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.
When I was pregnant, I read on some mom blog that I ought to be reading books to my unborn baby so he could get used to my voice, and the one I reached for, entirely randomly, was The Pout Pout Fish. I remember thinking, boy, what a bummer this fish is. I hope I am not unintentionally transmitting the "dreary-wearies" to my son in utero.
Several months later, when my 1-year-old boy began showing interest in hearing his parents read books to him, it was the first one he grabbed. He loved turning the pages, and he hummed some adorable baby sounds whenever I did the, “blub, bluuuub, bluuuuub."
For the next couple of months, he loved to hear the blub, bluuuub, bluuuuub over and over and over again. It was so very cute. We thought he must really be getting into reading, so we got him a couple more books to expand his library… but he didn’t have an interest in any of them. He only wanted the Pout Pout Fish.
Soon, I had the words committed to memory — whenever my son would start to get upset, I could just start reciting the story and he’d either calm down or go to his bookshelf, grab the book, and climb into my lap for me to read it.
Around the thousandth time reading it, I began to see similarities between the Pout Pout Fish and myself.
The ~protagonist~ of the board book thinks it is his life’s destiny to be mopey. He constantly bumps into sea creatures offering him advice on how to be cheerful, but isn't open to any of it because he believes it is just in his nature to be sad. He is, let's say, really comfortable in his funk.
I am usually a happy and positive person, but a series of events the past year have caused me great emotional strain. My family and I recently moved from the U.S. to Singapore, and although I felt excitement over the prospect of becoming ex-pats in a new place, I also felt worried. Worried that I wouldn’t be able to adjust to our new lifestyle, worried that my son wouldn’t have the same level of health care, worried that I wouldn’t enjoy our new normal. With my husband going back to the office and no longer working remotely from home, I was afraid of feeling isolated, and for a while, I was. I felt helpless not knowing anyone in my new neighborhood and not having a stable job or hobby to keep me occupied. I felt guilty for feeling lonely even though I pretty much had everything I could ever want and need.
I also went through my lowest low during the height of the #MeToo movement. It took me a long time to sort through my feelings about my own experience. And like the Pout Pout Fish's friends, a lot of my loved ones tried their hardest to snap me out of it. They told me that what happened is now in the past and that I should move on. They reminded me that I had a family that had nothing but love for me. They encouraged me to get back to my usual, cheerful self. But all I felt was misunderstood. They didn’t get it. They didn’t get me, the same way the sea creatures didn't quite get their sullen friend. How do you reach someone like me? Someone bottoming out in their own quiet little trench of blue?
In the book, the Pout Pout Fish finds his melancholy punctured one day by a shimmery shiny fish that dives down to where he is and plants a big kiss on his face. It shocks him to his core. Rocks the whole sensitive sad-guy affect he has attached himself to.
In my own life, my baby placing his tiny hand in mine as I read him his favorite book for the umpteenth time reminded me of a couple of things — that it’s OK to feel sad sometimes, because it is a part of life. And that when you’re feeling blue, it’s normal for people who care for you to want to help, even when you don’t ask them to. Sometimes, the very same people will unintentionally say or do things that will cause you to be even more forlorn. However, at the end of the day, when you least expect it, something or someone will give you purpose and ultimately make you feel all right again.
The way this silvery purple friend transformed the Pout Pout Fish's dreary-wearies into cheery-cheeries with just a simple kiss made me realize that through a simple change in perspective, a difficult situation can become slightly more tolerable. I know I won’t be able to get there right away all the time, but knowing it’s possible provides me with great comfort.
It's hard being a mom, but I realized that whatever the currents are doing, I have my baby here always, just one snuggly kiss away.
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherlode, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.