Bookworms and babies: on keeping your hobbies, post-birth

Is it possible to still have hobbies when you have children, or are the two completely incompatible? Here's Rachel from Make a Long Story Short on finding time for what you love and keeping your hobbies once you're the baby bubble bursts

My four-year-old is learning to read. We sit in the car before school with his books, and I watch him as he looks carefully over the pictures for clues. Then he settles down to the words with a little huff of concentration, every sound in every word an intellectual puzzle. It’s been a wonder to watch. There must have been a time when reading wasn’t as effortless as breathing, I think, but I can’t remember it. The first time he made c – a – t into ‘cat’, it was like a tiny miracle, iridescent with the promise of a thousand stories to come.

The other day he flounced off because I wouldn’t tell him if Voldemort wins at the end. Sorry, kid. C – a – t comes now, Hogwarts later. There are some things you have to wait to find out yourself.

Reading has been a vital thing for me for as long as I can remember. I could say it was an escape into other worlds, and it was, but it was more than that too. The fantasy worlds bled into my own, making dark corners mysterious, ordinary places vibrant with magic and secrets; making me the protagonist in a story with endless possibilities. The milestones in my childhood were the Secret Seven, Narnia, His Dark Materials, Harry Potter, Horrible Histories, Shakespeare and Wendy Cope. I’ve no idea how old I was when I learned to ride a bike, but I remember the smell of my first stolen Agatha Christie, pilfered from my auntie’s shelves.

I’ve only had two times when I didn’t read for pleasure (if ‘pleasure’ is the right word for sanity, for normality). One was in my final year at university, when I squinted all day at 18th-century texts, and only had room for Heat magazine at night. The other was when I had babies. When you’re covered in sick and stopping your toddler drawing on walls with lipstick, you’re not really in a place for Dickens. Instead I flicked through Twitter at 4am, to stop myself falling asleep as they fed. I developed sincere and heartfelt attachments to Sarah & Duck and Small Potatoes. Reading needs quiet, right? It needs concentration. I couldn’t spend hours reading because I didn’t have hours, and I couldn’t escape into a fictional world because I was so thoroughly needed in this one.

Ah, but. The problem with having a hobby that makes you completely yourself is that when you’re not doing it, you’re not yourself. I found that eventually, with reading. The less I read, the more I felt stretched, impatient, frustrated. Which made me less of a mother too. In the end, cutting out reading time was a false economy I couldn’t afford. Besides, how were my kids supposed to know that reading is something you do for fun, if they never saw me demonstrating it? It was virtuous, really. It was educational.

At the beginning of last year I went back to my old love. I started a book club, hunted out new novels at the library, deliberately set aside time where they would play with toys and I would read, in the same room. When my two-year-old falls asleep in the car I shriek with glee (quietly) and get out my Kindle. It’s been like taking a breath I didn’t know I was holding. When I start a book that’s so wonderful I keep reading till it’s finished at 1am, I try to shrug off the guilt. I’m not letting myself down when I read half the night once in a while, or let them play without me at the playground. I am more myself, not less. It makes me happy, and happiness (especially when you’re a parent) is contagious.

So the next time you see me, you can ask what melodramatic thing my four-year-old has said lately, or whether my toddler is still ridiculous (he is). That’s an essential and lovely part of me, and I wouldn’t be without it. And you can ask what I’m reading. That’s part of me too, and I’m not getting rid of it any time soon.

Make sure you read our list of books for the beach if you're off on holiday and five classic children's books we love

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