On Mother’s Day, we tend to celebrate the busy, overworked, stressed-out mother. We praise frazzled moms for the endless sacrifices they make every hour of every day—from packing lunches to helping with homework to offering counseling through daily problems and major life choices. But what of the mothers who take a moment to sit down? What of the mothers who read?
If real men don’t cry or eat quiche, today’s mother doesn’t sit down. This 21st-century maternal ideal—successfully scurrying from kitchen to workplace to carpool line to soccer field and home again—hangs over my head most of the time, and that’s why a certain passage from a book I read last year stopped me in my parental tracks. It’s about a completely different sort of mother (and father, too, for that matter), written from the perspective of a grown child:
But mostly, when I look back, what I remember is not Mom rushing about; it’s Mom sitting quietly in the center of the house, in the living room, under the swirling colors of a Paul Jenkins painting; there would be a fire in the fireplace and a throw over her lap, her hands sticking out to hold a book. And we all wanted to be there with her and Dad, reading quietly too.
That beautiful portrait of a mother spoke strongly to me, both a dutiful mom and a passionate reader. The quote comes from a memoir you might have heard of: The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe. Set against a background of cancer and chemotherapy, the book is really about the shared love of reading between mother and son. Schwalbe and his mother start a book club of two that helps them get through doctor’s appointments and sick days, and also provides an opportunity to reflect on the world, their relationship, and their family history. Some of the selections they read and discuss are Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt; Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge; Mariatu Kamara’s The Bite of the Mango; and Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil. Though this is the first time they’ve made a concerted effort to read the same books at the same time, in fact Schwalbe and his mother have been reading together for years. Looking back, Schwalbe writes about a home in which “books loomed large.” Both his mother and father spent hours every week reading, and sometimes whole days during the weekend. On the days his parents settled in to read, Will says he and his siblings had two options: “we could sit and read, or we could disappear until mealtime.” Much of the time, the kids chose to read. For their family, reading was more than a pastime; it was an essential thread woven into the fabric of their lives. It stimulated their minds, generated their conversations, and bound them together.
Despite her son’s rose-colored memory, there’s no doubt that Mary Anne Schwalbe rushed around like most mothers. Along with raising three kids, she held a high-powered job as an associate dean of admissions at Harvard and Radcliffe, and at a time when most women stayed home. But the thing is, that busy mother is not the person Will remembers. The mom he loved was a woman who took the time to sit quietly and read.
That passage from The End of Your Life Book Club has come back to me almost every day since I stumbled across it. Now, whenever I sit down with a book, forsaking meal prep, laundry, or summons from my kids, I remind myself that I am fulfilling my role as a mother by reading—and much better than I would by preparing said meals and doing said laundry. Maybe, just maybe, my children will thank me someday.
Happy Mother’s Day.