When my daughter was a baby, I spent a significant amount of time walking around a series of lakes near my home in a bid to get her to sleep. She was not a good napper, but there was a particular bumpy path that seemed to lull her to sleep much more effectively than all the musical toys and white noise. So that’s where we spent our daylight hours: her wrapped up against the winter cold, me with an overstuffed changing bag and a battered hardback copy of Harry Potter.
You can anticipate some things about having children, but feeling forced to walk the same stretch of path 30-odd times a day was on a very long list of Things I Never Expected When I Was Expecting.
Such was my familiarity with that path I could generally time it so she’d fall asleep near a bench, and I’d get somewhere between 30 and 45 minutes to read in peace. (It was rarely more than 45 minutes because, as Dr Google smugly informed me, newborn sleep cycles are inexplicably short – who knew?)
That’s still enough time to re-read an old favourite. Like many of us, I’ve often returned to Harry Potter at times of change – and as this was one of the biggest changes I'd ever experienced, off I went back to Hogwarts. In the first year of my daughter’s life I read the series from cover to cover again. Not just on park benches: having a baby also made me get a Kindle, so I could read during endless night feeds.
The reason I went back to Harry Potter is obvious enough. There is something wonderfully comforting about picking up a book you know by heart, especially when you’re in the middle of a situation about which you know absolutely nothing, full of fear that you might just explode with love and anxiety at any given moment.
Becoming a new mother feels like you’ve just crash-landed in the Hogwarts grounds having gone a few rounds with the Whomping Willow. Before you can get your breath back you’re rushed off to get sorted (off you go, you can find your own way). Once you’re in that room it won’t matter how far you pull the hat down over your head, you’ll still be able to feel everyone judging you for every decision you’re about to make.
On top of that: you haven’t got the right robes, the books you managed to read might as well have been in Ancient Runes and if you were supposed to have a magic wand it’s been well and truly lost in transit. Oh, and you’re clutching a crying baby that is somehow relying on you to navigate this strange and wonderful new world.
Well. That’s how it felt to me, anyway.
So while I was adjusting, I sought refuge in a strange and wonderful world that did feel familiar. But something happened as I progressed from Philosopher’s Stone to Deathly Hallows. The books felt different. It wasn’t just the fact that Lily’s sacrifice was inevitable, that the casual killing of Cedric Diggory broke my heart into even smaller pieces, or the visceral response I experienced when Molly said, ‘NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!’ There were also smaller moments that spoke louder.
Such as in Goblet of Fire, after Cedric dies: Harry’s in Dumbledore’s office, waiting for him to finish explaining to Sirius. He’s exhausted, numb and, to all intents and purposes, alone – except for Fawkes, who flies across to sit on his lap.
“‘’Lo, Fawkes,” said Harry quietly. He stroked the phoenix’s beautiful scarlet and gold plumage. Fawkes blinked peacefully up at him. There was something comforting about his warm weight.”
For me, this particular paragraph echoes because it captures the unreal, muffled softness of the moments that follow life-changing events. The simple things that you focus on before you start to deal with how life is going to be now.
The tragedy of Cedric’s death and the losses that come after show the truth of Dumbledore’s belief that grief is love. Of course you don’t have to be a parent to understand that. But I was noticing all sorts of nuances, wondering about things that happened off the page. What did Hermione say to her parents before she enchanted them to forget about her? How did Dumbledore’s mother cope? Was there ever any kind of friendship between Sirius and Regulus?
Relationships, especially family relationships, are tricky. It’s not like becoming a parent made me suddenly aware of that, but on some level it showed me it’s OK to know absolutely nothing. With love, everyone is just winging it. Even the magical folk.
One day, when I was reading Order of the Phoenix on a bench, I looked up and caught someone looking at me with concern. I’d had a sleepless night and a confusing morning and I was properly sobbing. I thought about explaining – ‘…well yes, I am delirious with tiredness and up to my ears in newborn confusion, but also Sirius just died and I’m sorry if I’m hyperventilating but love just makes everything feel so precarious and how are we supposed to deal with this vulnerability?’ – but instead I just wiped my eyes, smiled reassuringly, and checked on the baby.
I mean, yes, love will make you vulnerable. Sometimes it is difficult. But it’s also literally magic, and we all know that.