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The Bittersweet Milestone I Didn't See Coming

Reading is one of those things that make sense to me as a mother, something that came easily and defines the contours of my days.
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My addiction started early. What began as an innocent desire to escape into fantasy and find some calm in the midst of chaos turned into a lifelong habit. I ran with crowds that accepted my behavior, only cutting back when I got my first real job and realized my extracurricular activities would have to take a backseat if I hoped to stay employed. My husband knew all about my history and even loved me for it. When I had my son, though, it all came rushing back. In the anxious, "Oh dear God, what happens if I drop him" first days of my son's life, I needed something to keep me occupied and take the edge off the sleep deprivation. I couldn't stop the cravings.

I started reading again.

In the beginning, there wasn't much else I could do while trapped in a blue puffy rocker with a voracious 10-pound newborn attached to my breasts. Before I figured out that I didn't need both hands to hold him, I asked my husband to read to us. Picking from a shelf filled with carefully chosen childhood classics, we started with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, but quickly switched to James and the Giant Peach, because for reasons I cannot explain, an orphan boy living with giant insects flying over the ocean in an enormous piece of fruit seemed less terrifying than an orphan boy going to magic school and learning how to fly a broom. I would close my eyes and listen, soothed by the rhythm of the chair, as my husband's voice filled the space between baby cries and cooing. Once I learned to juggle a book and a baby at the same time, there was no going back. I had rediscovered the magic and joy of getting lost in a good book.

I was hooked, and despite his focus on sleeping and spitting up, I was convinced Little Dude was too. I had a partner in literary crime.

Brightly colored board books lured us further into the dangerous world of reading. Although they're designed to withstand the brutality of infant hands, I discovered that even board books could be ruined if you dropped them in the bathtub or chewed on them with newly acquired baby teeth. They are also strain-your-shoulder-wrench-out-your-back kind of heavy if you insist on taking 15 of them on a trip to the park. I identified the magical properties of clear packing tape as I honed my book repair skills. Books are not discarded in our house; they are mended and tended and allowed to retire to the memory trunk in the attic. I perfected my sing-song voice.

Soon, however, board books were not enough. We needed more.

Picture books gave us the high we were looking for, filled with more complicated stories and the occasional inside joke. When I say books, I am using the plural intentionally. I am incapable of restraint. During his toddler years, Little Dude picked out four or five books a night and I read each of them faithfully. We borrowed armloads from the library, made regular runs to the bookstore and gratefully took in refugees from our neighbors. I bought bigger and bigger bookshelves (thank you IKEA) and filled them. I stole space in the basement, living room, TV room and kitchen, and made piles on the floor. We are never more than arm's reach from a book, so we never have to wait for our fix.

These days we're carefully adding in chapter books. This is the good stuff. We're talking Breaking Bad-quality storytelling, so I'm going slowly. I read until I am hoarse, visiting with pirates, monsters, fairies, lost boys, animals of all shapes and sizes, knights and dragons, mischievous boys and girls, planes, trains, automobiles, construction trucks, sinking ships and talking vegetables. I read when I am sick, or tired, or overworked. This isn't to say that on occasion I haven't wanted to poke my eyes out when my son picks the same book five nights in a row, but those times are few and far between. My husband loves to read to Little Dude too, but I rarely surrender my spot on the bed, snuggled up to a boy who smells vaguely of peanut butter and shampoo. Reading is one of those things that make sense to me as a mother, something that came easily and defines the contours of my days.

It's also nearing an end.

Three nights ago, Little Dude asked if we could read in the "big bed," which is code for "maybe I can trick her into letting me sleep in here instead of my own room tonight." Because he is cute and his dad is traveling on business and I am weak, I said yes. He hauled in a stack of books, hoping that I'd agree to read them in addition to our nightly chapter of Harry Potter. (We've finally reached the point where his curiosity about what happens to the Boy Who Lived outweighs his fear of three-headed dogs and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. This is my Holy Grail.)

I told him to look through his books while I got ready for bed. I took off my necklace, brushed my teeth and started rummaging for a pair of pajamas when I realized that Little Dude wasn't just looking through his books. He was reading one of them. Out loud. Using real words. In order. He was halfway through Green Eggs and Ham before it hit me that he was reading the bedtime story. I climbed quietly on the bed to listen. Sixty-two pages and one teary mom later, he was done.

Just like that, everything changed. I have loved Dr. Seuss for as long as I can remember, but none of his stories has ever made me cry. Not even The Lorax, and if the hungry Brown Bar-ba-loots don't get you, nothing will. I'm proud and pleased that we've raised a boy who loves books as much as we do. But his independence means I'm no longer the gatekeeper to the worlds found between the covers of a book -- he has his own way in. For someone like me, who has spent her life spellbound by good stories and savoring words, this is no small thing. My son is doing that pesky thing that kids do: he's growing up. Although I know he's not going to abandon our bedtime routine tomorrow -- Harry has six more years at Hogwarts and I think we'll see them through together -- I am on borrowed time. I have to prepare myself for the day when I'm relegated to making snacks and stocking the bookshelves and helping him with the really long words as he prepares to travel to Narnia and Middle Earth and Olympus without me. I only hope he enjoys the journey as much as I did.

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