight moon.
Mike Steeves lives with his wife and child in Montreal, and works at Concordia University. Giving Up is his first full-length book of fiction. Connect with Steeves on Twitter @SteevesMike.
Photos: Via Flickr; no changes made (top); Mike Steeves (Halloween); Nikki Tummon (headshot)