The early days of parenthood are notoriously difficult. You’re sleep-deprived and often dribbled with spit-up or worse. Date nights are constricted by sitter availability and feeding schedules. Making time for intimacy, whether it’s sex or a meaningful conversation, is hard when you’re both worn out by 7 pm.
One night when our daughter, Madeleine, was about four weeks old, my husband and I bathed her, snapped up her footie pajamas, and I settled in to nurse her to sleep as usual. That night, Andrew did something different. He cracked open an anthology of children’s stories and began to read out loud. The first story was “How the Whale Got His Throat,” by Rudyard Kipling, and so a new tradition began.
Over the next six months, reading together became a nightly ritual. We read fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm, and Charles Perrault. Andrew lowered his voice to an ominous boom for the Wizard of Oz and summoned up his best mongoose battle cry for Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. The effect was lost on Madeleine, but I was flattered that my husband was trying to impress me at the end of a tiring day. I liked the way he glanced up from the page when he read something funny, to see if I was laughing, too. To our surprise, sharing a bedtime story felt more like a date than childcare. In hushed voices, we joked and talked about our favorite books like a new couple just getting to know each other.
It’s easy to find research touting the benefits of parents reading to children. Fewer scientists are studying couples reading to each other. But there’s evidence to suggest telling each other stories is good for our brains and our relationship. Marriages are stronger when spouses enjoy a hobby together. Reading is a great choice because it naturally offers material for discussion. In London, you can even find a “bibliotherapist” to recommend reads to bring you and your partner closer.
Some nights, reading together prompted more honest discussions about the challenges of new parenthood. Hansel and Gretel is a much more brutal story than I remembered. Reading about children abandoned in the woods by their parents and tormented by a witch made it easier to admit that I sometimes felt more frustrated than sympathetic toward Madeleine’s wails. After all, I didn’t want to cook and eat her—just put her down and take five minutes to myself sometimes.
Fiction can also stimulate your ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Whether you’re feeling heroic or villainous by the end of the day, relating to a character can offer a new perspective for your struggles and emotions. That extra burst of empathy comes in handy when your nerves are raw with exhaustion and there are still chores left to be done.
Reading a bedtime story together acts as a bridge between the busyness of the day and relaxation time in the evening. The adventures of Horatio, the watermelon-stealing dragon, might seem like an unconventional meditation subject, but a lot of the effects are the same. My breath slows and steadies. The to-do list fades into the background. I pay closer attention to what’s around me: the cadence of Andrew’s voice, Madeleine’s sleepy weight sinking into my arms, the hall light glinting off the chandelier.
Soon enough, our daughter will be an active participant in bedtime stories. We’ll adjust to a toddler’s love of hearing the same book over and over again. The focus will be back on soothing and entertaining her, instead of each other. I hope she’ll love relaxing into the flow of a good story. But I hope Andrew and I will keep looking up from the page at each other, too. I want us to keep making time to connect and imagine together, escaping for a little while into a world that’s just for us. We’ve picked Anne of Green Gables to read next. I can’t wait.