“My babe, my boobs, our books” … guest post by poet Shannon Bramer

Part 2 of a growing series on Blog of Green Gables, When Writers Read Kids’ Books. Today’s guest is poet and playwright Shannon Bramer, who writes candidly about her struggle with postpartum depression, and the books that pulled her through.

Shannon's mission as guest blogger inspired her daughter too. Click for a bigger view of the picture Sadie drew when her mom told her what she was writing about. Note the smiles in spite of the black cloud! Sadie, I love the shoelaces....

I read a lot when I was breastfeeding and I confess that was one of my favourite aspects of that time-consuming and sometimes exhausting act. Just let me hook the kid up and find my book. Please, sweetheart, stay asleep so I can keep reading! I was not the most social new mother. I was a sad, tired, cranky thing, really. For the first six months of Sadie’s life I hungered for deep sleep and sought comfort in Seinfeld re-runs, the novels of Haruki Murakami and the music of Ron Sexsmith. Most of the time I wanted to be alone eating noodle soup somewhere in Tokyo. Sometimes I hoped Ron or Jerry would come lie with me in a frozen drift of snow.

We had the black and white books going right off the bat, but I started reading stories to Sadie with regularity when she was four months old. Every night we would switch off lights in the house together and then lie on our bed with three chubby little classics: Big Red Barn, Good Night Gorilla and Time for Bed. As the months went by we read more and more. As soon as Sadie could sit up on her own we had a regular routine of reading books in the morning and then again later in the afternoon. Often we’d read right after feeding, so the two acts became linked for us both. I still wasn’t up for much socializing with other parents, but I was getting out more often. I took Sadie for long walks in the sling or stroller and we always stopped off to read. I had a favourite cafe—Caffe 163 on Lauder Street (just off of St.Clair West), owned by a reticent, tattooed, Italian barista named Louie. It became our cafe, and a daily event, “going to Louie’s to read”. At Lou’s I could enjoy a coffee and the company of other adults (briefly and from a distance) and make my way through a nice stack of library books with Sadie. And when I needed to, I would whip out my boob and Sadie would have a snack, right there in the cafe. Tip: larger, hardcover picture books like Babar and Eloise make for just the right amount of privacy if you don’t mind feeding your baby in public.

Before having children I worked as a bookseller, and I had been collecting children’s books for a decade. Sometimes I think I had my first child just so I could share my pretty books with her. Anne of Green Gables and The Secret Garden would have to wait a bit, but I already had other treats in mind, like Quentin Blake’s magnificent, heartbreaking Clown, and Jan Ormerod’s Sunshine and Moonlight books, which Sadie still enjoys and tugs off the shelf regularly. Both Ormerod and Blake have a talent for balancing stillness and movement in their illustrations; sometimes the images are so tender and lovingly imagined you can’t help but want to climb inside the book and stay there.

A few of my obsessions became Sadie’s: My Very First Mother Goose Book, edited by Peter and Ilona Opie (illustrated by Rosemary Wells) was read over and over again, as was as an illustrated (Jan Ormerod, again!) anthology of poems entitled Sunflakes, which Sadie renamed Poemflakes. At this point I had become little more than her reading slave, and if Sadie wanted poems read to her in the bathtub, I read them. I had created a monster, but she was my monster, and one who knew how to turn the thinnest pages thoughtfully and skillfully, even with her goopy little fingers.

For many months after Sadie first learned to talk the first words out of her mouth in the morning were: “Books! Books! Books! Read! Read! Read!” On good days and bad, I’d be confronted with her sparkling, alert, somewhat demonic (!?) blue eyes at 5:45am, ready to read, read, read—ready to start her day. At 22 months we continued to read together with enthusiasm but my boobs, as Sadie put it, were “struggling along”. Feedings had decreased and my milk supply was dropping. There was only one morning feed left and I was more than ready to let it go. So, instead of offering Sadie milk in the morning, I suggested a new book. And whenever she felt sick or upset or needed comforting, a book almost always worked. And it worked for me too, when I didn’t know what else to do with my little blonde monkey—when I was tired, or cranky, hoarse from yelling or my secret crying—reading to Sadie always made me feel like I was doing a good job as a mother. Reading always calmed me down and reminded me that even if I was struggling with depression during the first few years of Sadie’s life, we were still close. Reading enabled the cuddling and quiet and (often magical) moments of escape we both needed.

Lydia with Sadie hiding behind Daisy

Sadie is seven years old now, with an effervescent three-year-old sister named Lydia. At bedtime there is often quite a bit of fighting about which books will get read. Sometimes they both want the same one and often the book doesn’t seem to matter nearly as much as who picked it. Right now they are both big fans of Castle of the Cats, based on a Latvian folktale, retold by Eric A. Kimmel. I love doing the “voices” when I read this one, though sometimes I feel my serious children won’t allow me to perform my accents and sound effects often enough.

My husband and I take turns putting the girls to bed, and on my nights I spend extra time reading with Sadie, alone, in her room. Now she reads to me, and despite how tired I am after some long days, we both look forward to exploring books together. Scholastic’s Rainbow Magic series is excruciatingly boring to me, but Sadie enjoys the fairies and I have to work hard to avoid being too controlling of her rapidly expanding bookshelf.

Sometimes I’m a bad mommy: I strategize the introduction of new books and once in a while that Barbie is a Dentist book just goes missing?!? Beside Sadie’s bed right now, in a messy pile on the floor: Love That Dog, by Sharon Creech; Think Again, a book of poems by Jon Arno Lawson; School for Cats by Esther Avril and one of my favourite books in the world: Stormy Night, by Michele Lemieux.

My girls are growing up. I cling to the hope that Sadie and Lydia will let me read to and with them forever. I look forward to the day when they start to advise and instruct me on what to read. I also I have a naive plan to maintain intimate contact with their complicated teenage psyches by continuing to read what they read. Because reading was how we first learned to listen and be close to each other. For me, reading will always be one more wonderful way to love them.

Shannon and Sadie with Jean de Brunhoff at Louie's

Shannon Bramer is a poet and playwright. Her first play, Monarita, was produced in St. John’s in February 2010 and has since appeared in festivals across the country.  In June 2011 she enlisted the help of the celebrated Toronto publisher BookThug to create Think City, an anthology of poems for Gracefield Public School in North York. The Refrigerator Memory, published by Coach House Books in 2005, is on sale now! Sometimes you can find Shannon on the playground, recruiting little poets: poetintheplayground.blogspot.com.


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24 responses to ““My babe, my boobs, our books” … guest post by poet Shannon Bramer

  1. It’s not bad parenting to lead a child away from the Rainbow Fairies!!! (In my humble opinion). My kids know there’s a long list of books that Mommy won’t read to them: the list includes anything based on a TV show or movie. There are too many wonderful well-written books to read instead. Of course they may read any books of their own choosing, and I do have a fairy-loving-six-year-old — motivation for literacy! I think it’s just fine to teach critical reading skills from an early age.

    I don’t have teenagers yet, but your plan to stay connected with your future teenagers doesn’t sound naive at all, especially when you’ve got such great readers. Read what they’re reading. Sounds like a wonderful parenting blueprint.

  2. Ooooh this is spendid. I love, “For me, reading will always be one more wonderful way to love them.”

  3. Hello out there, thanks so much for reading…! Alongside the books (and Sadie, who didn’t have much choice in the matter!) I was lucky enough to have a supportive family and an amazing therapist from St.Joe’s helping me enormously. In the end, Sadie’s drawing says it all.

  4. louie

    hi shannon and sadie and lydia.im so humbly honored to be part of your lives . i cant thank you enough for making me a part of your story. i cant explain enough how excited i am for your book launch.i will always embrace your freindship and remeber the days all of us together enjoying time spent at my caffe163.i will always cherish your family for all the support everyday you all gave me.i wish you ,sadie and lydia and daddy the best in years to come with happiness. thank you and continue to write amazing stories.

    • lou, i miss you! you probably don’t know how much. you’ll see us before christmas…thanks so much for reading this. xxx shannon & sadie & lydia

      ps i remember when dave used to call me up to check on me and he’d say–“why don’t you go see louie?” and i usually did!

  5. Lenny

    Shannon -reading your post reminded me of those darker tired and sad moments but reading was and remains the escape door. Thank you to our mothers and those before them for seeing the value in this essential “life” jacket for our own children.

  6. jim

    Ahh, an interesting new twist, we lose but at the same time we gain———and perhaps we do not lose at all?

    Enjoyed the post and the obvious fascination with reading. Cannot really think of anything better for ‘blank’ children to develop a habit for.

  7. Marilyn

    Reading to babies is a wonderful thing. I did it too and those babies grew up to be writers and artists, so I think it is very worthwhile. Readers always will pass on their love of books.

  8. Lisa

    thanks for this warm peek into a snippet of life from a wonderfully engaged and loving mum – a person whose generous spirit is felt by many…me, louie and so many more, including those who have now been treated to this piece of writing.

  9. Caroline

    Lovely post. I think learning to breastfeed while laying down saved me, as it forced me to lie down with a book every afternoon for three consecutive babies. We now have the family tradition of the three girls and me piling into my bed every night to read together. I really like what you write about being a good mother because you read to your children. Sometimes when I feel I just can’t contemplate how horrible a mother I have been that day, I feel like I can redeem myself with half an hour of character voices and thrilling plots. Thank you so much, sometimes parenting is lonely, and it is so nice to hear that women around the world are living lives so like mine. (PS, re the Rainbow Magic books, I am now on strike!)

    • kristendenhartog

      Reading fixes things when I’m a horrible mom too. And I’m just thinking — it also fixes things when N is the one being horrible!

  10. “I also I have a naive plan to maintain intimate contact with their complicated teenage psyches by continuing to read what they read. Because reading was how we first learned to listen and be close to each other. For me, reading will always be one more wonderful way to love them.”
    Yes, yes, yes!

  11. mama

    …if my memory serves me correctly…I recall, an exquisite gentle creature reading children’s books to her unborn child still in her womb…and hence her journey began…

  12. ps the same “gentle creature” (as my wonderful mama put it) who wrote that post was screaming at her children in the NO FRILLS parking lot today.

  13. i am late to this thread but i hope my tardiness does not disqualify me from contributing
    we read together from the beginning- my babies and i
    a scared, lonely and very young mom with each child at the breast for about the same length of time as you shannon
    i read to save my sanity a tenuous grip strengthened by both breast and books
    and the equally tenuous relationship with my own mom (now gone since april )was one that had as its foundation my memory of her nursing my sister while reading
    i knew that i wanted my babies to feel safer than she had been able to make me yet the the only beacon i had to follow was that image in my mind
    and the knowledge that if it all gets too much i can read,,,
    i can read to the baby i can read to myself and i can nurse that baby
    it will work i know i can do it
    those babies are 29 and 34 now and i hope they felt safer than i did growing up
    my daughter and i have been sharing books for years (dipping into young adult fiction of late) and my son has just returned to reading after a long hiatus
    two days ago he called me because he was sick and i went to him with apple juice and gelato and tylenol and a thermometer and he held my hand and told me about the book i had given him for christmas and how he know i will love it when i read it
    and that ladies and gentlemen was worth the price of admission and 2 years of no sleep!
    i am a tireless crusader for the boobs and books way to better motherhood
    and to be perfectly honest i would give up a fairly significant something to spend an afternoon in the company of those two- say around 1984 snuggled up in my bed- books stacked like cordwood around us
    thanks for bringing it all back with such lovely posts

    • kristendenhartog

      And such lovely comments too. Thanks for giving us a glimpse of the pay-off years ahead.

    • Elsie Marley

      thank you so much for writing this; i wanted to cry (in a good way!) after reading your response. i felt quite shy about writing that post, but it was important to me…when i think of my girls as adults, and our future relationship(s) i feel so enormously lucky. thank you thank you, and here’s to 1984–i was eleven, and allowed to stay up late reading in my bed.

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