Exploring Motherhood in Literature

I don’t know what it is to be a mother, but I do understand it. Seeing friends and family go through it, we get a little taste of what it might be like. Through literature also, we can explore and understand all of the complex facets of motherhood – the good to the bad – and experiences that are unlike our own.

What follows are recommendations of books across a few genres that feature stories heavily involving motherhood. 

Nobody Told Me by Hollie McNish
Poetry, nonfiction

This book is a collection of poems and stories that were taken from McNish’s diaries after finding out she was pregnant. It explores the ins and outs of learning how to be a mother and raise a child and earned the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry in 2017.

“This book should be required reading for anyone thinking of having a baby, or even anyone who knows someone who is thinking of having a baby.” — Scotland on Sunday

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
Fiction, dystopian fantasy

Jemisin is one of the most celebrated fantasy writers of her generation – and that’s coming from the New York Times. Her Broken Earth trilogy is testament to that accolade: All three books in the series won the Hugo Award three years in a row.

The first book is told from three perspectives, one of which is that of Essun, a mother living an ordinary life who comes home to find that her husband had killed their son and kidnapped their daughter. On her journey to find her daughter, the book description tells readers, “Essun does not care if the world falls apart around her. She’ll break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.”

Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou

Angelou was an American memoirist, popular poet and civil-rights activist that wrote autobiographies, poetry, essays and much more. Although she has told her life story before, this book in particular is a dive into her complex relationship with her mother, who was absent for most of her young life.

While this stuck with her, the book also “explores the healing and love that evolved between the two women over the course of their lives.”

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Contemporary fiction

Many people are familiar with Ng’s book, which was adapted to become a TV series on Hulu.

The story follows two women: Elena Richardson, who embodies the idyllic landscape of the suburb they live in, and Mia Warren, an enigmatic single mother who goes against the grain. When old family friends of the Richardsons attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town, putting Elena and Mia on opposing sides.

According to the book’s description, “Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of secrets, the nature of art and identity and the ferocious pull of motherhood.”

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel
Memoir, graphic novel

Bechdel is best known for her graphic memoir Fun Home. If her name sounds familiar, it is also because the Bechdel Test – which measures representation of women in the media – was named after her.

In this follow-up to Fun Home, Bechdel explores her relationship with her mother, whose creative aspirations seeped into Bechdel’s childhood, and the rift that formed between them.

“Many of us are living out the unlived lives of our mothers. Alison Bechdel has written a graphic novel about this – sort of like a comic book by Virginia Woolf. You won’t believe it until you read it – and you must!” — Gloria Steinem

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