On losing my boys to books: confessions of a conflicted mother

World Book Day inspired some great articles this week on how wonderful it is to see children ‘lose’ themselves in books. As a former child myself, I couldn’t agree more, but as a mother of two growing boys, I have a more complicated response. A huge part of me is so proud of my book-loving boys: I am glad that they’re equipped with the empathy and imagination that they will need to be happy human beings, and relieved that we have something so vital in common.

But there is a smaller, narrower, more fragile part of me that is saddened to see my boys falling deeper in love with stories, because each book that they read represents yet another step towards independence, and a step away from me. I hadn’t noticed, let alone admitted to having such ignoble feelings before, but this has been a funny old week: my ten-year-old son found out which secondary school he will be going to in September, and, coincidently, he also achieved ‘free reader’ status at school. This means that he can now read whichever book he likes, rather than the dead-hand summaries of ‘children’s classics’ he has been dragging back and forth in his school bag for years.

The effect on his reading has been dramatic. This week alone, this so-called ‘reluctant’ reader has finished three books, and, crucially, he has read a good chunk of them at school without me. So although I began the week reading out Varjak Paw the Outlaw by SF Said, he finished it in one gulp whilst I was talking to his granddad. We then began Arsenic for Tea by Robin Stevens, which was a pleasure to read out-loud, but I came home on Tuesday night to discover he had already finished it, so I will never know ‘whodunnit’. We chose Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone next, but as we only managed to read two chapters together before that too was finished, I have only a fleeting sense of why he enjoyed it so much.

Of course, I am thankful and relieved that my ten-year-old is – at last – reading by himself. Not just because I no longer have to read the Hungry Bloody Caterpillar again, but because I can see that all of that reading and re-reading – sometimes through gritted teeth – has finally paid off. But I wish I could feel the complete and utter joy expressed so beautifully by @HayleyBooks at the sight of my child getting lost in books. (Read her moving tweets here: https://tinyurl.com/q543slv )

The sad truth is that I miss being inside his head. I miss knowing whether a particular scene made him laugh or cry, whether he was bored by a long sentence or intrigued by a new word. Reading a book with a child is the mental equivalent of having a good old rummage around in their nappies. When we read a book together, I can see the direct effect of whatever stories they are consuming upon their mental digestive processes: I can coax them with something salty when they’re feeling a bit peckish, offer comfort books when they are ill or something more substantial for growing appetites.

I am aware that my response is further evidence – should it ever be needed – of my Control Freak tendencies. Avid readers of my blog will recall that I have written about this before (and for those who weren’t paying attention, you can read my full confession here http://tinyurl.com/kf6j72h )

My personality is certainly part of the problem, but it is not the complete story. You see, I have been here before. I have another fourteen-year-old son, so I know that once children start reading for themselves, they soon start choosing for themselves. They follow not just my parental judgement, but the tantalising crumbs so cleverly laid out by agents and authors such as @lizzykremer. (Read her lovely post on this here: http://tinyurl.com/lq8vctn ). And those crumbs lead them deeper into the forest, leaving aging mothers like myself breathlessly trying to catch up, calling out to their disappearing figures as they weave between the trees and the light.

Like all teenagers, my fourteen-year-old son returns home each night for food and water, but all I know of his life is what he chooses to tell me. Secondary school is a far and distant place that he shares with children and parents unknown, a bus journey and a whole universe away. Just as with books, I can no longer watch his face at the school gates: I cannot observe whom he flinches from or warms to; I cannot speak to his teachers or compare notes with the mothers of friends. He is becoming a person, an individual: separate and distinct from me.

I have seen the tea towels: I know that love is proved in the letting go. And perhaps next week, I will able to sign up to this philosophy. Perhaps next week, I will recall that people in forests usually walk around in circles, and comfort myself that books will eventually bring my boys back to me, just as books are now the bridge that connects my 75-year-old dad and my children to each other.

But not this week.

This week – the week when my ten-year-old boy finally became a free reader and found out which ‘big’ school he will be going to – this week, I will indulge my self-pity. And as my son loses himself in books, I will grieve for what I have lost.


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