CULTURE & ARTS

9 Books About The Sweet (And Not-So-Sweet) Realities Of Motherhood

It’s not all kisses and bedtime stories -- except when it is.

Mother’s Day was established as a national holiday in 1914, and sons and daughters have been gifting their moms bouquets and warm sentiments ever since.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that the holiday should fall in May, when fields’ worth of flowers are in bloom. But to correlate parenthood with a sunny day doesn’t quite do the relationship justice; mother-child relationships can be messy, and that’s worth celebrating, too.

Below are nine of our favorite books -- both fiction and non -- about the realities of motherhood.

The History of Great Things by Elizabeth Crane

A mother and her daughter take turns telling each other’s life stories, filling in what they don’t know about the other with their own assumptions, fears and perceptions. It’s more than a clever approach to storytelling; Crane’s novel reminds us that even in our most intimate relationships, there’s always more to discover. It’s also a warm meditation on grief and ambition.

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

Refusing categorization quite actively, The Argonauts is many things: It’s a love story between the author and her partner, a critical look at the ways labels can be destructive, and an honest illustration of how pregnancy -- and motherhood -- can impact the professional lives of women. As an academic and a poet, Nelson’s dealt with snide remarks on her personal life choices from contemporaries, but the joy her son brings her is incomparable. She faces the physical pain of pregnancy and childbirth head-on, never shying away from the unfortunately taboo topics.

Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein

Orenstein’s made a career out of reporting on the lives of young women. Her most recent book, Girls & Sex, arose from interviews with women in their teenage years about hookups, blackouts, and the line of consent. Before that, though, she turned her critical eye towards America’s Disney-fueled princess culture, which she notes can contribute to young women actively disempowering themselves. Orenstein’s reporting is always rooted in her own fears and wants for her daughter, granting the books a nicely subjective tone.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

“I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t setting my story against hers,” Jeanette Winterson wrote in a memoir centered on her adoptive mother, whom she refers to both reverently, if a little coldly, as Mrs. Winterson. The younger Winterson credits her mother, a devout Christian, for her love of fiction and storytelling, and for introducing her to the power of words in the first place.  

After Birth by Elisa Albert

The joys of motherhood are well worth the little agonies -- or so the story goes. But Albert is more interested in telling the stories of those little agonies -- the ways our bodies and lives are transformed when we have children. She serves her grievances straight-up, demeaning her sudden lack of independence, and in doing so makes it okay to feel frustrated and to express those frustrations.

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

Of course Ferrante, whose Neapolitan novels make the ebbs and flows of unromantic, female friendships feel as epic as any war or political drama, writes honestly and touchingly about motherhood. The theme ripples throughout each book, first with Elena’s attempts to separate herself from her mother’s tendencies, which she fears she’s inherited. In the later books, her own love for her daughters is inextricable from her feeling that they impede upon her writing time, illuminating the multitudes of parenting.

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Anna, the heroine of Essbaum’s tumultuous anti-love story, feels trapped. While her husband works, she stays home with their three children, until an individual pursuit leads to an affair with a classmate. It’s a story about escaping domestic banality, but also about whether seeking such freedom can still be considered a moral choice.

Baby by Paula Bomer

The squeamish need not pick up a copy of Bomer’s stories, which aim to unearth the gritty side of deeply personal relationships, be it a crumbling marriage or a torrid mother-son connection. Whether or not you go in for the almost surreal violence dished out by Bomer, her work allows others to feel comfortable discussing taboo feelings about family.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

“All my life now appears to be one happy moment,” Offill writes in her spare book about a family healing from fracture. She’s quoting the first man in space, but in her case, the quote refers to mothering a young daughter, and watching her child bloom into a full-fledged human, with an individual personality. These joys are disrupted when she loses trust in her partner, but the narrator manages to glean joy from beauty, even during her family’s darkest hours.

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