My Favorite Escape Isn't An Escape At All

by Sarah Bumbarger

I spent last weekend in Capri. Sun on my face, I swam until I couldn’t hear the chatter on the shore and the two blues of the sea and horizon sank into each other.

Of course, that didn’t really happen. We’re two months and a year into a pandemic and I’ve been grounded since the first week of March 2020. I’m also a new mom, and as any new mom can tell you, your world shrinks immediately and dramatically the moment your child is set in your arms.

This dual closure has been good in some ways. I think aspects of having a baby are easier when there’s no pressure to meet the outside world with any immediacy, and I think being stuck at home is easier when there’s a new being taking up all your time.

But still, I miss travel and I miss the world. A lot. My new life is dominated by mask wearing and nap schedules; frequent handwashing and plans for introducing solids. Between a baby and a pandemic, there’s not a lot of spontaneity and I long for it. I want the thrill of a new place. I want to be a little nervous about the unknown. There are many days when I just want to get on a plane and go anywhere.

I’m lucky to be vaccinated now, but with an unprotected little one, I know I’m not going to get on a plane soon. But I’ve discovered something else that scratches the itch: reading. Which is how I ended up on a beach in Capri last weekend, and in Baku last night.

Pre-baby I was an avid reader. I read a book a week, sometimes more. But after she was born, time and focus slipped through my fingers. Whenever I had a couple minutes alone, I’d wander our condo, clueless about what to do with myself. There were always too many things to pick just one. Sometimes I’d try to read during those epic newborn nursing sessions (if you know, you know) but I’d find myself staring at her instead of the page.

But in December I finally, painstakingly, read a book. Over January and February, I read another. By March she started sleeping for longer periods at night and I realized there was a window of blank space after everyone went to bed and before she woke when no one needed anything from me. The time was glorious, and it was all mine.

And so I read.

There’s something deliciously escapist about this simple act. If you can’t get on a plane in reality, there’s nothing like fiction to transport you somewhere else. Research even suggests that reading novels increases empathy over time. While the news is great for Learning Stuff, allows you to keep your distance. Fiction pushes you off the deep end.

With my new reading schedule, every few nights I’m somewhere else, with someone else. (I love my husband and daughter but there’s no denying I’ve seen a lot of them lately.) One night I’m in a small town on the shores of Lake Michigan, falling into a romance. Another I’m in the neon glow of a Tokyo konbini (convenience store). For a few days I’m in Paris and 17 again. I spent some time in Sri Lanka, wiping the morning humidity off my upper lip and taking afternoon naps in the dark cool rooms of a Colombo estate, and waiting for the monsoons to come. I explored the dead heat of Samarkand, lay by a pool in the Hamptons, ate pepper soup in Lagos.

And it’s not just that dipping into a story allows me to be somewhere else for a few hours. So much of my physical and mental self is consumed with baby care—breastfeeding and helping her to stand and helping her to sleep and, when she’s asleep, buying clothes for her growing body and reviewing baby-proofing products. My time is parceled out in five-minute increments and tiny luxuries are things I negotiate with myself. Even this sentence was cut in two by her cries.

In this loop, there is something delicious about breaking free and staying awake too late doing something just for myself, to excess. I know I’ll pay for this lack of sleep in the morning but I’m completely unable to pull myself away. It feels slightly irresponsible and in this year—when nothing in my life is allowed to be irresponsible—that feels great. Reading late into the night is the best worst habit, a little subversive act in a sea of responsibility.

I know we’ll be past this at some point. Vaccines are rolling out; my daughter is growing every day. Someday I’ll have more time to read, not just at the margins between the end of one day and the start next. Someday I’ll get on a plane with my daughter and show her the rest of the world that I love so much. I can’t wait.

Check out the Scary Mommy Book Club to find your new favorite escape!