Motherhood is a fraught subject on which everyone has an opinion. Our opinion is that mothers should be celebrated, and women who choose not to become mothers should be celebrated, and that we wish to be lucky enough to write like these talented women below.
The books on today’s list all wrangle, directly or indirectly, with motherhood and all that comes with it (or its absence). Read them and be inspired to write like a mother(fucker).
The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso
Hortensia James and Marion Agostino are neighbors. One is black, the other white. Both are successful women with impressive careers. Both have recently been widowed, and are living with questions, disappointments, and secrets that have brought them shame. And each has something that the woman next door deeply desires. Sworn enemies, the two share a hedge and a deliberate hostility, which they maintain with a zeal that belies their age. But, one day, an unexpected event forces Hortensia and Marion together. As the physical barriers between them collapse, their bickering gradually softens into conversation and, gradually, the two discover common ground.
Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel
A tale of filial sleuthery about Bechdel’s mother, a voracious reader, music lover, passionate amateur actor. Unhappily married to a closeted gay man, her mother’s artistic aspirations simmered under the surface of Bechdel’s childhood… and who stopped touching or kissing her daughter good night, forever, when she was seven. Bechdel embarks on a quest for answers.
Not for Mothers Only edited by Catherine Wagner and Rebecca Wolff
“The poets in this anthology have been ravished, whacked, illuminated, blown away by the experience of motherhood. The thousand experiences. The thousand interruptions. The fact that it is never what we expected, and that it is overwhelmingly intense.” – Alicia Ostriker, from the foreword
The Blue Jay’s Dance by Louise Erdrich
Erdrich’s first major work of nonfiction brilliantly and poignantly examines the joys and frustrations, the compromises and insights, and the difficult struggles and profound emotional satisfactions the acclaimed author experienced in one twelve-month period—from a winter pregnancy through a spring and summer of new motherhood to her return to writing in the fall.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Sethe was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. Her new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved.
Little Labors by Rivka Galchen
A slanted, enchanted literary miscellany. Varying in length from just a sentence or paragraph to a several-page story or essay, Galchen’s puzzle pieces assemble into a shining, unpredictable, mordant picture of the ordinary-extraordinary nature of babies and literature. Anecdotal or analytic, each part opens up an odd and tender world of wonder.
Operating Instructions by Ann Lamott
It’s not like she’s the only woman to ever have a baby. At thirty-five. On her own. But Anne Lamott makes it all fresh in her now-classic account of how she and her son and numerous friends and neighbors and some strangers survived and thrived in that all important first year. From finding out that her baby is a boy (and getting used to the idea) to finding out that her best friend and greatest supporter Pam will die of cancer (and not getting used to that idea), with a generous amount of wit and faith (but very little piousness), Lamott narrates the great and small events that make up a woman’s life.
Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta in the 1980s, the novel revolves around James Witherspoon’s two families—the public one and the secret one. When the daughters from each family meet and form a friendship, only one of them knows they are sisters. It is a relationship destined to explode when secrets are revealed and illusions shattered. At the heart of it all are the two lives at stake, and Jones portrays the fragility of these young girls with raw authenticity as they seek love, demand attention, and try to imagine themselves as women, just not as their mothers.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
A genre-bending memoir, a work of “autotheory” offering fresh, fierce, and timely thinking about desire, identity, and the limitations and possibilities of love and language. At its center is a romance: the story of the author’s relationship with artist Harry Dodge. This story, which includes the author’s account of falling in love with Dodge, who is fluidly gendered, as well as her journey to and through a pregnancy, offers a firsthand account of the complexities and joys of (queer) family-making.
Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines edited by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, China Martens, and Mai’a Williams
Revolutionary Mothering places marginalized mothers of color at the center of a world of necessary transformation. The challenges we face as movements working for racial, economic, reproductive, gender, and food justice, as well as anti-violence, anti-imperialist, and queer liberation, are the same challenges that many mothers face every day. Oppressed mothers create a generous space for life in the face of life-threatening limits, activate a powerful vision of the future while navigating tangible concerns in the present, move beyond individual narratives of choice toward collective solutions, live for more than ourselves, and remain accountable to a future that we cannot always see.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Ng’s new novel traces the intertwined fates of the picture-perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives. Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of secrets, the nature of art and identity, and the ferocious pull of motherhood—and the danger of believing that following the rules can avert disaster.
The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp
The story of a mother’s journey through grief and beyond it. Rapp’s response to her son’s Tay-Sachs diagnosis was a belief that she needed to “make [her] world big”—to make sense of her family’s situation through art, literature, philosophy, theology and myth. Drawing on a broad range of thinkers and writers, Rapp learns what wisdom there is to be gained from parenting a terminally ill child. She re-examines our most fundamental assumptions about what it means to be a good parent, to be a success, and to live a meaningful life.
Our Andromeda by Brenda Shaughnessy
Brenda Shaughnessy’s third collection, Our Andromeda, delves into the idea of parallel existence by imagining the galaxy of Andromeda as a utopian. At once humorous and heart-breaking, fanciful and filled with difficult realities, Shaughnessy takes on the vastness of the universe by turning inward, examining human vulnerabilities as they are manifested in the struggles surrounding motherhood, human frailty, and a divided self.
A Life’s Work by Rachel Cusk
The experience of motherhood is an experience in contradiction. It is commonplace and it is impossible to imagine. It is at once banal, bizarre, compelling, tedious, comic, and catastrophic. A Life’s Work attempts to tell something of an old story set in a new era of sexual equality. Cusk’s account of a year of modern motherhood becomes many stories: a farewell to freedom, sleep, and time; a lesson in humility and hard work; a journey to the roots of love; a meditation on madness and mortality; and most of all a sentimental education in babies, books, toddler groups, bad advice, crying, breastfeeding, and never being alone.
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
Jenny Offill’s heroine, referred to in these pages as simply “the wife,” once exchanged love letters with her husband postmarked Dept. of Speculation, their code name for all the uncertainty that inheres in life and in the strangely fluid confines of a long relationship. As they confront an array of common catastrophes—a colicky baby, a faltering marriage, stalled ambitions—the wife analyzes her predicament, invoking everything from Keats and Kafka to the thought experiments of the Stoics to the lessons of doomed Russian cosmonauts. She muses on the consuming, capacious experience of maternal love, and the near-total destruction of the self that ensues from it as she confronts the friction between domestic life and the seductions and demands of art.
What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
In “Who Will Greet You at Home,” a woman desperate for a child weaves one out of hair, with unsettling results. In “Wild,” a disastrous night out shifts a teenager and her Nigerian cousin onto uneasy common ground. In “The Future Looks Good,” three generations of women are haunted by the ghosts of war, while in “Light,” a father struggles to protect and empower the daughter he loves. And in the title story, in a world ravaged by flood and riven by class, experts have discovered how to “fix the equation of a person”—with rippling, unforeseen repercussions.
Daughter by Asha Bandele
At nineteen, Aya is a promising Black college student from Brooklyn who is struggling through a difficult relationship with her emotionally distant mother, Miriam. One winter night, Aya is shot by a white police officer in a case of mistaken identity. Keeping vigil by her daughter’s hospital bed, Miriam remembers her own youth: her battle for independence from her parents, her affair with Aya’s father, and the challenges of raising her daughter. But as Miriam confronts her past—her losses and regrets—she begins to heal and discovers a tentative hopefulness.
Everything Is Flammable by Gabrielle Bell
Bell revisits her childhood home in the remote mountains of Northern California after her mother’s home, car, and belongings are suddenly swallowed up by a fire. Acknowledging her issues with anxiety, financial hardships, memories of a semi-feral childhood, and a tenuous relationship with her mother, Bell helps her mother put together a new home on top of the ashes. Spanning a single year, Everything is Flammable unfolds with humor and brutal honesty.
Once by Meghan O’Rourke
Facing a mother’s impending death, O’Rourke invokes a vanished childhood of “American houses, wet / kids moving through them in Spandex bathing suits; / inside, sandwiches with crusts cut off.” But the future hangs ominously over this summer paradise: not just the death of O’Rourke’s mother but the stark civic traumas faced by American citizens in the twenty-first century. These poems are shadowed by illness, both civic and personal, and by the mysterious currents of grief. What emerges over the course of the volume is a meditation not only on a daughter’s relationship with her mother but also on a citizen’s to her nation. Throughout, Once examines the forces that shape war, divorce, and death, exploring personal culpability and charting uncertain new beginnings as the speakers seek to build homes in a shattered land and find whole selves amid broken, thwarted relationships.
Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History by Camille Dungy
As a working mother whose livelihood as a poet-lecturer depended on travel, Camille Dungy crisscrossed America with her infant, then toddler, intensely aware of how they are seen, not just as mother and child, but as black women. With exceptional candor and grace, Dungy explores our inner and outer worlds―the intimate and vulnerable experiences of raising a child, living with illness, conversing with strangers, and counting on others’ goodwill. Across the nation, she finds fear and trauma, and also mercy, kindness, and community. Penetrating and generous, Guidebook to Relative Strangers is an essential guide for a troubled land.
MOTHERs by Rachel Zucker
Part essay, part meditation, part memoir, part poem, Rachel Zucker’s MOTHERs defies traditional expectations of what a book should do or can be. Zucker writes about her own mother and the various surrogate mothers she has had in her life in a way that is refreshingly honest, raw, and real.
Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away by Alice Anderson
After Hurricane Katrina, Alice Anderson has returned home to assess the damage to her beloved Mississippi coastline and the once-immaculate home she’d carefully cultivated for her husband, Dr. Liam Rivers, one of the community’s highly respected doctors. But in the wake of this natural disaster, a more terrifying challenge emerges as Liam’s mental health spirals out of control, culminating in a violent attack at knifepoint, from which Alice is saved by their three-year-old son. Afraid for her life, she flees with her children. What ensues is an epic battle—emotional, psychological, spiritual, and legal—for her children’s welfare, for self-preservation, and ultimately for redemption.
Blood Lyrics by Katie Ford
In Katie Ford’s third collection, she sets her music into lyrics wrung from the world’s dangers. Blood Lyrics is a mother’s song, one seared with the knowledge that her country wages long, aching wars in which not all lives are equal. There is beauty imparted too, but it arrives at a cost: “Don’t say it’s the beautiful / I praise,” Ford writes. “I praise the human, / gutted and rising.”
Our Short History by Lauren Grodstein
Six-year-old Jake is asking to meet his dad, and with good reason: his mother Karen is dying. With just a few more months to live, Karen resists allowing Jake’s father Dave to insinuate himself into Jake’s life. As she tries to play out her last days in the “right” way, Karen wrestles with the truth that the only thing she cannot bring herself to do for her son—let his father become a permanent part of his life—is the thing he needs from her the most.
Landscape with Headless Mama by Jennifer Givhan
This collection explores the experiences of becoming and being a mother through the lens of dark fairy tales. Givhan describes the book as “a surreal survival guide.” A poet with strong roots in the desert southwest, Givhan incorporates fine art and folkloric influences from Latin American culture into her poetry. Drawing inspiration from Gloria Anzaldúa, Frieda Kahlo, Leonora Carrington, tattoo artists, and comic book heroes, among other sources, this is a book of intelligence, humor, deep feeling, and, above all, duende.
Know the Mother by Desiree Cooper
Cooper explores the complex archetype of the mother in all her incarnations. In a collage of meditative stories, women find themselves wedged between their own yearnings and their roles as daughters, sisters, grandmothers, and wives. Cooper reveals that gender and race are often unanticipated interlopers in family life. With her lyrical and carefully crafted prose, the stories in this collection provide truths without sermon and invite empathy without sentimentality.
After Birth by Elisa Albert
A year has passed since Ari gave birth to Walker, though it went so badly awry she has trouble calling it “birth” and still she can’t locate herself in her altered universe. Amid the strange, disjointed rhythms of her days and nights and another impending winter in upstate New York, Ari is a tree without roots, struggling to keep her branches aloft. When Mina, a one-time cult musician—older, self-contained, alone, and nine months pregnant—moves to town, Ari sees the possibility of a new friend, despite her unfortunate habit of generally mistrusting women.