I lay on the couch in the living room, grey, unmoving, nauseous. Everything had an offensive odor, including last night’s leftover pizza, which I smelled through the refrigerator door and at a distance of 15 feet.
My husband stood in the kitchen opening mail, every so often eyeing me cautiously, then the clock. “Do you see what time it is?” he finally asked, one eyebrow raised. I rolled over, my back to him, wanting nothing to do with the time, people, or anything at all. My only wish was to be left alone.
Through the nursery door, I heard my son in his crib, chatting softly with a vast audience of stuffed animals. His lisping voice carried me back to the same anxious thought that I’d handled and polished for the last month: that I had a two-year-old and was pregnant, again.
During my first pregnancy, I believed that motherhood would suit me, overwhelm me with love, open my eyes, complete me. Two years, 20 bottles of citalopram and one frantically-purchased pregnancy test later, I knew better.
Rolling back over I glanced at the clock: 7:10 PM. My son was safe and my husband was supportive. So why couldn’t I leave?
I had been invited by a friend — an acquaintance, really — to attend the first meeting of a book club with three other women, all strangers. Before Children (B.C.), I had always longed to be in a book club, imagining myself among learned women wearing tortoise-shell glasses perched on the tips of our noses, drinking Earl Grey, discussing classic literature and trading stories we’d heard on NPR. It seemed dignified, cosmopolitan. But after the birth of my son and the rapid dismantling of everything dignified and cosmopolitan about my life, I couldn’t conceive of making mental or physical space for reading books, let alone a gathering to discuss them.
… after the birth of my son and the rapid dismantling of everything dignified and cosmopolitan about my life, I couldn’t conceive of making mental or physical space for reading books, let alone a gathering to discuss them.
Time was not the issue. As a new-to-the-job stay-at-home mom, I had time to myself whenever my son slept, which was, mercifully, often. But on my good days I used those precious hours to clean, cook, and wash an endless stream of soiled cloth diapers. On my bad days, I trolled Facebook to confirm my suspicions that every other mother in the world was doing her job better than I. Whether through maniacal domesticity or mindless social media, I was avoiding the elephant in the room of my brain: that the big, beautiful, creative and carefree life I’d been living before the birth of my son was effectively over.
I had traveled. I had been ambitious, lauded and applauded for critical thinking and strategy. My mind had been sharp and swift. But now? A sharp and swift mind was no longer an asset. All that was valuable now were strong hands, bullish persistence, and an immunity to sleep deprivation. Reading books — other than parenting books — was unnecessary, a luxury I couldn’t afford.
Furthermore, it was a liability. What would reading and meeting with smart women lead to? Would I start wishing I’d never had my son? Would it lead me into romanticism, away from my present, my real life? Best to avoid dashed expectations and daydreaming, to put my head down and do what was necessary, what was practical. Best to keep relationships on the surface, anything deeper being deflected to the predictable cadence of daily parenting life: Hi, how are you, how is he/she sleeping?
What would reading and meeting with smart women lead to? Would I start wishing I’d never had my son? Would it lead me into romanticism, away from my present, my real life?
I looked at the clock again: 7:15 PM. To be on time for the book club meeting, I would need to leave right now. My husband still stood in the kitchen, sorting bills to be paid while peeking intermittently to see if I’d moved from my frozen trance. “Do you see the time?” he asked again, knowing I had. “Don’t you have that thing tonight?”
I can’t say for sure why I chose to attend that first book club meeting after all — maybe good manners (I’d RSVP’d yes when invited, after all) or an unquenched thirst for Earl Grey tea. Or maybe it lay deeper: a spark of hope that my life could grow back from the stump to which it had been cut, that I could be dignified and cosmopolitan once again.
Greeted at the door by my friend, I walked into her living room and found three women, one peacefully nursing a newborn baby, and the other two sipping red wine and laughing boisterously. I sat down, introduced myself, and slowly, carefully, shuffled into a discussion that meandered through our personal histories of favorite books and authors.
The memories came slowly, then quickly, and finally overwhelmed me. Discussing everything from Jane Austen’s sly feminism to the crazed Enid Lambert of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was like watching a stock pot of long-stagnant water begin to boil. The authors whose works I’d devoured, once upon a time — Isabel Allende, Ruth Reichl, E.M. Forster, Norman MacLean — came bubbling to mind, little by little warming me to my own self, the self who stood outside time, responsibilities and life seasons. The self who had been there on the day I was born, who communed with characters like Anne Shirley and Jo March, and who learned as much through books as through her own personal experiences. And to share that self as found through the lens of stories, with others, was not unlike touching the divine.
Though I couldn’t have known it at the time, the book club and it’s reading assignments were a prescription for a life grown small. As my affinity for our group grew, so too did its attendance. Today, the club has swelled to include 12 members, each personally invited, and each responsible for selecting one book for the year, spread across 12 months. Even outside the book club, our individual friendships have developed to such a degree that we consider ourselves a tribe, a sisterhood. We are rooted in one another, through illness, struggling marriages, hurt feelings, success and failure, life and death.
We have birthed 27 children between us, many of whom attended book club when they were newly born. We are therapists, teachers, salespeople, marketing directors, nurses, writers, executive assistants, executive directors, professors, sommeliers, pastors and stay-at-home moms. We are Christian and Jewish, agnostic and atheist. We have agreed and disagreed, but our love for one another carries us through.We show up for book club and we show up for each other.
… to share that self as found through the lens of stories, with others, was not unlike touching the divine.
Despite our growth, the only two original members are myself and the woman who nursed her baby at our first meeting. Sometimes we catch each other’s eye during a discussion and share a knowing look of gratitude for what we’ve been given in this group of women. Once, as we cleaned up after a long night of discussing Beautiful Boy by David Sheff and the subjects of addiction, parenting and grace, she and I pulled back to watch our tremendous friends laughing and working to put wine and finger foods away. “Look at what we made,” she said to me, quietly, awe-filled.
I no longer recognize the nauseous, pregnant, medicated and small woman I was, lying on the couch, afraid and unwilling to leave the house, and book club is, in large part, to be thanked. Since then, my life has blossomed to include a very full calendar including work that I love, fun with my kids, dates with my husband, and, of course, book club every month.
This month’s title is American Pastoral by Philip Roth, a book I probably never would have pulled off the library shelf, but which is already revealing pieces of me I’d forgotten or didn’t know existed. I’m eager to hear what everyone else thinks of it too, but mostly, I just want to see their faces around me, whether smiling, crying, or blank and distant. We are sisters now. We take whatever comes, together.
Images via Aysegül Karatekin