Those Other Mothers

For as long as I can remember, I've had a small obsession with pregnancy, birth, and motherhood.

I've theorized that my fixation began at the age of six, when I watched my brother come into the world. Being so young, I didn't understand and couldn't contextualize what was happening; my mother's shaking body, her moans of pain. But I could feel the anticipation of those around me, knew I had to watch closely for whatever happened next. After what seemed an endless wait of terrifying sobs (my mother) and oddly cheerful encouragement (the doctor, nurses, my father), my patience was rewarded. A miracle had happened. My brother was born.

As I've grown older my fascination with the lore of mothers hasn't diminished, but it has changed. I've come to realize that there is a narrative surrounding the trinity of birth limits the reality that no pregnancy, no birth, no motherhood is ever the same, nor is any ever truly free of pain. There is something so purely bizarre about how these two bodies morph; during pregnancy, during birth and then after, still. A cycle the world has witnessed billions of times over.

But perhaps because it is a story that binds us all together, we can't look away from it. Those who have not borne children have still been born of someone.

So in honor of all of us who have mothers, are mothers, or will become mothers, here are some books that veer away from the accepted canon of what motherhood is, and instead celebrate it as a peculiar and personal experience.

Little Labors By Rivka Galchen Cover Image

A slip of a book where Galchen uses literature to unpack motherhood in a cynical, and yet reverent way. “It's true what they say, that a baby gives you a reason to live. But also, a baby is a reason that it is not permissible to die. There are days when this does not feel good.”

Best for: mothers and people who recognize children for what they truly are, strange and inexplicable animals that draw us in like objects sucked into a black hole.

And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready By Meaghan O'Connell Cover Image

In the initial chapter Meaghan O'Connell describes perfectly the feeling of the pestering, pinching feeling many young women feel in wanting a child, but not feeling allowed to want it. She goes on to describe the fulfillment of that want, and the horrors of pregnancy and birth that are considered best kept as secrets, never to be spoken and only experienced.

Best for: anyone disillusioned by the soothing pregnancy books that give the impressions that birth is anything other than an unapologetic blood-bath that stretches and curdles the bodies that experience it.

Red Clocks: A Novel By Leni Zumas Cover Image

A chilling book about a not-to-distant future where embryos and fetuses are given personhood, and the reproductive rights of women are stripped away. It follows the lives of four women, each struggling to live their lives under the new laws. 

Best for: those curious about how bad things could become for women when given even less agency over their own bodies, or who want the fire of justice ignited within them to fight those who'd try to take that agency away.

Things That Helped: On Postpartum Depression By Jessica Friedmann Cover Image

Essays spanning a variety of topics including sexuality, race, mental health, class, all woven together by Friedmann's experiences with postpartum depression and motherhood. Using objects as touchstones for her essays she beautifully lays explanation and argument for how her personal experiences relate to the world.

Best for: those who've felt the suffocating crush of depression, postpartum or otherwise, needing to be reminded that you're not alone.

Staff Pick Badge
The Argonauts By Maggie Nelson Cover Image

Maggie Nelson's writing often feels non-stop, stream-of-conciousness but in such an informed way that every word has a depth you can't gloss over, but must lovingly untangle. The Argonauts is a beautiful (and at times heartbreaking) look at both her transition through pregnancy and motherhood, and her partner's experience as a trans man. 

Best for: those who realize pregnancy, birth, and parenthood is not something exclusive the hetero-nuclear family, as well as those who struggle with the fluidity and rigidity of both identity and love.

I'm Supposed to Protect You from All This: A Memoir By Nadja Spiegelman Cover Image

A journey into a daughter's perception and relationship with her mother. Initially Spiegelman sees her mother as a larger-than-life creature she basked in, only to have that lens distorted and morphed by her own adulthood journey, one that takes her to her grandmother's side who gives and all-too-different account of the events that drove the two women apart.

Best for: daughters of mothers and mothers of daughters, wanting to see the complexity of their relationships reflected in the personal and conflicting narratives of three generations of women.

Staff Pick Badge
Borne: A Novel By Jeff VanderMeer Cover Image

A kind misfit among this list, Borne is written by a man, set in a nameless city in a post-apocalyptic world, following a woman who becomes a mother-figure to a very non-human and inexplicable creature. But I'm giving it a pass because I love it so, so much. The parent-child story somehow was able to wreck me with devastation, even with the flying bear and weird alcohol fish.

Best for: anyone who isn't afraid of beautifully written science fiction, or of exposition on the brutal expectations vs. realities of a child unable to be everything their parents wants of them.