A Journey Through Motherhood Via My Bookshelves

by Melissa L. Fenton
Originally Published: 

There are a lot of books in my house. They are in stacks here, there and everywhere. Most are arranged by subject heading (I am a librarian—misshelved books, even in my own house, are cringeworthy). Others the kids have arranged to their liking. The sports books, the Magic Tree House series, the stack of Vonnegut titles sitting on stair steps that scream “teenager trying to find himself.” They are on bedsides, toilet tanks, under couches and above closets. In backseats, beach bags, old backpacks and lost elsewhere and massively overdue.

I have no weakness for stylish wedges, large soft leathery handbags or high-end makeup. I do, however, become weak in the knees at bookstores—that smell of paper, ink and newly cracked spines—and, admittedly, on Amazon too. (P.S. I heart you, Jeff Bezos.) I have a decent-sized home library, but not to the point of hoarding. I have weeded entire collections of libraries and can confidently do it to my own books at home. I know when a book has seen its better day (the chewed up corners of the Goodnight Moon board book), and when a title has served its purpose for me and needs to be passed on to another reader (The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding).

But the books inside my house now, if analyzed from the outside, tell a story of the journey of motherhood. They also, perhaps, reflect where I am now in my life. I noticed the other day that my scattered stacks are heavily loaded with fiction. There is nary a parenting book to be found. (OK, I’m lying a little here. I tried The Teenage Brain. There is just no explaining that mysterious cluster, so I gave up.) I suppose I have leapt over the how-to parent shelf and am currently sitting comfortably on the other side, reading about the lives of fictional characters and escaping to a world where, while reading, I don’t have to analyze my own life or the way in which I am mothering.

I will admit, however, that some of the insane characters that have danced in my imagination lately—courtesy of some extremely talented authors—have made me feel much better about myself. (Many thanks again to Carl Hiaasen. Could I possibly be the only normal person in Florida?) And my fiction BFFs—Jen Lancaster, Emily Giffin and Jennifer Weiner—whose works always have my head nodding “Yes!” Ladies, you just get me, and I thank you, too. And to literary wordsmiths like the Tartts and Doerrs—can I just say, “Well done!” to your English teachers?

But the books that have been perched on my shelves over the last 20 years certainly could tell a story. A story of a young woman turned insecure and exhausted mother, often lost in the shuffle of parenting little people and looking for the path out, or just the right parenting book that speaks to the needs of her family. This, she now knows, does not exist. Parenting books are reading work, as you end up spending hours dissecting the sentences you need to hear away from theories that simply don’t apply to your family makeup.

Years pass and she turns faith and wisdom seeker, turns humor craver, and even turns into one damn good cook courtesy of an ever-growing collection of cookbooks. All of the iterations of me, my mothering seasons, and the life seasons yet to come have driven and will continue to drive my nose right smack between the pages of a book. To learn. To get answers. To be encouraged. To be supported. To be challenged. To find peace.

In the early days, before love had found me and I yearned to define it for myself, it was Leo Buscaglia’s Loving Each Other and Gary Chapman’s The Five Long Languages. Though I’m not sure I needed a book to tell me that when people help around the house I get happy. Acts of service anyone? There were the first pangs of pregnancy that drove me not to the What to Expect books, but to Iris Krasnow’s Surrendering to Motherhood. I read that book before ever even holding my own baby, and it both scared and awed me. What am I going to be surrendering exactly? Oh, just about everything.

Early days of parenting two in diapers filled the shelves with all those chewed-up board books, as well as a slew of titles like Sleep Solutions, Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems and Nighttime Parenting. I learned I much prefer parenting when the sun is out, thank you very much, and my desperate need for a block of sleep longer than 45 minutes only increased my tolerance for crying it out tenfold.

Babies No. 3 and 4, as well as a crushing bout of postpartum depression, sent me to a place I did not recognize. And along with it, titles like What Happened to My Life; Unglued; Out of the Spin Cycle; Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids; The Noonday Demon and Simplicity Parenting appeared to collectively talk me off the mother lode ledge. So did Brooke Shields’s Down Came the Rain. Forget Blue Lagoon being the best thing she ever did. Outing herself as suffering from PPD, and simultaneously normalizing and de-shaming it, is what I personally wish she will be remembered for. And thank you Anne Morrow Lindbergh and your Gift From the Sea. You would have made a great neighbor.

Just a few years later, I ventured onto the outer edge of parenting books and devoured Bringing Up Bébé (I was also in the midst of an “I want to run away to Paris” stage), Free-Range Kids, The Idle Parent and Duct Tape Parenting. I was ready to be done with helicopter parenting. And also, I was just really tired and embraced any book reassuring me less is more when it comes to mothering.

In the middle of parenting angst, trying to find my mothering methodology and landing the over-parenting chopper, I found myself suddenly bankrupt in the faith account. I reached for Lauren Winner’s Girl Meets God: On the Path to a Spiritual Life, Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are, Helen Alvare’s Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves, a bunch of C.S. Lewis, Beth Moore and Lee Strobel standbys, and even a little Mitch Albom and Max Lucado. I needed a spiritual renewing, and as always, books fed my thirsty soul.

Secure in mothering, emotional layers peeled back and embraced, my faith restored, it was time to get my mojo back. Enter the “all about me” titles, aka all the books I wanted to read just because I could. I was also suddenly becoming interested in wanting to write about my dinner, raise my own chickens, knit a sweater, master the art of bread baking, ferment pickles, become a faster runner and hike the Pacific Crest Trail. I ate up foodoirs like Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life and Elizabeth Bard’s Lunch in Paris. The “I am leaving real life for a farm” titles that had me rolling with laughter were Josh Kilmer-Purcell’s The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers: An Unconventional Memoir, and Kristin Kimball’s The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love—which almost had me packing my bags and moving to the back forty, as I pondered raising boys next to goats. And Yarn Harlot: Secret Life of a Knitter-—who knew there were people younger than 40 who liked to knit, had a gaggle of kids and a wicked sense of humor?

I also started buying cookbooks like a culinary student on steroids, and because I knew there had to be other mothers out there who discovered running was literally keeping them sane, I stumbled upon Sarah Bowen Shea’s and Dimity McDowell’s series of books for “mother runners.” A funny story I wrote even appears in their latest release, Tales From Another Mother Runner: Triumphs, Trials, Tips, and Tricks from the Road. People who are as talented at writing as they are at creating great food, homesteads, scarves and running fast enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon fill me with joy. And a desire to make awesome baked goods. And an even stronger desire to write about the childhood memories that wash over me when I stir tomato sauce. One day…

I know the fiction phase I am in will come to an end, and soon enough will be replaced with titles on coping with an empty nest, sex during menopause and how to retire happy. There will be books on finding your passion and purpose after your kids have grown and flown, and books on grief as aging and disease will be taking our friends and family away. But an end to learning and an empty bookshelf shall never be in my home. I know this because of an encounter I had several years back. I was working the library’s reference desk when an elderly woman approached. She had to be in her 80s, and when she spoke to me it was at a normal decibel, un-hushed and with zero regard, or concern for that matter, to the people within earshot who would hear her request. I sat upright ready to help. She is gonna ask me for the latest Debbie Macomber, I just know it.

“Can you tell me where the books on sexual positions are?” she asked.

And there you have it, bibliophiles. You will never be at a place in your life where there isn’t something to learn from a book. Never. Ever. Not before motherhood or during it, and most certainly not after it. I cannot think of a more thrilling prophecy than that, my book loving friends. Can you?

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