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READING SPECIAL

Motherhood changed how I read

Parenthood can have a narrowing effect. While I've never arm- twisted relatives into watching videos of my kids' preschool concerts - (I'm sure they wanted to) - having children has shrunk my world in one way at least.

My reading habits changed.

I used to have eclectic, slightly old-fashioned tastes. Muriel Spark, whose prose is as hilarious as it is cold-eyed, was one of my literary goddesses. I also admired Andre Dubus, a short-story master who felt he wrote better after an accident confined him to a wheelchair.

 

But during my two pregnancies, I focused on titles such as Secrets Of The Baby Whisperer and What To Expect When You're Expecting. I came to regard such parenting manuals as textbooks. I was preparing for motherhood by studying for it.

Loaded with such Expectations, this was doomed to fail.

I never managed to coax either Micah, now seven, or Leah, three, to buy into Baby Whisperer Tracy Hogg's four-step routine for getting infants to sleep through the night.

Neither did I wean Leah, in particular, from rice cereal at six months to become a vegetable- scarfing beacon of healthy eating at a year old. In fact, one of Leah's favourite books reflects her mantra: I Do Not Eat The Colour Green.

I realised that many how-to books on parenting sell because they dangle promises of being a better parent, if only certain techniques are mastered.

This is like rote-learning one's way to an A in an examination: a highly problematic strategy.

But limiting my reading in early motherhood yielded unexpected dividends. I discovered a rich seam of mummy lit that went beyond telling parents what to do.

There is a refreshing emotional honesty in these books, which come with catchy, if alarming, titles. These include Bad Mother, a collection of personal essays by Ayelet Waldman; and All Joy And No Fun, an anthropological tome about parenting by Jennifer Senior.

In Bad Mother, Waldman, who gained vitriol for once confessing she loves her husband, Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon, more than their four children, talks frankly about suspending judgment on other mums: A stranger told her that "breast is best" when she was feeding her baby a bottle of expressed breast milk.

She tosses the kid to her husband like a football as she heads out for work when he comes home.

With mummy lit, I found a literary genre that has also steered me through this era of competitive parenting. Sometimes, kids seem to be valued more for the grades they bring in, as Senior describes in All Joy And No Fun.

After the exhausting days of caring for a newborn, when there was hardly time to drink a cup of coffee at one go, I've moved on to the quotidian rush, felt by many working parents, to squeeze in quality time with the kids.

I realised, though, that having little free time heightens the pleasure of one's leisure time.

I am lavishly pleased when I go out with my friends, given that I seldom meet them. While I can't remember the last time I watched a movie, I look forward to watching old episodes of Project Runway on TV once a week. But I am also anxious to ensure that my bite- sized treats of me-time are worth it.

I can hardly bear to wade through 30 pages of a book before realising it is no good. Thus, for several years, I have read reliably exciting crime fiction, almost exclusively.

I'm a longtime fan of crime writers such as Dorothy Sayers, Ruth Rendell and, of course, Queen Agatha. While there are schlocky imitators, the detective novel format is practically foolproof. Even if the ending is far-fetched, there is always the adrenaline- driven suspense of wanting to know who done what to whom, especially when the bodies pile up. Within the plot of the whodunit, there is often so much more, for example, PD James' devastating psychological insights, where murderers can be more sympathetic than their callous offspring.

Motherhood narrowed my reading horizons but deepened my appreciation of the genres of crime fiction and mummy lit, sometimes wrongly dismissed by sniffy critics as being not "quite" literature.

Now that my children are growing up and require less hands-on care, I am beginning to read more. Alongside my shopping list for milk, fruit and vegetables, I have another list, with names like Borges, Bellow, Mantel, Ferrante.

I have space and time for them, again.

More Reading Special stories here.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 08, 2016, with the headline 'Motherhood changed how I read'. Print Edition | Subscribe