Why I Took My Week-Old Baby to Book Club
When I felt overwhelmed by new motherhood, taking my baby to my regular book club meeting showed me that we could turn the page on life together.
I was streaming an installation how-to video on my phone while I secured the car seat in the Lyft, ensuring that all the straps and buckles were properly looped and latched, as my 1-week-old daughter, Emilia, sat snug inside. I had the diaper bag, along with pads and various other paraphernalia for my own body, which was still recovering from labor, plus a copy of Rakesh Satyal’s novel No One Can Pronounce My Name. The cover of the book, conveniently, was black, white, and red, the exact colors I’d been told the developing eyes of infants can first see. I dangled it 10 inches from Emilia’s face—the distance at which infants can best focus—and cooed, “Baby’s first book club, here we come!”
The Book Bunnies are my people. My fellow members are writers, teachers, whipper uppers of delicious snacks, and lovers of literature both contemporary and classic. With the exception of the time we picked William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair without realizing it weighed in at nearly 800 pages, most everyone reads our monthly pick. In fact, in an inverse of the classic book-club model where no one who shows up to the meeting has actually read the book, we have a member who reads nearly all the books but almost never shows up to the meetings. Getting together with these women and men (yes, we Book Bunnies are coed) has always been the highlight of my month. We’ve been convening for years, long before my daughter was even a glimmer in my eye.
I’d spent most of my pregnancy in a heightened state of both excitement and anxiety. I couldn’t wait for my marriage to burgeon into a family and to have a little being to take care of and love like mad. But I was also terrified of losing myself along the way. My particular neighborhood in Brooklyn could be called The Parents Club: Armies of strollers plow down the sidewalks, rolling from playground to sing-along to mommy-and-me swim class, leaving a trail of Cheerios and WubbaNub pacifiers in their wake. I admit that I was wary of joining this club. I already had my club, The Book Bunnies, but none of the members were parents.
I feared that once I had a baby, I would never see them again. Once I was handed my official membership card to The Parents Club, would my membership to everything else in my life—my book club, not to mention my job as a scriptwriter, my side gig as a novelist, my marriage, my social life, my workout routine—get revoked in favor of singing rounds of “The Wheels on the Bus,” fueled by a steady diet of strong coffee and broken Goldfish crackers?
Things got off to a rough start at my daughter’s debut doctor’s visit. The pediatrician’s office is only a two-block walk from my apartment, yet somehow it took me, my husband, and my mother upwards of 30 minutes to get out the door, down the two flights of stairs, and to the appointment with our 8-pound bundle of joy—and still my husband ended up having to run back home to grab forgotten paperwork.
When the pediatrician asked me how I was doing, I felt a surge of hormones and burst into tears, reporting through sobs that I’d been struggling with breastfeeding. I was overwhelmed and also scared. If it seemed this hard now, how was I going to manage when my mother went home and my husband went back to work and it was just my baby and me? Was this my new life? Would my world shrink to smaller than a two-block radius?
The first time I got an inkling that motherhood wouldn’t snuff out the rest of my identity was a few days later—at book club. As Emilia dozed beside me, my fellow Book Bunnies and I munched on chips and discussed No One Can Pronounce My Name. I can’t tell you much about the themes or characters or even the basic plotline. I had begun reading the novel in the maternity ward between contractions and then finished it over the course of the next week during the wee hours of 2 to 5 a.m. while nursing my newborn. I’m certain that I contributed zero insights to the discussion. I don’t think I remembered to bring a snack. But there I was, a brand-new mom and my same old book-loving self, attending my favorite event of the month.
Since that day, I’ve continued to bring Emilia with me and certainly appreciate everyone’s willingness to be flexible. She has gone from getting passed around from lap to lap, to crawling from person to person and gnawing on crudités and book jackets, to toddling around and delightedly exclaiming, “Cheese!” as she points at the snacks. As we discuss our latest pick—a memoir, a post-apocalyptic novel, or a collection of feminist essays—I hope my daughter is absorbing some of the group’s camaraderie and passion for a wide range of stories. Or at least just basking in all the attention that she gets as the most adorable member of our club.
In recent months, several other club members have announced that they, too, will be joining The Parents Club. A couple have confided in me that they’re feeling similarly anxious about how their identity will change. As we talk, I silently congratulate myself for balancing a baby in one arm and a glass of wine in the other, for showing up in a dress, for engaging in intelligent discussion and laughing with my friends while simultaneously caring for my daughter. And as I’m losing myself in this fantasy of having it all, Emilia will promptly have an epic diaper blowout to remind me that this is actually very much still a work in progress and I’m only having it all if “all” includes poop on my dress.
When I think back to myself as a little girl, my own mother’s book club holds a prominent place in my memories. My mom has been gathering with the same group of women for decades now. As a child, I’d spy on their meetings in our home, intrigued by the chorus of voices, the hubbub, the laughter. I’m sure that it was a big factor in the development of my own love of books. As I got older, I began reading their picks, and when I joined The Book Bunnies as an adult, I started passing along our picks as recommendations to my mother’s club. I sometimes fantasize about this carrying on into the next generation—Emilia joining a book club and calling to tell me about the amazing novel that she just finished and insisting that The Book Bunnies read it too.
But now that I’m a mother myself, I look back at my own mother’s book-club meetings and see something else: evidence that my mom had interests and a life outside of being a parent, and even more reason to embrace the nonparent sides of myself. I love being a mother to my daughter—and yes, that does sometimes include singing “The Wheels on the Bus,” which (surprise!) I actually enjoy. But I also cherish the other parts of myself. I’m a mother, and I’m also a Book Bunny.
Lindsey J. Palmer’s most recent novel is Otherwise Engaged.
This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's January 2020 issue as “I’ll Always Have Book Club.”