Are our children what we read? (Or, Reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell while pregnant)

I’ve just finished reading another post by Karen Milford, a Medium blogger so talented that I’m torn between delight at the beauty and precision of her writing, and pure, unadulterated jealousy that I can’t write the same way.

This post was about a concept that’s intrigued me for a while: What we read when we’re pregnant. Milford lists the books she read and the articles she enjoyed during the first month of her maternity leave, and asks for suggestions for the months to come.

When I was pregnant with my son, my passion for reading felt potentially dangerous. Pregnant women are warned about how different foods and substances and lifestyles can affect the baby/babies they’re carrying, and I often wondered if the same held true, in some way, for the books we pore over.

I’d think about those over-the-top statements they used to make at B-movies and the like, about how pregnant women should abstain from watching, the same way they should (far more understandably) abstain from certain wild amusement park rides. Although I didn’t really think there was any science behind those movie warnings, I remember picking my books with caution, in spite of myself….

…and yet….

I had bought Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell several years before, in an extremely convenient set of three paperbacks. It’s not unusual for me to hold onto books for a while; I prefer to read them when I really feel the desire to, and no matter how interesting the story seemed, I just didn’t feel ready for it. And then, when I was in my second trimester, I suddenly was.

I have to confess, maybe a part of it was also because I figured, if the words I was reading and the things they were making me feel were somehow absorbed by my future baby, what better than something magical and wondrous, and verbally Jane Austen-esque?

And so, I cracked open the first paperback. I quickly realized the book’s magic was extremely strong — among the strongest I’ve ever experienced in more than two decades of fantasy and fairytales. And it was dark, sometimes close to terrifying. And it got very strange (no pun intended, though I suspect Clarke did intend it).

I’m sure I read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell in many places. In addition to my being under its spell, I also sort of had to — it was so long, and I wanted to finish it before my baby was actually out there in the world (This had nothing to do with the osmosis thing, just practical thinking). But the dingy waiting room of my local hospital’s maternity ward is the site I’ll most associate it with. Every month, I’d go there, knowing I’d wait for a good while before my regular prenatal check-up. The contrast between that place, and the cold, finely detailed scenes of my enchanting reading material was amazing.

And what the book often did for me was amazing, as well — as is true for any great, engrossing read. It took me out of my everyday life and worries, and made me feel a bigger sense of, well, the mystery and magic behind things. My pregnant body, often achy and itchy, didn’t matter. That drab, overheated hospital waiting room became barely noticeable…or even comforting at times.

I don’t remember when I finished the novel. I’m sure it was well before my son’s birth, though, as I’d hoped. It’s possible I marked it in the book (now carefully packed and stowed in a storage unit) — something I usually do when I come out of a reading experience that really engaged me. This one had enthralled me.

So far, I can’t discern any magic, or terror, or wonder, or appreciation for early 19th century English and elaborate, fairytale-filled footnotes in my son. He is clever and funny and inquisitive. He’s observant, perhaps like a novelist. He may sometimes have nightmares (since he can’t talk much yet, it’s hard to be sure).

You could argue that many of these characteristics are ones my husband and/or I also possess, or that many toddlers in general seem to share. But maybe there’s more. Like the destiny of the book’s characters, it will take time before I really know how my son turns out.

I do hope the possible nightmares aren’t my fault, though.

is a writer & worrier. She lives in Paris with an eccentric Frenchman & a delightfully weird little boy. Besides them, she loves books, history, & cookies.

is a writer & worrier. She lives in Paris with an eccentric Frenchman & a delightfully weird little boy. Besides them, she loves books, history, & cookies.