Since becoming a mother, I’ve shelved a lot of hobbies that used to consume vast stretches of my pre-kid time: dabbling in oil painting, hitting the tennis courts after work, playing in a community orchestra, to name a few. But I also picked up a few new hobbies. Deep-diving into how-to materials about every aspect of parenting and Googling every horrific medical condition that could plague a two-month-old, for example.
Also, reading. Midnight newborn feedings are much easier with a good book in hand to look forward to — and a good group of friends to discuss it with.
Here are some of my latest favorites:
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
If you grew up in the 90s in the suburban Midwest, you’ll feel like this book is a return home. It’s a nostalgic exploration of origins told through the lens of contrasting families. Mother-daughter relationships are at the heart of the novel. There’s Mia, a single mom, and her teenage daughter Pearl. They’re nomads who scrape by on minimum-wage jobs and Goodwill finds. All they have is each other, and there’s beauty in that simplicity.
Their landlords, the Richardsons, are rich in material ways but shallow and empty when it comes to meaningful relationships. Their already fragile family connections start to crumble when the community is faced with a moral conundrum involving adoption. And when Mrs. Richardson starts digging into Mia’s mysterious past, those conundrums take on a deeper meaning.
An absorbing read, the novel explores difficult questions about what makes us mothers. Is motherly love enough? Should love trump blood? What role should biology play? While the ending gives us one answer, it’s not posed as the only answer, and there is plenty of room for thoughtful discussion.
White Oleander by Janet Finch
This poignant coming-of-age story centers on an intense mother-daughter relationship fractured by addiction, poverty and mental illness. Twelve-year-old Astrid’s manipulative and catastrophically unstable mother ends up in prison for murder. Abandoned to the California foster care system, Astrid struggles to find her place in the world without a single healthy role model to guide her. She’s let down by one adult after another. Eventually, she lands in a stable home with an endearing sister/mother figure — a touching relationship that once again ends in heartbreak.
You won’t readily forget this novel. It’s well worth the 400-plus-page investment.
Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott
If you haven’t yet experienced the joy of Anne Lamott, you’re in for a treat. This memoir chronicles her dive into single motherhood following an unexpected pregnancy. It perfectly captures the roller-coaster ride of becoming a parent, depicting moments of wonder and beauty alongside deep despair and self-doubt (along with a generous dose of laugh-out-loud humor).
Years after reading this book for the first of many times, I’m still reminded of it whenever I endure the “bovine humiliation” of the ol’ breast pump. Lamott’s good-natured horror at her resulting six-inch-long “purple slug” nipples gets me giggling every time.
Every Last One by Anna Quindlen
This book reminds me of Little Fires Everywhere with its suburban setting and teenage cast of characters. However, the mother in this novel is much more relatable (and likable), and the focus isn’t so much on contrasting pictures of motherhood but rather surviving tragedy. I won’t give anything away, but the event that the title references splits the book (and the characters’ lives) into “before” and “after.” It’s a compelling read that explores how to rebuild a life when the worst-case scenario comes to pass, and how our identities as mothers remain such a vital part of us, even when our children are grown up and gone.
Room by Emma Donoghue
The premise of this novel is loosely based on a true story: A young woman is kidnapped and held captive by a sexual predator. While there, she gives birth to his child. The story is told from the perspective of the now five-year-old boy. Their one-room prison is all he’s known. Yet the narrow confines of his existence are surpassed by his far-reaching imagination.
The novel starts off a bit slow, painting a detailed picture of mother and son’s life together in “Room.” Yet that foundation is necessary for the un-put-downable developments that follow. You’ll find yourself tearing up more than once over the poignant mother-son relationship. The story also compellingly depicts the boy’s beautiful relationship with his grandmother and step-grandfather.
The 2015 movie adaptation is definitely worth watching, but I’d read the novel first. Have tissues ready for both.
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
I hesitate to include this one since the angle on motherhood is more negative than positive. Still, it’s a rich read with much fodder for discussion. The story follows the titular Eleanor, who blossoms from troubled wallflower into empowered woman. By the end, she’s finally secure in her own shoes (and more fashionable ones, at that). The plot centers on a key event in her past — and her courage in finally confronting that past — and the unfolding mystery keeps you turning pages. It’s an impactful read that will linger with you for a long time.
And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready by Meaghan O’Connell
An unforgettable read (despite the utterly forgettable title), this memoir is essentially an updated Millenial take on Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions. The author chronicles her rocky road to motherhood following a surprise pregnancy. She covers all of the challenges new mothers face: balancing career ambitions with raising children, dealing with the incredible weight of this new responsibility and struggling with the crippling cloud of postpartum depression. Nothing is sugar-coated here. It’s a raw look at the earth-shattering transitions that all mothers go through, no matter how they get there.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barabara Kingsolver
Despite being an avid reader, I never got around to this one until a few months ago. It blew me away.
The haunting story of a missionary family in the Congo, narrated in turns by three teenaged daughters and their mother, is impactful on so many levels: morally, politically, theologically, and of course emotionally. The mother’s heartbreak unfolds like a punch to the gut. It’s the kind of book that yields endless discussion opportunities — and one you’ll want to reread over and over.
So tell me… What are you reading currently? Let’s add to this list to take us not just through midnight nursing, but maybe through afternoon nap time too.