Every day is Mother's Day! (Hee haw, hee haw). But seriously - motherhood is a weighty old topic, as exhausting to wade into as the mothering itself. What does a mother look like? What does a mother feel like? These are questions as old as time; bound up in secrecy, judgement and fear. Motherhood is not redemptive, although the Madonna/whore binary would suggest otherwise. I am so grateful to be living at a time when we can read about and share in the multiplicity of motherhood. Here are some books that I adore, that celebrate the diversity of motherhood in all its tenderness and cruelty, its many bounties and tiny eviscerations.
I vividly remember where I was when I started reading this collection of short stories: in a rapidly cooling bath, shortly after I had given birth to my son. I was immediately hooked. Not all the stories are about motherhood, but the ones that are, are my favourite. Caldwell’s prose is so perceptive and poetic, the stories meticulously crafted skeins of tension, love and fear. “The veil between worlds, the skin closing over” she writes evocatively of a mother’s life with a newborn and toddler. She also mixes fiction and non-fiction to brilliant effect - her chapter on Caroline Norton, the woman who reformed child custody law in 1839, is fascinating and heart-breaking. Buy it here.
Cusk is a bracingly honest memoirist and her 'mumoir', about the tangle of love and resentment she felt for her newborn daughter, caused quite the furore when it came out in 2008. "This is not a childcare manual, ladies" she wrote tartly for the paperback edition, in response to "the journalists who accused me of being an unfit or unloving mother [and...] the readers who find honesty akin to blasphemy when the religion is that of motherhood". But motherhood is not a monolith. Cusk's experience, like any parent's experience, is subjective - she writes uniquely about what she sees as the tragi-comedy of motherhood. For women struggling to carve out their identities after having children, her writing is a salve. "To be a mother I must leave the telephone unanswered, work undone, arrangements unmet," she writes. "To be myself I must let the baby cry, must forestall her hunger or leave her for evenings out. To succeed in being one means to fail at the others". I found this book fascinating, funny and, at times, uncomfortable. One thing I did not find it, was controversial. Buy it here.
This book is so incredibly helpful. It’s ostensibly about parenting and your relationship with your own parents, but actually, I think it has the power to transform any and all of the relationships in your life. Takeaways include: listening is not the same as agreeing; and distracting someone rather than engaging with them is always infuriating, whatever your age. It’s self-help, but not remotely self-helpy. In that it’s just a really insightful, interesting, readable book of non-fiction - stuffed full of insight and unpretentious wisdom. I didn’t align with all her parenting methods (such as her aversion to sleep training), but I found her guidance on validating the feelings of others to de-escalate conflict, enormously helpful - as much with the adults, as the toddler, in my life! Buy it here.
This is another searing book which challenges the cultural ideal of motherhood (amongst many other things). Kendall writes furiously and eloquently about how she was seen as ‘less’ of a mother because she was poor, and Black. At paediatrician appointments, for example, the doctor would address her white husband, rather than her, despite the fact that she was the primary carer. Like Candice Brathwaite’s memoir, I Am Not Your Baby Mother, this book is a really important text which, amongst other things, urges us to dismantle a middle-class white representation of motherhood, into something more diverse – both in experience and imagery. Buy it here.
A confession: I liked this book, but I did not love it. It feels almost blasphemous to write that, given the cult status of Tyler’s 1980s novel. I’ve included it in my list because the gentleness, which made me impatient on occasions, worked spectacularly well in regard to the protagonist’s disappointment in her offspring. Maggie Moran, aged nearly 50, has raised two children to adulthood – but she isn’t quite sure how her son became the son he is. Not every tale of maternal misunderstanding manifests in a We Need To Talk About Kevin situation – more often than not it’s a quiet, gradual thing. One of the strangest realisations in adulthood is the understanding that you can love someone, without liking them - including your own adult children. This is something that Tyler, and also Elizabeth Strout in Olive Kitteridge, writes about beautifully. Buy it here.
I am a huge fan of McNish's poetry - I keep Nobody Told Me and Slug, her most recent collection, by my bed to dip into. "Do you realise how funny you look? Have you looked at yourself in the mirror? It's just that it's so strange to look at your figure/ It's just that it's so much bigger" she writes in 'The List: What Not To Say To Pregnant Women'. Her poems are funny, clever and comforting, and interspersed with diary entries and short essays. Buy it here.
My best friend gave me this for my most recent birthday and it totally undid me. In 1914, the author’s great-grandmother gave birth to triplets. One died at birth and 11 days later, she drowned the other two. She was convicted of infanticide and insanity and incarcerated in Broadmoor, a high-security psychiatric hospital. After Busby had her own children and developed post-natal depression, she decided to investigate her great-grandmother’s story in the hope of exorcising the inherited trauma that had haunted her family for over 80 years. I ached for tiny, exhausted Beth Busby and the women giving birth a century ago, at a time when there was no understanding of the psychology and emotional vulnerabilities around birth and motherhood. How far we have come. How far we still have to go. Buy it here.
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