It’s hard to think of your mother as anything other than a mother. Although becoming a mother has the capacity to change that, even then it’s difficult to remember that the woman who answered your every cry and changed your dirty diapers actually had a whole life before you. And, aside from, relationships with mothers are famous for being complicated and weird. Whole books and theories (thanks, Freud) and more than a few therapist’s appointments have been dedicated to understanding that particular dynamic.
Everyone’s relationship with her mother is different, but whether you and mom have had nothing but decade after decade of blissful happiness and mutual admiration, or if you cringe every time you see her face pop up on your caller ID, every mom-kid relationship could use a little scrutiny. After all, we’re talking about the woman that used to literally clean your puke off of her favorite blouse. If nothing else, that, at least, complicates things. And “complicated” is something literature does oh-so well.
So, check out some of these books for a refreshing new look at the inner-workings of mom and your relationship with her.
The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
A staple of feminist literature, The Golden Notebook is a great portrayal of a woman and a mother struggling against society and within herself to reconcile what it means to be a woman in the '60s. Through four different notebooks, the protagonist chronicles and imagines different aspects of her own life. It might be a great way to look back at the concerns and social pressures of the women coming up in an era that your own mother may have come of age in. Even if your mom wasn’t a '60s baby, the protagonist’s four notebooks are a strong reminder of the different hats your mother wears as a woman in the world.
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
Funny enough. In this book you don’t actually get much perspective from the mother/wife’s perspective, but the book’s memory-deficient elderly couple in search of their son will have you wanting to trying out a little selective amnesia yourself, so you can forget whatever trivial beef there is between you and mom and just start fresh before it’s too late. Plus, you get to read about dragons and knights and Arthurian England while you're at it.
Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou
Angelou had a complicated relationship with her own mother, whom she did not really begin to get to know until she was 13. In this book she shows the slow growth of a late-blooming relationship with her own mother, as she goes from calling her “lady” to “mother” and, finally, “mom.” It’ll have you looking at the ways your own relationship with your mother has grown, broken, and changed over the years… and it’ll have you looking forward to the new developments. And you should absolutely read it alongsde…
Letter to My Daughter by Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou never actually had a daughter… but she did eventually have a son. She wrote this book as a letter to an imagined daughter. Read alongside her book about her relationship with her own mother, it is a revelation about the ways that our mothers shape the way we go on to mother our daughters (or sons).
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis
Maybe your mother was a little on the colder side, not quite so free with the hugs as you’ve seen mothers be in movies and such. Maybe mom qualifies as a bonafide matriarch with her brood of 10 plus kids or so. Well, then, you might recognize her in The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, which looks at the life of a mother and her children over several decades as both struggle against everything the world throws at them in the decades of the Great Migration, making it an especially great book for those whose mothers were coming of age during those eras.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
You mother had sex… with multiple people probably. You mother still has sex. I know these things are hard to face, even as a full-grown adult yourself. But you’re just gonna have to face it. Reading The Awakening is not only an essential of feminist literature, and it’s also a rude awakening for those who have yet to accept that your mother is as sexual a being as you are. Maybe you and mom can check it off your TBR lists by reading it together even (don't worry, there aren't any super explicit sex scenes or anything). I know, I know… ew, and other things.
Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat
Some mother-child relationships are complicated by things outside of either one’s control. Breath, Eyes, Memory looks closely at such a relationship — a child conceived by violent rape, and the mother who still suffers daily with the memory of it, a memory that her own daughter is a reminder of. If you think your relationship with mom is complicated…
Building Stories by Chris Ware
This “book” plays with story format in some seriously interesting ways, literally coming in a giant box that tells the story through a comic book, a newsletter, a sort of game-board, pamphlets. But it’s not all just some kitschy way to play with the presentation of literature. The story is also really amazing. It does an incredible job of painting the picture of daily life and all its mundanities without boring you to tears. You watch the main protagonist grow from a lonely young insecure woman to wife and mother whose whole world is her daughter, and who deeply regrets the dreams she didn’t pursue earlier in life. It'll make you wonder about the dreams your own mom might have in the back of her mind.
Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel has spent a great deal of time on the therapist’s couch examining her relationship with her emotionally distant, artist mother, who spent much of Bechdel’s childhood married to a closeted homosexual man. Although your own relationship might not be so complicated, anyone would benefit from the careful and intriguing analysis that Bechdel offers up (probably enhanced by all those couch sessions).
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
You know how sometimes you’d go over to a friend’s house and, seeing how their parents were, you were suddenly very grateful for your own parents? (Sometimes that happened in reverse, too…). Well, The Joy Luck Club gives you a glimpse into the lives of three different mothers who immigrated from China and their American-born daughters. These comparisons force you to try to look at your own relationship with your mother through another’s eyes.
Storming Caesar’s Palace by Annelise Orleck
Lest you think motherly magic only extends to finding in seconds that thing you just spent hours looking for or somehow remembering the birthdays of every single one of your cousins, nieces, aunts, and uncles… Storming Caesar’s Palace is the story of mothers who came together and fought for economic justice in the 1970s and came away with impressive wins. Moms can be badass, too!
Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence
Written while his mother was ill, Sons and Lovers takes D.H. Lawrence’s own mother as the inspiration for the mother in the novel, and you can see how much the author adores his mother in the way he describes the character. With the main character basically struggling to find a romantic lover that he can love more than (and one hopes very differently than) his mother, the book has Oedipus complex written all over it. It’s basically a warning that admiring mom is all well and good, but don’t let it ruin you for that other type of love.
New Ways to Kill Your Mother by Colm Tóibín
Don’t worry, it’s not actually about killing your mother. It’s actually a book of essays about the glaring lack of parents in so much of literature, and how that’s related to the often seriously complicated relationships many writers had with their parents in real life. By comparing the two, Toibin shows us how in some ways it’s necessary that literature forsake parents. It’s what lets us see a character as a person, rather than as only a mother or a daughter. Just think how hard it is in real life to remember that your mom isn’t just your mom, but, like, a whole other person!
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