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These books about motherhood and mothers offer a variety of perspectives on what it means to be a mother. You’ll find novels about bad moms, struggling mothers, new mothers, and more. These are the perfect books for moms or any reader who is fascinated by the complexities of motherhood.
Motherhood has been widely explored in literature, and depictions of the role are as varied as women’s–and their children’s– experiences of it.
While mothers are often exalted–the stereotype is the nurturing, self-sacrificing source of all things “home,”–the reality of motherhood is messy.
Mothers do often bring these things to the table, but they also bring their own humanity and imperfections. Some love the role, others come to it reluctantly and do the best they can; still others suffer through it, or even bring suffering on their children.
Almost all mothers–all parents, really–face challenges they could never have imagined. It’s not for nothing that parenthood is called the most difficult job in the world.
It’s at that joining–imperfect humans + exalted role + challenges–when literature brings us fascinating books about mothers.
The equation is common; we often read stories about leaders that follow it. But those characters feel distant, while books about moms are not: we are mothers, we have mothers, we know mothers. Our feelings about them are closer, more personal, and more complex.
And so this list of novels about motherhood, as we approach Mother’s Day, but relevant any time of the year, for any reader–mom or otherwise–who has known a mother.
Books about Mothers and Motherhood
Author: Tracy Dobmeier and Wendy Katzman
At Seattle’s elite Elliott Bay Academy, college admissions is a full-time preoccupation–for the parents. When Stanford says they will only be offering admission to one EBA non-athlete, three mothers obsess about how to get the spot for their daughters. A potentially fatal “accident” raises the stakes, forcing them all to reckon with the question of whether it’s all worth it.
I don’t often enjoy this kind of suburban domestic fiction with parental schoolyard drama, but the authors struck the right just over-the-top tone here to highlight the absurdity of the college admissions race, while building an interesting backstory for the main character. A good book for fans of Big Little Lies.
Author: Sarah Miller
Told from Caroline’s (“Ma’s”) perspective, this book revisits the familiar Little House on the Prairie story through adult eyes. It highlights the challenges and uncertainties of being a young, pregnant mother, alone on the prairie with only her wanderlust-filled husband and three- and five-year-old daughters. Only now that I’m a mother do I realize what a feat this was.
If you have memories of cozy childhood readings of Little House on the Prairie, this is an excellent choice for a grown-up dose of nostalgia–and a new perspective on the challenges of motherhood on the prairie.
Author: Celeste Ng
The community of Shaker Heights is meticulously planned and picture-perfect, and the Richardson family is much the same. When their new tenants–mysterious, free-spirited artist Mia and her daughter, Pearl–move into town, the four Richardson children are enamored of both, and Pearl of them. As the families become more entwined, complications arise when the two mothers, Elena and Mia, find themselves on opposite sides of an adoption case.
Little Fires Everywhere is a study in the characters–their flaws, pasts, dreams, regrets, and fears–and how all of these hidden things affect their relationships and what happens next.
Author: Laurie Frankel
Rosie and Penn are raising a loud, unique family of five boys. From science to stories to knitting to costumes, the family is full of quirks that are embraced and nurtured.
So when 5-year-old Claude declares that he wants to be a girl, his parents support him. Soon Claude has become Poppy, a girl to all outside the family and accepted as one within his family. But secrets weigh heavy, time can’t be slowed, and the safety of childhood and family can’t shield Poppy from difficult future decisions and the outside world forever.
I loved this story of imperfect parents whose hardest lesson isn’t accepting a child who is different, but accepting that facing the difficulties and fears is sometimes the best way to be supportive.
Author: Emily Adrian
Amanda is struggling with new motherhood. Exhausted and in conflict with her partner, she drives with her baby from New York to her hometown in Ohio, landing on the door of her former best friend, Carrie.
Carrie, who remained in Ohio when she had a baby in high school, is wary, but she lets Amanda stay with her. As Amanda reflects on the ups and downs and indignities of giving birth and new motherhood, the two untangle the past that led to their estrangement.
This book examined both the raw realities of early motherhood and the complexities of female friendship. Mothers will relate to the aching exhaustion of those early days, and anyone who likes friendship stories might enjoy this.
Author: Lynn Steger Strong
Elizabeth is a wife, mother, and teacher in New York City, struggling under the weight of all those roles. Over-educated and under-employed–yet working constantly as a high school teacher by day and adjunct faculty member at Columbia (unnamed, but it’s clear) by night–she and her husband have declared bankruptcy.
Drowning under the weight of her responsibilities and the frustration of her “teach-to-the-test” day job, she begins leaving work and wandering, mulling over her path to this point, her neglected friendships, and her deep love of her children.
At times, this somewhat stream-of-consciousness book feels a little claustrophobic, but that’s also part of the point. This book about modern motherhood will feel familiar to any woman who has felt overwhelmed while trying to balance it all.
Author: Eleanor Anstruther
In the 1920s, author Eleanor Anstruther’s grandmother Enid suddenly walked away from her wealthy family–including three young children–to live in a Christian Science compound in England. Two years later, she began fighting to get custody of only one of the children. Anstruther weaves this tale of a family driven by legacy over love and a woman plagued by family expectations and depression.
Anstruther began this book to tell the story of her father’s childhood, and to search for sympathy for the grandmother who abandoned her children. The most sympathetic character here is the forgotten daughter, Finetta–neglected because she is only a girl and not an heir. Anstruther doesn’t find much sympathy for Enid, but this is a fascinating portrait of a neglectful mother, and of a wealthy family driven to maintain its legacy at any cost.
Author: Ocean Vuong
This novel, framed as a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read, is a debut for poet Ocean Vuong. The son, named Little Dog, reflects on life with his mother. She is work-worn and sometimes abusive, exhausted by her lack of a homeland, her inability to read or speak English fluently, and her mentally ill mother who was traumatized by the war. Little Dog grapples with his identity as a son, an Asian American, and a gay man experiencing his first romance with a troubled farm worker.
The prose and the story–especially the first three-quarters–are stunning. The writing is spare but poetic, and devastatingly insightful. Some parts caused me to pause and read them again to savor their brilliance. Notable here because the son’s perspective is the only view of the mother available.
Author: Nancy Jooyoun Kim
When Margot can’t get ahold of her mother, Mina, in Los Angeles, she travels from Seattle and finds her mother dead in her apartment. Determined to find out what happened, Margot begins digging in Mina’s past, from her immigration from Korea to her life as a single, undocumented mother, to the mystery of Margot’s father. As Margot learns more, long-held resentments surface for resolution.
Told in alternating narratives (with Mina’s story being the most compelling), this is an intriguing mother/daughter story, highlighting how the struggle and toil of immigrant parents is never their full story.
Author: Emily Gould
In her early 20s, Laura moves to New York to pursue her songwriting dreams. A heady but toxic relationship with a musician sidelines her and takes her life in a direction she never expected.
Fifteen years in the future, her daughter is asking questions about her father. Laura is torn between the family life she’s built and the dreams that still tug at her. This is a fast and thoughtful read, perfect for anyone who misses their more carefree and creative days, or who looks back and wonders, what if?
Author: Gin Phillips
As a day at the zoo winds down, Joan and her four-year-old son, Lincoln, make their way toward the exit and realize that the fireworks they heard earlier were, in fact, gunshots. Joan and Lincoln spend the next three hours running, navigating the false wilderness and exhibits that provide hiding places–for themselves and for their hunters.
This book had me on the edge of my seat–I read it in a matter of hours–and I could feel the weight of the four-year-old in her arms, as well as the desperation to keep him quiet and make him understand the situation without causing hysteria. In addition to being a page-turner, the moment-by-moment nature of this book brings the reader close to the trauma of mass shootings. Terrifying anytime, but even moreso when we imagine facing it with our children.
Author: Vanessa Diffenbaugh
After years of working multiple jobs while her mother raised her two children, Letty Espinosa now finds herself raising 15-year-old Alex and six-year old Luna on her own. Her parents have left San Francisco to return to Mexico and she must learn to be a mother for the first time. The cards seem stacked against the family, but Letty is determined to get the kids out of their abandoned apartment building and into better schools–whatever it takes.
Complicating her efforts are the return of Alex’s father, new love interests for both Letty and Alex, and a lack of credit that would allow them to move. This is a touching and personal look at the challenges faced by undocumented immigrants.
Author: Ashley Audrain
Blythe’s experience of motherhood with her daughter, Violet, is not what she hoped. They have trouble connecting, and she sees things in Violet that worry her. Blythe’s husband, Fox, dismisses her concerns and urges her to work harder to get close to Violet.
She finds that longed-for connection when her son, Sam, is born. But when a tragedy changes everything, Blythe’s sanity is in question–by herself and everyone around her.
This novel is framed as a letter from Blythe to Fox, and it’s the first book written in second person that’s actually worked for me. I was hooked from the beginning–mothers especially will relate to many of Blythe’s difficulties adapting to motherhood. Audrain captures the experience so well–and then it turns dark in unexpected ways. Some readers may find this too difficult (and it was so, so sad), but it would be a great book club pick for those who can handle the dark themes.
Author: Torrey Peters
Reese is a trans woman dealing with the fallout after her girlfriend, Amy, detransitions to Ames and her dreams of a peaceful family life are broken. Ames, too, is struggling. When he learns his new lover is pregnant, he wrestles with the idea of himself as a “father”–and wants to bring Reese into the mix to build their own version of family.
This may be an untraditional book to include on a list about motherhood, but it overarches the whole narrative, in multiple ways: how trans people “mother” one another in the community, what makes a mother, and who has the right to want to be a mother.
Unflinching and explicit, this book will make a lot of readers very uncomfortable, but if you’re up for the rawness, this is endlessly thought-provoking.
Author: Stephanie Wrobel
After five years in prison, Patty Watts has been released. Her crime? Causing her daughter’s lifelong illnesses (and duping the community in the process).
But Rose Gold has agreed to take Patty in–even after she testified to put Patty in prison. Now they are each playing a game with their own ends in mind.
Darling Rose Gold is one of those dark, complicated books that’s hard to like–the characters are almost impossible to like. Wrobel inserts reasons for sympathy, including the effects of Patty’s Munchausen’s by proxy on Rose Gold, and potential reasons for Patty’s behavior. I think the story could have benefited from therapists for both of them, adding some insight. As is, it’s an uncomfortable read that left me feeling a little icky–but it definitely kept me reading.
Author: Brit Bennett
Following her mother’s suicide, 17-year-old Nadia turns to the preacher’s son, Luke. She soon finds herself in a place she never expected: the local abortion clinic. Abandoned by Luke, she holds her secret close, carefully side-stepping her still-grieving father. She clings to her new best friend, Aubrey, and plans for college and law school.
When Nadia moves away, Aubrey grows closer to Luke, unaware of his history with Nadia. The three try to move forward but are continually pulled back to that summer, haunted by the choices made, the secrets kept, and the lives changed beyond just their own.
The Mothers includes many kinds of mothers–the unwilling, the ones who leave, the ones who stay, and the ones in the community who mother us in other ways.
Author: Abbi Waxman
Lilian Girvan is still grieving her husband, who died in a car accident three years ago. Her life is full with her two young daughters, her job as an illustrator, and her sister, who helps keep everything on track.
When her job requires her to take a gardening class to illustrate a book, she thinks it will be a fun activity for all of them. She doesn’t count on a class full of quirky people who become unlikely friends–and an intriguing instructor who makes her wonder if she might be ready to date again.
This audiobook hit my sweet spot for audio fiction–light, easy to listen to, a little funny, and a fast-moving story.
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