As Mother’s Day approaches, we turned to nine writers with a question: what’s your favorite book about moms? Here’s a compendium of bookmarkable selections…
Meaghan writing about newborns in And Now We Have Everything: Day and night bled into each other, coalescing into one big nightmare. My clothes were indistinguishable from pajamas. A lamp was always on. We were in the middle of what felt like an ongoing emergency. Like someone was playing a practical joke on us. Endure the car crash of childbirth, then, without sleeping, use your broken body to keep your tiny, fragile, precious, heartbreaking, mortal child alive.
Meaghan’s book recommendation: Fierce Attachments: This has everything I ever want in a book — daughters analyzing their mothers, mothers criticizing their daughters, long walks in Manhattan, hurt feelings, devastating insights — but when tasked with summarizing it, I just want to make guttural sounds and force it on everyone. Really it’s about a daughter trying to figure out who she is, and whether, or how, her mother’s ideas about life determine her own.
Connie writing about her mom seeing movies in Oh My Mother!: “Qing first saw ‘Magic Mike XXL’ in the Eden Prairie AMC theater… After this initial viewing, Qing began mentioning it during the daily phone calls I made to her as I walked from the subway stop back to my apartment in Brooklyn: I like how Channing Tatum makes everyone around him feel positive and good. Any man who doesn’t like this movie is just jealous! Do you think Channing Tatum is not afraid of old women in real life either?”
Connie’s book recommendation: Down City: Leah Carroll’s mom was killed when Leah was four, and Down City explores the sustaining, powerful warmth of a mother’s love; the mom-sized hole that Leah had to grow up with; what it was like, as an adult, to investigate the circumstances of the murder; and the way that women get by, make do, and find meaning.
Sheila writing about possibilities in Motherhood: When I was younger, thinking about whether I wanted children, I always came back to this formula: if no one had told me anything about the world, I would have invented boyfriends. I would have invented sex, friendship, art. I would not have invented child-rearing.
Sheila’s book recommendation: A Life’s Work: This was the first Rachel Cusk book I read, and I was shocked by how ruthlessly she interrogated her own feelings and situation as a new mother. I would never have written my book about ambivalence about having children, if I had not read her book that stripped away all pieties and looked at her life without sentimentality.
Isaac writing his origin story in Dirtbag, Massachusetts: My parents were married when they had me, just to different people. That’s the way I open every story when I’m asked about my childhood. I was a child of passion! A happy little accident. Or, put another way, I was born of sin: a mistake in human form, a bomb aimed perfectly to blow up both my parents’ lives.
Isaac’s book recommendation Heavy: To start, Laymon’s writing is immaculate. But what makes his memoir resonate with me so strongly is his relationship with his mother, whom he addresses as ‘you’ throughout the book. He uses his writing to acknowledge the many secrets he and his mother have kept for far too long. The messiness on display — what it means to love someone who has hurt you, especially when that hurt is in itself perhaps a form of love — is what all great storytelling strives to be: the wholeness of the world made real on the page.
ANNA MALAIKA TUBBS
Anna writing about James Baldwin’s mother, Berdis, in The Three Mothers: She would risk standing up to her husband, whom even she had to address as ‘Mr. Baldwin,’ to ensure that Jimmy could follow his passion. She’d been kept from her own by her circumstances, and she would not let the same thing happen to her son.
Anna’s book recommendation: In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: This is one of my favorite anthologies. It also expands our definition of ‘mothers’ by not only exploring biological mothers but also considering the ways in which we are mothered by those who came before us.
Kate writing about looking up in And Yet: Have you ever seen so many stars? / I ask my son who is / too little to have ever seen / anything but the universe / I have placed before him.
Kate’s book recommendation: Waiting for Birdy: I found Waiting For Birdy when my first baby was born, and afterward I immediately bought a bunch of copies to stick in gift bags at baby showers. Reading it is like sitting down with an old friend. Instantly warm, instantly funny, instantly known. Catherine Newman gives permission for worry and guilt and delight in every breath of motherhood. Oh this woman, I love her so.
Nicole writing about her mom’s dog in A Living Remedy: Before my mother leaves the house, she turns on the television — always PBS — in the hopes that [her dog] will find the voices comforting and feel less lonely. (“Why PBS?” I asked her. “Well, I figure it’s at least semi-educational.”)
Nicole’s book recommendation: Breathe: Imani Perry drew on history, literature, faith traditions, and her own experiences to write this meditative book that is also a letter to her sons. In it, she shares her hopes, joys and fears as a mother raising two Black sons in America, while exploring the meaning of family, freedom, community, and collective responsibility. I have read this book many times, and always find something new when I return to it.
Chrysta writing about single motherhood by choice in Normal Family: What [my mom] wanted more than anything was a child. The obstacle was that Debra was a lesbian. And in the early 1980s, she did not know a single gay person who had started a family. It was rare for even a single straight woman to start a family on her own — at least on purpose. The American dream still clung fiercely to the idea that the one and only healthy way to raise a child was within the nucleus of the nuclear family: father, mother, 2.5 children.
Chrysta’s book recommendation: Operating Instructions: Single mom Anne Lamott fearlessly exposes the realities of motherhood, including the moments of frustration and self-doubt that many parents experience but don’t often talk about. Her writing style is both witty and poignant. Reading this book helped me navigate the challenges of new motherhood with more grace and compassion, and it gave me a renewed sense of appreciation for the beauty and complexity of this journey.
Meaghan writing about her mother’s death in The Long Goodbye: Nothing prepared me for the loss of my mother. Even knowing that she would die did not prepare me. A mother, after all, is your entry into the world. She is the shell in which you divide and become a life. Waking up in a world without her is like waking up in a world without sky: unimaginable.
Meaghan’s book recommendations: Of Woman Born and The Runaway Bunny: As a mom who doesn’t have a mother to turn to for advice, I rely on books to keep me company through highs and lows of parenting. I love the feminist poet Adrienne Rich’s classic Of Woman Born for the way it thinks about motherhood as both a lived experience and a structural reality. Written in the 1970s, the book remains insightful and piercingly accurate. As a mother of two little boys under seven, I will never forget this description in which she remembers ‘the beauty of little boys who have not yet been taught that the male body must be rigid.’
Then, when I worry I’m failing my spirited four-year-old and don’t know where to turn — or when I miss my own long-gone mother and need a good cry — I open The Runaway Bunny. What book better captures the anguish and joy of motherhood, the love and the helplessness of it all? “Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away. So he said to his mother, ‘I am running away.’ ‘If you run away,’ said his mother, ‘I’ll run after you. For you are my little bunny.’” Indeed.
What motherhood books do you love? Please share below…
P.S. My motherhood motto, and what are your top three books of all time?
(Photo at top by Marc Bordons/Stocksy.)