What to Read When You’re Motherless and Mothering

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Not surprisingly, my grief over my mother leaving when I was a child has deepened in its complexity since having my own daughter nearly six years ago. It has felt more important than ever to find literature that speaks to this particular experience of generational loss and trauma, and to what it is like to mother without knowing what that should look like. Becoming a parent forced me to confront the stories I’d told myself about what mothering meant, and to reinvent motherhood for myself in a way that aligned with what I hoped it could be.

But doing so was daunting: what did I, the motherless, know about mothering? Below are some books I turn to again and again to see my own pain on the page, to understand I am not alone, and to find my way back to love and tenderness toward my own mother—to see her as a product of a patriarchal violent society while also healing the wounds of my own childhood. When I read these books I am able to forgive myself as I walk around in the dark trying to be the best mom I can be and doing it imperfectly. These books, in some ways, are the closest companions I have found; they tap into this dual idea of loss and gain, exploring themes of motherhood from all angles: bravely, honestly, and often, hilariously.

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White Oleander by Janet Fitch
Adolescent Astrid Magnussen’s beautiful poet mother Ingrid is incarcerated for the murder of her boyfriend, and the novel follows Astrid as she is tossed around to several different foster homes. We watch her grow up this way, reckoning with her deep love for and the loss of her mother, and the anger that comes along with having a mother who did not choose and love her in the expected and necessary ways. This book is my Bible in terms of defining what it is like to be separated from your mother at a young age and to have to live in the world simultaneously but apart. Fitch is the master of painting the complicated and tortured mother character and the daughter who loves her despite how difficult her life becomes as a result.

 

After Birth by Elisa Albert
I reread this novel once a year. It calls to me especially in moments of supreme tiredness. It is the closest fiction I have ever found that articulates the darker and often not-talked-about feelings of motherhood in a way that is at once devastating and funny and real. The narrator, Ari, is struggling with postpartum depression and is regularly visited by the ghost of her dead mother, with whom she had a very strained and complicated relationship. Ari’s exhaustion and grief are palpable and refreshing. Too often as mothers and women we experience the societal pressure to couch every complaint or true observation or swirling emotion in gratitude. I was up all night with a screaming baby… but don’t worry, I’m still so grateful! This book doesn’t do that and it feels like a permission to accept life’s ugliness while also being genuinely, well, grateful for the good.

 

Mother Winter: A Feminist Memoir by Sophia Shalmiyev
This book inspired me to write an entire essay about it, that’s how much I love it. I’ve never read a text so specifically designed for me: Shalmiyev chronicles her own mother’s addiction and their subsequent separation, growing up motherless, and having to become a mother herself with the looming ghost of this broken lineage. And she does it punk rock poet style, leaving no truth behind. I sobbed reading this book but I also screamed, YES!

 

What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence edited by Michele Filgate
This anthology has it all: motherloss, love, rebirth, confrontation, contemplation, remorse, and revolution. It’s for people who are in all varying forms of closeness or estrangement with their mothers. I loved the different perspectives and found myself in each of them. And, it includes essays from powerhouses like Melissa Febos, Alexander Chee, Dylan Landis, Carmen Maria Machado, Nayomi Munaweera, Brandon Taylor, Leslie Jamison, and more.

 

A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother by Rachel Cusk
Toward the end of this memoir, when Cusk describes trying to put an arm around her daughter, who shrugs it irritably off but then places a hand on her mother’s knee minutes later, I sobbed. I often feel that I am fucking up as a mother—I’m not loving enough, I’m loving the wrong way, I’m loving too much. I don’t always know how to catalogue my children’s simple rebellions without taking them as signs of my supreme failure. But here, rejected in her affections, Cusk illuminates it all for me: “We are like awkward lovers,” she says of herself and her daughter, “like two people, any old people, clumsily sharing the regular cup of human emotion.” Cusk has a way of balancing the true and trying nature of motherhood (sleep training, constant nursing, exhaustion) with the unexplainable highs and intense love that comes with it.

 

With or Without You by Domenica Ruta
Ruta writes a memoir about growing up with an addict mother and clawing her way out of that life and into another—one in which she navigates her own addiction in a different way, and sets the boundaries needed with her mother to finally claim this new life of her own. These boundaries are heartbreaking, beautiful, and so relatable. She finds her own ways to connect with her mother and acknowledges that her influence will always remain, writing about her in short stories through grad school: “She was a quadriplegic housewife torturing her family from her wheelchair. She was the schizophrenic shut-in who talked to the fisher cat outside her window.” I found this book to be a perfect example of doing due diligence in not painting the addict mother in stereotypes, of allowing her humanness and compassion while also baring the truth. It is deeply funny and wildly redemptive, though not in the expected ways.

 

The Mothers by Brit Bennett
This novel, to me, is about the trauma we inherit from our mothers and how it affects the course of our lives. We see Nadia on the brink of womanhood in the wake of her mother’s suicide. She loses her virginity to a fellow church member and becomes pregnant, and the choice to have an abortion lingers like a ghost between the couple for years. Told from a chorus of mother-voices from the church, this novel is inventive and deeply moving. The title says it all: this book is about mothers—those who left, those who died, those who stayed, and those who loved.

 

Mother Reader: Essential Writings on Motherhood edited by Moyra Davey
This is an indispensable collection of essays, diaries, short stories, memoir, and commentary on motherhood of all kinds: the nitty gritty of pregnancy and childbirth, the daily dance of making art while caregiving, and the choice to forgo motherhood all together. Sylvia Plath, Alice Walker, Mary Gaitskill, Mona Simpson, and many more are included within its pages. Adrienne Rich’s immensely important commentary on motherhood as institution is in there, too. I underlined something on every page.

 

Beloved by Toni Morrison
This book, among its many important themes, tells a forceful story of the connection between mother and child and the ways that slavery destroyed these connections. Morrison examines separation in the hopes of escape and protecting children at any cost, death better than continuing the horrors of enslavement. We see here the ways that emotional connections are damaged by trauma. Sethe is in the middle, generationally, and trying to reckon with her own separation from her mother and with her relationships with her own children, dead and alive. This book is like nothing else; it is one of the most powerful texts we have as a society to learn from.

 

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
This beloved book gets up close to the intensity of a daughter’s love for her mother, so much so that it has the deep longing and near obsession we more readily equate with romance. If you haven’t read the book, you can get a primer with Strayed’s essay “The Love of My Life”: “We aren’t supposed to want our mothers that way, with the pining intensity of sexual love, but I did, and if I couldn’t have her, I couldn’t have anything. Most of all I couldn’t have pleasure, not even for a moment. I was bereft, in agony, destroyed over her death. To experience sexual joy, it seemed, would have been to negate that reality.”

 

Heartbreaker by Claudia Dey
Oh, a mother’s secrets and the way daughters pine after discovering them. This book is one of my favorite novels—the fiery and original story of teenage Pony trying to find her mother who has gone missing from their cult territory and the complications of her mother’s past. The ending is heart-stopping.

 

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden
In this queer coming-of-age memoir, Madden perfectly paints the complicated sorrow of fiercely loving the family that hurts us. We watch Madden grow up in privileged Boca Raton as she navigates the darkness of her parents’ addiction, and again and again is required to be a mother to her own mother. Their relationship, though, never wavers in its love. This searing memoir takes into account all the awfulness that comes with addiction but does the miraculous job of leaving us with a portrait of a bond that can never be broken—with hope.

 

And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Chelsea’s debut novel, Godshot, forthcoming April 7 from Catapult! – Ed.

Godshot by Chelsea Bieker
Drought has settled on the town of Peaches, California. The area of the Central Valley where fourteen-year-old Lacey May and her alcoholic mother live was once an agricultural paradise. Now it’s an environmental disaster, a place of cracked earth and barren raisin farms. In their desperation, residents have turned to a cult leader named Pastor Vern for guidance. He promises, through secret “assignments,” to bring the rain everybody is praying for. Lacey has no reason to doubt the pastor. But then her life explodes in a single unimaginable act of abandonment: her mother, exiled from the community for her sins, leaves Lacey and runs off with a man she barely knows. As Lacey May begins to uncover the full extent of Pastor Vern’s shocking plan to bring fertility back to the land, she decides she must go on a quest to find her mother, no matter what it takes. Godshot is a book of grit and humor and heart, a debut novel about female friendship and resilience, mother-loss and motherhood, and seeking salvation in unexpected places.


Chelsea Bieker is the author of the novel Godshot (Catapult) and the forthcoming story collection, Cowboys and Angels. Her writing has been published in Granta, McSweeney’s, Electric Literature, and others. Her work has been supported by the The Rona Jaffe Foundation and the MacDowell Colony. Originally from California’s Central Valley, she lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two children where she teaches writing. More from this author →