FARGO — During her years of secondary education, Mary Rose “Rosie” DeCock dove deeply into words and stories.
“I have philosophy and English education degrees, so in college, I was reading all sort of high-quality literature,” says the mother of four. “But then it just stopped. It was easier to pick up Harry Potter, or a Tom Clancy thriller.”
When a friend told her about the Well-Read Mom groups forming locally, something leaped within her.
“I was attracted to the idea of reading great books again without having to write a term paper.”
The movement, begun to inspire a reading revival in mothers who’ve abandoned their reading habits to tend to the immediate needs of family, fit her yearnings.
“I get so much out of the reading and structure of reading a really great novel over a month,” says DeCock, naming “Helena” by Evelyn Waugh and “Kristin Lavransdatter” by Sigrid Unset as some recent favorites.
“In so many books, women are often not encouraged to be women other than in a hyper-erotic way,” she says. “It’s nice to read literature that gives voice to a lot of my experiences and shows I’m not alone.”
DeCock’s group comprises a variety of backgrounds.
“I think I’m the only stay-at-home mom, but I feel totally accepted and respected,” she says. “We can all bond over the books.”
Marcie Stokman, Crosby, Minn., founded Well-Read Mom in the fall of 2012 for this reason.
“When we read, we grow in a capacity in our inner space,” she says.
One of her daughters, a new mom at the time, was instrumental in helping set the group in motion after calling Stokman in tears, wondering if mothers of young children ever talk about anything other than diaper changes and feedings.
“In her cry, I heard my own loneliness from when I was a new mom 30-plus years earlier — in a new city with a new baby. He had colic, I didn’t know how to comfort him and I wanted to run from motherhood.”
The idea came to form a group of fellow mothers to read good books, in tandem, then meet to share about them.
“A book that’s stood the test of time can help us to see, educate us, and move us toward holiness,” Stokman says.
Though the movement draws on classics and timeless spiritual works from the Western and Catholic traditions, Stokman says there are Protestant groups, too, along with those comprising women of no particular faith. The idea is to “awaken the moral imagination to a greater truth of reality,” no matter one’s background, in the company of friends.
Trina Michels says her group “runs the gamut” with women from their 20s to their 70s.
“I love reading, but I hate having to figure out what to read,” says Michels, who says her group ended up becoming a major source of support during her divorce. “Just to have other women of faith with you on that journey, it’s amazing.”
She also appreciates that her children, ages 5 and 9, see her reading — and not just picture books. Michels remembers being transfixed by the cover of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” on her mother’s nightstand as a child. Though “too little” to read it then, she experienced a full-circle moment when the title emerged within her Well-Read Mom group.
Gena Bohn, whose children are 3, 6 and 8, met Stokman when she visited Fargo this past fall to promote her new book, “The Well-Read Mom: Read More. Read Well.” A flyer at church piqued her curiosity.
“It just stirred my heart a little bit, and I thought, ‘I need to read more. I watch too much on Netflix.’”
Though new to Well-Read Mom, she calls one of the first books she opened, “The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of Our Times,” “an incredible read.”
“I used to read a lot when I was a kid. But something happened in college — it was more forced on you,” Bohn says, admitting, “When you’re sitting and watching TV, your brain isn’t as active.”
She’s hoping her renewed interest in reading will inspire her whole family toward the same.
DeCock says taking time to read despite our busyness “enriches our life in ways that we need,” and that while moms tend to be good at giving, they need to give to themselves, too.
“It’s not quite the same as prayer, but it’s just as reflective on the surface.”
In fact, her husband seems to have caught her fervor, starting his own group, which she calls, with a smile, “Well-Read Dad.”
“They have around 25 guys, and have gotten so big, they almost had to turn some people away. So, I think there’s a hunger out there.”
Sometimes, when her hands are especially busy, DeCock reads the audiobook version. “I can listen while sweeping and mopping.”
Stokman says the groups are trying to get more creative in these more confined times, through using Zoom and other ways of connecting — though these don’t replace in-person gatherings.
“It’s a tool for us, but you don’t read the facial expressions, and you can’t really laugh together.”
The one rule of the group makes it all manageable. “If you don’t get the book read, don’t apologize.”
It’s not about adding guilt, she says, but “to invite others to come along with us,” and to revive “the art of deep reading and of conversation.”
“We’re giving ourselves permission to just take little bites,” Stokman says. “It’s cultivating our imagination toward what’s good, beautiful and true.”
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on April 26, 2020.]