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Crossing bridges, turning pages

Mothering my seven children often inspires my writing, but I’ve made it a policy to avoid writing publicly about specific struggles I have with them. Growing up is hard enough, and I worry that real openness could amount to betrayal or worse. All to say: I have a story to tell about one of my kids and how I hope that reading together is helping us find our way back to each other (the telling will be rather cryptic in the interest of protecting their privacy).

Note that I say I’m hoping for this happy resolution. We aren’t there yet. It’s been a rough year, and I’ve felt this child, with whom I’ve shared a deep closeness before, slipping away from me. Communication with their school tells me things aren’t much better there, which instigates some of the struggles at home.

Hurt people hurt people. I know this. And though I don’t know all the reasons for it, I know my child’s own deep hurts are causing them to lash out. Especially when my other kids are in the line of fire, it makes me want to lash back, and a few awful times I have. I have excellent co-parenting support that makes me feel less alone as I try, and often fail, to make things better. We’ve sought outside help, but nothing has broken through yet. Negative consequences (groundings, loss of privileges, loss of favorite possessions) have ended up increasing anger, sadness, and isolation, which, in turn, exacerbate power struggles. It’s a vicious, exhausting cycle.

The times when I’ve felt the brightest glimmers of hope are when I’ve mustered up the energy and clarity of mind to flip the script, and instead of sending this child to their room for a time-out as punishment (and frankly, as respite for myself) I’ve instituted what I call “time-ins.” I started doing this with real intention when I realized that although I read every day with my three-year-old and my baby, it’d been a long time since I’d done so with any of my five older kids, who range in age from twelve to twenty-one.

My child in question is an ardent reader, and I often think books are what will show this kid a path through all the inner-turmoil they’re facing. But I don’t expressly give them books about kids struggling with issues similar to theirs, nor do I seek out stories in which parents and kids butt heads and come through on the other side. No, I simply give my child books that I hope they will love as a means of expressing my love for them, and I offer them up like hugs, like Band-Aids, like comfort food, like apologies, like bridges.

Recently, I used a work trip as an opportunity for a day-long time-in. I said they could read on their own while I took care of work obligations, but I asked them to choose an audiobook for us to listen to in the car during the four-hour round trip.

“Let’s do The Book Thief,” they said. “You put it on my shelf, but I never read it because I thought it looked cheesy.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I thought the title meant it was about someone who loves books so much that they steal them. And that seemed…cheesy. Like, I get it: books are great.”

Fair enough.

We got about a quarter of the way through the audiobook during our drive, pausing to talk about various points of WWII-era history that my child didn’t grasp, marveling over the skill of reader Allan Corduner, and grappling with the text’s references to Jesse Owens and its handling of race. Reflecting back on that day lets me see how listening to this book together paradoxically provided a buffer between us that allowed us to connect. I saw my child’s mind at work and delighted in the insights and questions that bubbled forth, seeing evidence of the intelligence and depth that are and will be their best tools in getting through hard times. We didn’t talk about anything in our own lives, nor about their struggles at school. It was such a relief.

We haven’t turned back to The Book Thief yet, though I’ve encouraged my child to pick up the book on their own to finish reading it. But we are about halfway through The Girl Who Drank the Moon, which I’ve been reading aloud to them and a sibling. The sibling is delighted to have this renewed shared reading time, but despite the book’s brilliance, I wouldn’t call my other child’s participation in the experience enthusiastic. While I read, I’ve had to ignore many exasperated sighs about the forced time-in, a lot of hiding in a hoodie and pretending not to listen, back turned, buried under a blanket. This is not the idyllic scene of mother-and-child shared reading that I’ve lived out with this child in the past, nor that their sibling enacts, rapt beside me with repeated entreaties to read “just one more chapter?” But (and yes, maybe I am looking really, really hard for these signs of connection) I’ve also noticed a relaxing of posture as I’ve read aloud. It feels like that day in the car listening to The Book Thief. It feels like what Mem Fox calls "reading magic." It’s still there. It’s still working.

Given the busyness of our lives, it’s been a slow process of stealing time to read The Girl Who Drank the Moon together. I’ve itched to read ahead when my kids aren’t with me so I can finish the story for myself. I wait for them, however, because I want to discover the story with them so that when we look back on it and this fraught time in our lives, this book will hold not just its magical tale of Luna, and Xan, Glerk, and Fyrian, but the story of us finding respite in its pages, too.

I’ve been a mother for half my life. My eldest child is now past the age I was when he was born. My youngest won’t reach that age for another two decades. But the not-so-funny thing about parenting many children is that, at least for me, it doesn’t get easier with practice. They’re all so different from one another, with their own needs, strengths, challenges, histories, and dynamics with me and other family members. But so far, twenty-one years into this mothering life of mine, I've found books offer a consistent means of connecting with my kids, even when (or perhaps especially when) other means fail us. My child would probably say this is cheesy — “Like, I get it: books are great” — but that’s okay. Right now I am not trying to convince them of anything, except that we can always turn the page.
Megan Dowd Lambert
Megan Dowd Lambert

Megan Dowd Lambert is an instructor at Simmons University’s Center for the Study of Children’s Literature. For nearly ten years she also worked in the education department of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.

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