Everything I Needed to Know About Motherhood, I Learned From 'Charlotte's Web'

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Reading a book 200 times is a surefire way to find out whether you love it or want to throw its rhyming llama couplets into the diaper pail. Children's books especially do a tricky dance for an audience of squinty-eyed parents and wide-eyed tots: the best ones, like a syringe of infant-suspension Tylenol, have a little something for the parent at the end. These are the ones we are celebrating in This Book Belongs To — the books that send us back to the days of our own footed pajamas, and make us feel only half-exhausted when our tiny overlords ask to read them one more time.

E. B. White once said, “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” I’m not sure there is any book that this is so poignantly obvious in as Charlotte’s Web. The book, which is so innocently written as to be a perfect first chapter book for children, also covers so much of the darkness in this world (abandonment, fear, greed, death). But it does so beautifully, in a way that leaves you feeling uplifted instead of heartbroken by the end.

Maybe that’s why it’s the first book I ever truly fell in love with.

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The nights my mother spent reading Charlotte’s Web to me are among but a handful of good memories I have of my mother. She wasn’t a great mom. She wasn’t even really a good one. At least, not that I remember. She left my life completely when I was 13 years old, but she’d ducked out mentally long before that.

So it could be it was just the dedicated time with her I so desperately craved that I associate with this book. It might have had nothing to do with the book itself at all.

All I know is that in a sea of hard and sad memories, I always carried those nights with me. The nights my mom read to me my first chapter book.

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E.B. White surely loved the world. But I’d argue he had a special soft spot in his heart for mothers.

So when my daughter was born, one of the first books I bought was Charlotte’s Web. I knew it would be years before I could read it to her. She was just an infant, after all. But on the inside cover of that book, dated exactly one month after my little girl was born, there is a note to my daughter about why this book was so special to me. About why I couldn’t wait to share it with her.

I got that opportunity at last just recently. My daughter is a few months shy of five years old, and truth be told, she’s probably not really ready for chapter books just yet. The nights we read it were hit or miss; some nights she was incredibly into it, and others she begged to be done before our chapter was over, her attention span just not there for a book with so few pictures.

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She probably could have waited another year before embarking on this next stage of raising a reader. But me? I couldn’t wait any longer.

So together, over the course of about a month, we worked our way through Charlotte’s Web. And on those nights when she was truly invested, as deeply engrossed in the story as I was, my heart soared.

This was the motherhood moment I had been waiting for.

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But something else happened as we read that book together: I remembered what it was about, and I saw how closely it reflected back on my life and hers.

You see, my daughter is adopted. And while Wilbur is pushed out of his own family quite young in life, his care falls on the shoulders of those who chose to step up for him — Fern, who starts the book out fighting desperately for his life, and goes on to act much like his foster mom in those early weeks, and Charlotte, who takes over the role of mother and friend when Wilbur is moved into the barn.

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Both sacrifice themselves for Wilbur. And both clearly love him in a way any mother would be sure to recognize.

In my life, that role was filled by my grandmother. And in my daughter’s life, I hope she’ll always know that I’m here to fill that role for her.

It’s a book about motherhood at its core, but the kind of motherhood that doesn’t require biological (or even species-specific) ties. The kind of family that is often formed through love rather than blood.

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The kind of family my daughter and I have today.

By the end, when Charlotte has done everything in her power to protect both Wilbur and her own children (seeming to indicate there is no difference between the two in her mind) and most of those children have moved on, Wilbur is left with the remaining three who decide to stay and form a new family with him. And he is delighted to have them, and their children and children’s children along the way.

It’s an end that could have been filled with so much sadness (because after all, Charlottes death is unexpected by most childhood readers), but instead it is somehow filled with so much hope.

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E.B. White surely loved the world. But I’d argue he had a special soft spot in his heart for mothers.

And while my own daughter might not have been completely ready for her first chapter book just yet, I’m glad Charlotte’s Web is the one we started with. And I’m willing to bet we’ll pick it up again in a year or two. Because I hope she carries with her a million good memories of our life together. B

I also hope she’ll always remember those nights cuddled up in bed with her Mommy and a book.

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