Room to Read: A Modest Proposal

What better way to relax after a kid-filled day than with a nice book—and what less likely scenario can many parents imagine? For page-turners everywhere, a novel idea.

Last night I fell asleep reading. By my calculation, this has happened approximately 1,000 times since my daughter was born. She’s four years old, so I get the thousand nights by subtracting from her total days all the holidays, sick days, and visits with family and friends when I would have been too busy to read. Then I estimated the number of nights I’ve been too tired to even try and subtracted that. What is left, I believe, is about 1,000 nights I’ve tucked her in, reheated some morning coffee, and settled down with a book. With few exceptions, I almost always fall asleep before I’ve read a satisfying amount.

What is a satisfying amount? Let’s say 10 pages. I’m not trying to set any records.

I don’t blame the books. I don’t blame their authors. I don’t blame anyone or anything, really. It just seems to be the case that I never have enough energy at the end of the day to read well. The nightly frenzy of getting my daughter (and now her younger brother) fed, bathed, and into bed does me in. By 8 o’clock, despite the cooked coffee, I’m history.

My father warned me. He’d known a woman once who upon being asked why she’d never had children, replied, “Well, you see, it’s just that I like to read.” At the time my father shared this with me, my husband and I were trying to decide whether to start a family.

“You can read and have children!” I insisted, angry, as if he’d implied I couldn’t walk and chew gum. I was 28, my life filled with books.

“Yes,” my dad said. “But they take a lot of time.”

I nodded. It seemed obvious, but not problematic.

Now my friends-who-are-parents and I recommend books and articles to each other with a knowing grimace. “For all your free time,” we say, rolling our eyes. Reading is the activity we seem to have surrendered to childrearing. The personal loss is great, but perhaps more compelling to this generation of child-centric moms and dads is this: The experts say reading to your children is important, but so is letting them see you read. How are we supposed to fit that in?

The other day, I ran into a friend on her way back from the gym. She’d dropped off her daughter at the gym’s childcare center (the “Kidz Zone”) and worked out for two hours, as she regularly does. She was glowing. She looked happy and rested. It was 11:30 in the morning.

But where can you drop off your kids if you’d like to read for an hour or two? Shouldn’t reading be as important as getting groceries, exercise, or Swedish furniture? A light went on in my relatively fresh, morning brain. Of course! You can do anything in the morning! Morning plus childcare is how the pyramids were built. In this century, we have grocery stores that offer childcare while you shop. Many gyms, like my friend’s, have a supervised recreation room for children while their parents exercise. IKEA, famously, has Smalånd for the children of its customers.

But where can you drop off your kids if you’d like to read for an hour or two? Shouldn’t reading be as important as getting groceries, exercise, or Swedish furniture? Why don’t bookstores have a room (the Baby Bindery?) where parents can leave their children while they enjoy some literary solitude? Even if the store turned the place into a marketing extravaganza—Harry Potter tie-ins everywhere—parents would no doubt be so giddy with gratitude for the sunlit reading time, they wouldn’t mind.

Or maybe they would. Maybe the public libraries, those perennially underfunded institutions, are a better venue. They could offer an optional subscription membership for which one of the benefits would be a supervised playroom (Kidz Stackz?) for children. The library gets to bolster its budget and the families who sign up get affordable childcare during hours when coffee has a chance of working. Just like childcare at the gym, Kidz Stackz would be an opportunity for parents of all professions and schedules, stay-at-home and working-outside-the-home. The simple, common denominator would be a love of books.

“I’d feel guilty just reading while my kid was in daycare,” a friend—a writer and dedicated reader—confessed when I told her my vision of the future. And yet we live in a time when using a treadmill under the same circumstances is commonplace.

So what if we look at Kidz Stackz as a way to demonstrate to our children that reading is worth our time, at least as valuable as exercising. Your child doesn’t actually get to see you reading, it’s true, but this is the next best thing. She learns that reading is something dear, something to schedule when life gets busy.

“Go on, sweetie. Mommy needs to read for a little while.”

“But I want to read with you!”

Considered in this light (morning, by the way), Kidz Stackz is practically educational, almost a literacy project. They probably already have something like it in Sweden.


TMN Contributing Writer Jessica Francis Kane’s first novel, The Report (Graywolf Press, 2010) was shortlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her story collection, This Close (Graywolf Press, 2013) was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Story Prize and was named a Best Book of the year by NPR. She lives in New York with her husband and their two children. More by Jessica Francis Kane