A lot of new moms stop reading. But they're coming back — and might be driving book sales
As a child, Amanda Farrell-Low would devour books by flashlight late into the night. But when she had a child of her own, Farrell-Low stopped doing what had previously brought her so much joy.
"It gets so much harder to find the energy to do things for yourself," said Farrell-Low, 40, who lives in Victoria, B.C.
There's the sleep deprivation that tends to come with raising young children, she noted. Add to that the constant running list of to-dos in her head and the guilt of taking time for a hobby, and Farrell-Low, a former avid reader, barely read at all until her daughter started Grade 1.
"It felt indulgent to do something purely for myself," she said. "It's hard to just lose yourself in a book."
But now, Farrell-Low is part of a growing group of parents reclaiming reading for pleasure. Whether it's emerging from the trenches of raising young children, wanting to disconnect from screens and devices, or just taking a stand that, in 2023, they deserve an escape, parents are allowing themselves to get lost in stories.
And experts say not only is this a significant milestone for mothers, but there's some evidence moms are driving book sales.
"It's been a great way to disconnect from the logistics of parenting (the swim class registration, the research and parenting articles, and meal planning) and to focus on something that brings me joy," said Laura D'Angelo, 34, of Ottawa.
D'Angelo's son, Finley, is two and a half. It had been harder to read as Finley got busier, she said, but in recent months she's turned back to it.
"I realized that I can't handle not reading. I was more distracted, spending more time on my phone, and watching way more TV. None of those things are a problem, but they didn't feel right for me. So, I recommitted to my yearly reading goals — this year is 40 books," she said.
Moms don't have time to read books
There's a wildly popular and award-winning podcast called Moms Don't Have Time To Read Books. Host Zibby Owens, a mom of four based in New York City, started the podcast after her husband suggested she turn her essays about parenthood into a novel; the name of her podcast is the same retort she snapped back to her husband, she told Vulture in a 2019 profile.
That sentiment can be true for any new parent. But while dads also lose time to themselves and experience stress and isolation, multiple studies have shown the acute time pressures on mothers — particularly when it comes to the mental load.
For instance, a 2022 Statistics Canada report estimated that women consistently take on a larger share of unpaid household work, including childcare. Other studies have shown that mothers are emotionally exhausted and burned out. A 2021 report by media group Motherly found that nearly two-thirds of the mothers they surveyed had less than an hour to themselves in the last 24 hours.
New moms still read, notes Robin Bright, a professor and the interim dean in the faculty of Education at the University of Lethbridge — but their priority becomes reading to and with their children.
"They put their children first and therefore might not pursue reading for themselves during this time," said Bright, whose research includes parent and family literacy.
So, starting to read for yourself again is a significant milestone, she said.
"Especially if they gave it up for a period of time, it means that they are acknowledging the importance of doing things for themselves again. Taking time to read is a way for moms to assert the value of doing things they love."
Reading is also an effective way to relax, Bright said, noting that research shows it helps lower heart rates, relax muscles and distract from the challenges of daily life.
'I felt amazing'
When Magdalena Olszanowski was pregnant with her first child, she bought herself a gift: a new phone, to take better photos. She would scroll her phone during sleepless nights with her son, or while nursing, but instead of feeling more connected, Olszanowski says the phone made her feel more isolated.
So, when she was pregnant with her second child, she bought herself a different gift: an e-reader. And she made a conscientious effort to read during long nursing sessions with her daughter.
"I read three books after the first week she was born and I felt amazing," said Olszanowski, 41, who lives in Montreal.
"Being on my phone or watching TV was more of an escape from the realities of having a baby, and the overwhelm and all the emotions. Whereas with her, the reading felt like it was making the experience fuller."
Olszanowski recently started a reading group for people like herself who want to discuss literature and artwork. The group is largely mothers, she said, and they will mostly be reading fiction books on the theme of motherhood.
Women 'of a certain age' drive sales
While most reports and surveys don't break down book-buying habits by parental status, there are a number of industry indications that moms are buying more books.
The literary market has always been driven by women between the ages of 25 to 60, who have typically been the primary book-buyers, said Carly Watters, senior vice president and senior literary agent with P.S. Literary.
And book clubs — from Oprah's in the 1990s to Reese's Book Club now — plus book subscription boxes and the popular #BookTok on TikTok catapult titles to that audience.
When you look at which books are most popular on #BookTok, it's typically romance and book-club books, said Watters.
"Generally the readers of book-club books and women's fiction and romance are women of a certain age."
At the end of January, Publisher's Weekly noted that #BookTok is behind the increase in sales of romance books, in which unit sales rose from 18.5 million in 2018 to 36.1 million last year.
Sales of what they categorize as "fiction/women" print books increased 55 per cent in the last five years in the Canadian market, according to the non-profit Booknet Canada's August 2022 subject spotlight. The top-selling and top-borrowed books in this category were The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid and The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave, respectively. Reid's novel was wildly popular on #BookTok, while Dave's was a Reese's Book Club pick.
But the biggest clue that moms are reading more could be the popularity of audio books, Watters noted, which have seen double-digit growth.
"That is the clearest indication of people who want to multi-task, and moms are just so obvious as a candidate of people who need to multi-task," Watters said.
In Victoria, Farrell-Low says coming back to reading has brought her a lot of joy. And it's important to her, she says, to model a love of reading to her daughter, who just recently started reading, herself.
"My parents were always reading something. They always had a book on the go," she said. "That really stuck with me as a kid."
What the moms interviewed in this story are currently reading:
Amanda Farrell-Low: The Dreamblood Duology by N.K. Jemisin
Laura D'Angelo: Really Good, Actually by Monica Heisey
Magdalena Olszanowski: Little Labors by Rivka Galchen