What to Read When You Want to Rethink Motherhood

By

Mother’s Day is a Hallmark holiday, and often the celebrations it inspires reinforce our static and outdated ideas of what it means to be a mother and to have a mother rather than pushing against those antiquated stereotypes.

So this year, to celebrate Mother’s Day here at The Rumpus, we’ve asked our editors to share a list of books by writers who challenge our traditional views of mothers, motherhood, and mothering.

These books inspire us to reconsider the white, heteronormative, often false narratives of motherhood that serve to bolster the white supremacist patriarchy. They ask us to imagine new narratives instead, and they demand that we reconsider motherhood in ways that are truly intersectional, inclusive, and honest.

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Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution by Adrienne Rich
Adrienne Rich’s influential and landmark investigation concerns both the experience and the institution of motherhood. The experience is her own―as a woman, a poet, a feminist, and a mother―but it is an experience determined by the institution, imposed on all women everywhere. She draws on personal materials, history, research, and literature to create a document of universal importance.

 

Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender, and Parenting in America by Nefertiti Austin
Eager to finally join the motherhood ranks, Nefertiti was shocked when people started asking her why she wanted to adopt a “crack baby” or said that she would never be able to raise a Black son on her own. She realized that American society saw motherhood through a white lens, and that there would be no easy understanding or acceptance of the kind of family she hoped to build. Motherhood So White is the story of Nefertiti’s fight to create the family she always knew she was meant to have and the story of motherhood that all American families need now. In this unflinching account of her parenting journey, Nefertiti examines the history of adoption in the African American community, faces off against stereotypes of single, Black motherhood, and confronts the reality of raising children of color in racially charged, modern-day America.

 

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.

 

That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam
Like many first-time mothers, Rebecca Stone finds herself both deeply in love with her newborn son and deeply overwhelmed. She reaches out to the only person at the hospital who offers her any real help—Priscilla Johnson—and begs her to come home with them as her son’s nanny. Priscilla’s presence quickly does as much to shake up Rebecca’s perception of the world as it does to stabilize her life. Rebecca is white, and Priscilla is black, and through their relationship, Rebecca finds herself confronting, for the first time, the blind spots of her own privilege. When Priscilla dies unexpectedly in childbirth, Rebecca steps forward to adopt the baby. But she is unprepared for what it means to be a white mother with a black son. As she soon learns, navigating motherhood for her is a matter of learning how to raise two children whom she loves with equal ferocity, but whom the world is determined to treat differently.

 

Motherhood by Sheila Heti
In her late thirties, when her friends are asking when they will become mothers, the narrator of Heti’s intimate and urgent novel considers whether she will do so at all. In a narrative spanning several years, casting among the influence of her peers, partner, and her duties to her forbearers, she struggles to make a wise and moral choice. After seeking guidance from philosophy, her body, mysticism, and chance, she discovers her answer much closer to home.

 

The Carrying by Ada Limón
Vulnerable, tender, acute, these are serious poems, brave poems, exploring with honesty the ambiguous moment between the rapture of youth and the grace of acceptance. A daughter tends to aging parents. A woman struggles with infertility―“What if, instead of carrying / a child, I am supposed to carry grief?”―and a body seized by pain and vertigo as well as ecstasy. A nation convulses: “Every song of this country / has an unsung third stanza, something brutal.” And still Limón shows us, as ever, the persistence of hunger, love, and joy, the dizzying fullness of our too-short lives. “Fine then, / I’ll take it,” she writes. “I’ll take it all.”

 

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
In the winter of 1953, Boy Novak arrives by chance in a small town in Massachusetts looking, she believes, for beauty—the opposite of the life she’s left behind in New York. She marries Arturo Whitman, a local widower, and becomes stepmother to his winsome daughter, Snow. A wicked stepmother is a creature Boy never imagined she’d become, but elements of the familiar tale of aesthetic obsession begin to play themselves out when the birth of Boy’s daughter, Bird, who is dark-skinned, exposes the Whitmans as light-skinned African-Americans passing for white. And even as Boy, Snow, and Bird are divided, their estrangement is complicated by an insistent curiosity about one another. In seeking an understanding that is separate from the image each presents to the world, Boy, Snow, and Bird confront the tyranny of the mirror to ask how much power surfaces really hold.

 

The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling
In The Golden State, we accompany Daphne, a young mother on the edge of a breakdown, as she flees her sensible but strained life in San Francisco for the high desert of Altavista with her toddler, Honey. Bucking under the weight of being a single parent—her Turkish husband is unable to return to the United States because of a “processing error”—Daphne takes refuge in a mobile home left to her by her grandparents in hopes that the quiet will bring clarity. But clarity proves elusive. Over the next ten days Daphne is anxious, she behaves a little erratically, she drinks too much. She wanders the town looking for anyone and anything to punctuate the long hours alone with the baby. Among others, she meets Cindy, a neighbor who is active in a secessionist movement, and befriends the elderly Alice, who has traveled to Altavista as she approaches the end of her life. When her relationships with these women culminate in a dangerous standoff, Daphne must reconcile her inner narrative with the reality of a deeply divided world.

 

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.

 

Still Life with Mother and Knife by Chelsea Rathburn
Chelsea Rathburn seeks to voice matters once deemed unspeakable, from collisions between children and predators to the realities of postpartum depression. Still Life with Mother and Knife considers the female body as object of both art and violence. Once an artist’s model, now a mother, Rathburn knows “how hard / it is to be held in the eyes of another.” Intimate and fearless, her poems move in interlocking sections between the pleasures and dangers of childhood, between masterpieces of art and magazine centerfolds, and―in a gripping sequence in dialogue with Delacroix’s paintings and sketches of Medea―between the twinned ferocities of maternal love and rage. Rathburn crafts a complex portrait of girlhood and motherhood from which it is impossible to look away.

 

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.

 

The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante
The Days of Abandonment is the gripping story of a woman’s descent into devastating emptiness after being abandoned by her husband with two young children to care for. When she finds herself literally trapped within the four walls of their high-rise apartment, she is forced to confront her ghosts, the potential loss of her own identity, and the possibility that life may never return to normal.

 

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.

 

We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood by Dani McClain
In We Live for the We, first-time mother Dani McClain sets out to understand how to raise her daughter in what she, as a black woman, knows to be an unjust—even hostile—society. Black women are more likely to die during pregnancy or birth than any other race; black mothers must stand before television cameras telling the world that their slain children were human beings. What, then, is the best way to keep fear at bay and raise a child so she lives with dignity and joy? McClain spoke with mothers on the frontlines of movements for social, political, and cultural change who are grappling with the same questions. Following a child’s development from infancy to the teenage years, We Live for the We touches on everything from the importance of creativity to building a mutually supportive community to navigating one’s relationship with power and authority. It is an essential handbook to help us imagine the society we build for the next generation.

 

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.

 

A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua
Holed up with other mothers-to-be in a secret maternity home in Los Angeles, Scarlett Chen is far from her native China, where she worked in a factory and fell in love with the married owner, Boss Yeung. Now she’s carrying his baby. To ensure that his child—his first son—has every advantage, Boss Yeung has shipped Scarlett off to give birth on American soil. As Scarlett awaits the baby’s arrival, she spars with her imperious housemates. The only one who fits in even less is Daisy, a spirited, pregnant teenager who is being kept apart from her American boyfriend. Then a new sonogram of Scarlett’s baby reveals the unexpected. Panicked, she goes on the run by hijacking a van—only to discover that she has a stowaway: Daisy, who intends to track down the father of her child. The two flee to San Francisco’s bustling Chinatown, where Scarlett will join countless immigrants desperately trying to seize their piece of the American dream. What Scarlett doesn’t know is that her baby’s father is not far behind her.

 

The Explosive Expert’s Wife by Shara Lessley
In sparse, powerful lines, Shara Lessley recalls an expat’s displacement, examines her experience as a mother, and offers intimate witness to the unfolding of the Arab Spring. Veering from the strip malls and situation rooms of Washington to the markets and mines of Amman, Lessley confronts the pressures and pleasures of other cultures, exploring our common humanity with all its aggressions, loves, biases, and contradictions.

 

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A few years ago, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie received a letter from a childhood friend, a new mother who wanted to know how to raise her baby girl to be a feminist. Dear Ijeawele is Adichie’s letter of response: fifteen invaluable suggestions—direct, wryly funny, and perceptive—for how to empower a daughter to become a strong, independent woman. Filled with compassionate guidance and advice, it gets right to the heart of sexual politics in the twenty-first century, and starts a new and urgently needed conversation about what it really means to be a woman today.

 

The Bold World: A Memoir of Family and Transformation by Jodie Patterson
As an African American growing up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the 1970s, when neighborhoods defined people, Jodie Patterson learned early on to engage with her community for strength and comfort. But then in 2009 this mother of five had her world turned upside down. Realizing that her definition of community wasn’t wide enough for her own child’s needs, Patterson forced the world wide open. In The Bold World, we witness a mother reshaping her attitudes and beliefs, as well as those of her community, to meet the needs of her transgender son, Penelope—and opening the minds of everyone in her family who absolutely, unequivocally refused to conform.

 

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.

 

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.

 

Blackacre by Monica Youn
“Blackacre” is a centuries-old legal fiction―a placeholder name for a hypothetical estate. Treacherously lush or alluringly bleak, these poems reframe their subjects as landscape, as legacy―a bereavement, an intimacy, a racial identity, a pubescence, a culpability, a diagnosis. With a surveyor’s keenest tools, Youn marks the boundaries of the given, what we have been allotted: acreage that has been ruthlessly fenced, previously tenanted, ploughed and harvested, enriched and depleted. In the title sequence, the poet gleans a second crop from the field of Milton’s great sonnet on his blindness: a lyric meditation on her barrenness, on her own desire―her own struggle―to conceive a child. What happens when the transformative imagination comes up against the limits of unalterable fact?

 

Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton by Linda Gray Sexton
Linda Gray Sexton’s critically acclaimed memoir is an honest, unsparing account of the anguish and fierce love that bound a brilliant, difficult mother and the daughter she left behind. Linda Sexton was twenty-one when her mother killed herself, and now she looks back, remembers, and tries to come to terms with her mother’s life. Life with Anne was a wild mixture of suicidal depression and manic happiness, inappropriate behavior, and midnight trips to the psychiatric ward. Anne taught Linda how to write, how to see, how to imagine—and only Linda could have written a book that captures so vividly the intimate details and lingering emotions of their life together. Searching for Mercy Street speaks to everyone who admires Anne Sexton and to every daughter or son who knows the pain of an imperfect childhood.

 

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.

 

Motherhood Across Borders: Immigrants and Their Children in Mexico and New York by Gabrielle Oliveira
Focusing on Mexican women who migrate to New York City and leave children behind, Motherhood across Borders examines parenting from afar, as well as the ways in which separated siblings cope with different experiences across borders.  Drawing on more than three years of ethnographic research, Gabrielle Oliveira offers a unique focus on the many consequences of maternal migration. Oliveira illuminates the life trajectories of separated siblings, including their divergent educational paths, and the everyday struggles that undocumented mothers go through in order to figure out how to be a good parent to all of their children, no matter where they live. Despite these efforts, the book uncovers the far-reaching effects of maternal migration that influences both the children who accompany their mothers to New York City, and those who remain in Mexico.

 

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.

 

The Monster Within: The Hidden Side of Motherhood by Barbara Almond
Mixed feelings about motherhood—uncertainty over having a child, fears of pregnancy and childbirth, or negative thoughts about one’s own children—are not just hard to discuss, they are a powerful social taboo. In this beautifully written book, Barbara Almond brings this troubling issue to light. She uncovers the roots of ambivalence, tells how it manifests in lives of women and their children, and describes a spectrum of maternal behavior—from normal feelings to highly disturbed mothering. In a society where perfection in parenting is the unattainable ideal, this compassionate book also shows how women can affect positive change in their lives.

 

The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride
The daughter of a failed itinerant Orthodox rabbi, McBride’s mother was born in Poland on April 1, 1921. Fleeing pogroms, her family emigrated to America and ultimately settled in Suffolk, Virginia, a small town where anti-Semitism and racial tensions ran high. At seventeen, after fleeing Virginia for New York City, Ruth married a black minister and founded the all-black New Brown Memorial Baptist Church in her Red Hook living room. Twice widowed, and continually confronting overwhelming adversity and racism, Ruth’s determination, drive, and discipline saw her dozen children through college—and most through graduate school. At age sixty-five, she herself received a degree in social work from Temple University. Interspersed throughout his mother’s compelling narrative, McBride shares recollections of his own experiences as a mixed-race child of poverty, his flirtations with drugs and violence, and his eventual self-realization and professional success.

 

Mother Winter by Sophia Shalmiyev
An arresting memoir equal parts refugee-coming-of-age story, feminist manifesto, and meditation on motherhood, displacement, gender politics, and art that follows award-winning writer Sophia Shalmiyev’s flight from the Soviet Union, where she was forced to abandon her estranged mother, and her subsequent quest to find her.

 

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.

 

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.

 

Ararat by Louise Glück
A ruthlessly probing family portrait in verse, Gluck’s sixth poetry collection confronts, with devastating irony, her father’s hollow life and her mother’s inability to express emotion. This might seem like a daughter’s belated rebellion, except that these fierce, rock-strong, deeply felt lyrics are steeled by love and understanding.

 

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley
From the perspective of those who live in Herot Hall, the suburb is a paradise. Picket fences divide buildings—high and gabled―and the community is entirely self-sustaining. But for those who live surreptitiously along Herot Hall’s periphery, the subdivision is a fortress guarded by an intense network of gates, surveillance cameras, and motion-activated lights. For Willa, the wife of Roger Herot (heir of Herot Hall), life moves at a charmingly slow pace. She flits between mommy groups, playdates, cocktail hour, and dinner parties, always with her son, Dylan, in tow. Meanwhile, in a cave in the mountains just beyond the limits of Herot Hall lives Gren, short for Grendel, as well as his mother, Dana, a former soldier who gave birth as if by chance. Dana didn’t want Gren, didn’t plan Gren, and doesn’t know how she got Gren, but when she returned from war, there he was. When Gren, unaware of the borders erected to keep him at bay, ventures into Herot Hall and runs off with Dylan, Dana’s and Willa’s worlds collide.

 

Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou
For the first time, Angelou reveals the triumphs and struggles of being the daughter of Vivian Baxter, an indomitable spirit whose petite size belied her larger-than-life presence—a presence absent during much of Angelou’s early life. When her marriage began to crumble, Vivian famously sent three-year-old Maya and her older brother away from their California home to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. The subsequent feelings of abandonment stayed with Angelou for years, but their reunion, a decade later, began a story that has never before been told. In Mom & Me & Mom, Angelou dramatizes her years reconciling with the mother she preferred to simply call “Lady,” revealing the profound moments that shifted the balance of love and respect between them.

 

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.

 

Good Bones by Maggie Smith
Maggie Smith writes out of the experience of motherhood, inspired by watching her own children read the world like a book they’ve just opened, knowing nothing of the characters or plot. These poems stare down darkness while cultivating and sustaining possibility and addressing a larger world.

 

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.

 

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung
What does it mean to lose your roots―within your culture, within your family―and what happens when you find them? With the same warmth, candor, and startling insight that has made her a beloved voice, Chung tells of her search for the people who gave her up, which coincided with the birth of her own child. All You Can Ever Know is a profound, moving chronicle of surprising connections and the repercussions of unearthing painful family secrets―vital reading for anyone who has ever struggled to figure out where they belong

 

Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda
Secret Daughter, a first novel by Shilpi Somaya Gowda, explores powerfully and poignantly the emotional terrain of motherhood, loss, identity, and love through the experiences of two families—one Indian, one American—and the child that binds them together.

 

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

 

Mother Country by Irina Reyn
Nadia’s daily life in south Brooklyn is filled with small indignities: as a senior home attendant, she is always in danger of being fired; as a part-time nanny, she is forced to navigate the demands of her spoiled charge and the preschooler’s insecure mother; and as an ethnic Russian, she finds herself feuding with western Ukrainian immigrants who think she is a traitor. The war back home is always at the forefront of her reality. On television, Vladimir Putin speaks of the “reunification” of Crimea and Russia, the Ukrainian president makes unconvincing promises about a united Ukraine, while American politicians are divided over the fear of immigration. Nadia internalizes notions of “union” all around her, but the one reunion she has been waiting six years for—with her beloved daughter—is being eternally delayed by the Department of Homeland Security. When Nadia finds out that her daughter has lost access to the medicine she needs to survive, she takes matters into her own hands.

 

Mary’s Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein by Lita Judge
Pairing free verse with over three hundred pages of black-and-white watercolor illustrations, Mary’s Monster is a unique and stunning biography of Mary Shelley, the pregnant teenage runaway who became one of the greatest authors of all time. Legend is correct that Mary Shelley began penning Frankenstein in answer to a dare to write a ghost story. What most people don’t know, however, is that the seeds of her novel had been planted long before that night. By age nineteen, she had been disowned by her family, was living in scandal with a married man, and had lost her baby daughter just days after her birth. Mary poured her grief, pain, and passion into the powerful book still revered two hundred years later, and in Mary’s Monster, author and illustrator Lita Judge has poured her own passion into a gorgeous book that pays tribute to the life of this incredible author.