In literature (or, at least, in the shelving and marketing of literature) it sometimes seems that books about motherhood and mothering are relegated to the peripheries of “women’s fiction” or “chick lit.” And while admittedly, novels about mothers are probably slightly more appealing to women than they might be to, say, men, it still does the experience of motherhood — and the writing about it — something of a disservice to slap the less-than-nuanced label of “chick lit” (whatever that means anyway) to these titles, without a second glance. Experiences of motherhood, both real and fictional, are just as complex and diverse as mothers themselves are — and the books that celebrate that should be celebrated in turn.
While I am not a mother myself yet, I’ve noticed a number of novels about the experience of being a mother slowly making their way onto my bookshelves recently (sneaky biological clock, anyone?) I’ve also got a lifetime of experience as a daughter — my relationship with my own mother being one of the most complex and influential of my life. These novels about motherhood have given me a newfound perspective on my own mother’s experience: her sacrifices, her struggles, her desires, her hopes, and her joys (sometimes because of me, sometimes in spite of me.)
Here are 12 novels that tell diverse stories of motherhood.
1. ‘The Mothers’ by Brit Bennett
This debut novel is February’s pick for Bustle’s American Woman Book Club, so be sure to grab a copy of Brit Bennett’s The Mothers and head over to Goodreads to start chatting with us! The Mothers introduces readers to Nadia Turner, a high school student whose young life has already been marked by violence in the form of her own mother’s recent suicide, and who is now dealing with an unexpected teen pregnancy (with the pastor’s son Luke.) Forced into both shame and secrecy by the social pressures of their church and community, both Nadia and Luke find themselves, years later, questioning the decisions they made as young teens and wondering how their lives might have unfolded differently.
2. ‘Know the Mother’ by Desiree Cooper
Desiree Cooper’s short fiction collection, Know the Mother, examines the archetype of the mother across generations, races, and cultures; investigating how motherhood is informed by the intersections of race and gender. Cooper explores the unique differences in the experiences of a variety of fictional mothers — a mother with prenatal fantasies of suicide, a lawyer who miscarries, a new mother just realizing her entire life has changed forever, a politician's wife who feels enslaved by motherhood, and others — as well as highlighting those things that remain universally the same across diverse races and economic backgrounds.
3. ‘Big Little Lies’ by Liane Moriarty
Adapted for an HBO series beginning on February 19 (have you seen the trailer?!) Big Little Lies is Liane Moriarty’s novel about three very different mothers who want to make some changes in their lives, afraid of losing the women they were before they became mothers. While dealing with the ups and downs of their children, ex-husband with new wives, PTA-style drama, and much more, these three women quickly form a bond. But the entire time they’re telling themselves and each other lies — the kind of lies that initially seem harmless, but when compiled together become bigger than anyone ever expected.
4. ‘Nine Months’ by Paula Bomer
As a writer who writes boldly, honestly, and fiercely about the lives of girls and women, Paula Bomer’s take on motherhood is darkly humorous and relatable. In Nine Months, Bomer introduces readers to Sonia, a young, Brooklyn mother who discovers she’s unexpectedly pregnant with her third child — and isn’t exactly thrilled — and responds by taking off on a cross-country road trip, leaving her husband and sons behind. She travels to her hometown, where she turns to old friends and ex-lovers to reconnect with the woman she was before she became a mother, and to reevaluate how she’s going to be able to move forward with this latest pregnancy.
5. ‘Our Short History’ by Lauren Grodstein
Landing on bookstore shelves in March, Our Short History tells the story of Karen Neulander, a single mother who has always been a protective of her six-year-old son, Jacob. When Karen first discovered she was pregnant, Jacob’s father Dave let her know he had no intention of being in Jacob’s life — and Karen left him to raise her son on her own, letting Dave assume she’d had an abortion. But now Karen is dying and Jacob wants to meet his father. When he does, Dave is surprisingly thrilled about having a son, inserting himself into Jacob’s life in ways that make Karen uncomfortable. Over the last months of her life Karen struggles to make peace with the fact that her time with Jacob is ending, while the rest of his life will be witnessed by Dave, a man who Karen isn’t sure deserves it.
6. ‘The Expatriates’ by Janice Y.K. Lee
Janice Y.K. Lee’s The Expatriates meets three American women living in Hong Kong, all grappling with the different expectations they had for their lives. Mercy is a young Korean American and recent Columbia graduate who is feeling lost; Hilary is a wealthy housewife in a failing marriage, which she blames on her inability to conceive a child; and Margaret is a once-happily married mother of three, who is empty and shattered by a recent loss in her life. Raw and complex, this novel follows the three women as they struggle with their experiences of womanhood, motherhood, and living in a foreign landscape.
7. ‘Lucky Boy’ by Shanthi Sekaran
At 18-years-old Solimar Castro Valdez crosses the U.S./Mexico border hoping to reunite with her family in Berkeley, California, and intent on making a home and a future for herself. But unexpectedly, Soli arrives in the United States pregnant. She falls in love with both motherhood and her baby boy, and is willing to reshape her American dreams in order to build a life for her son as well. But when Soli is detained for being undocumented, her son is put into the care of Kavya — a woman who has always dreamed of motherhood, but who has never been able to conceive. Both women care deeply for Soli’s son, and both will find their lives irreversibly changed by the baby boy.
8. ‘Modern Girls’ by Jennifer S. Brown
I loved this novel when it came out last year, and if you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, definitely check it out. Set in the years between World War I and World War II, Modern Girls introduces readers to two women: 42-year-old Rose and her 19-year-old daughter Dottie, who are both in their first months of secret pregnancies they weren’t expecting and aren’t sure they want. Dottie, who was recently offered a promotion at work and an opportunity to attend college, and Rose, who planned to return to her life of politics now that her babies had grown, both have dreams other than new babies on their minds. Told with relatable, heartbreaking detail, Modern Girls is a story about two women who are forced into similar, uncertain positions that will either bring them closer together or tear them apart.
9. ‘The Leavers’ by Lisa Ko
Winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, Lisa Ko’s debut novel, The Leavers, takes readers from New York to China, telling the story of a Chinese family of two — mother, Polly, and son, Deming Guo, whose lives suddenly take off in completely opposite paths. After Polly, an undocumented immigrant, disappears without a trace one afternoon, 11-year-old Deming Guo is placed up for adoption. Renamed Daniel Wilkinson and pressured to transform into the “all-American” son his adoptive parents want, Deming/Daniel learns to navigate cultural borders and boundaries, as he discovers who he truly wants to be; while his mother, Polly, must learn to make peace with her mistakes.
10. ‘The Book of Unknown Americans’ by Cristina Henriquez
Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans is a debut novel that introduces readers to 16-year-old Maribel, a recent-immigrant to the United States whose parents hope that she will be able to receive the resources necessary to help her deal with a traumatic brain injury. At the center of the vibrant cast of characters who fill this novel is Maribel’s mother, Alma, a woman doing everything she can to care for her family — forced to step far outside her comfort zone and risk her safety in order to take charge of all their lives and do what she hopes is right for the people she loves.
11. ‘Class’ by Lucinda Rosenfeld
Landing on bookstore shelves earlier this year with mixed reviews, Lucinda Rosenfeld’s Class is described as “a satire about gentrification and liberal hypocrisy” — and may have hit uncomfortably close to home for a number of readers. Class tells the story of hyper-involved mother Karen Kessler, who prides herself on her non-profit work, her open-mindedness, and her racial sensitivities… until her daughter, who attends an integrated public school in Brooklyn, is bullied by a student from a nearby housing project and Karen resorts to fraud to send her daughter to a “better” (whiter) school, where the Kessler family doesn’t really seem to fit in any better. Unsympathetic characters abound... but you'll probably recognize at least a few of them.
12. ‘This Is How It Always Is' by Laurie Frankel
Published last month, Laurie Frankel’s novel This Is How It Always Is is a timely and big-hearted family story that you will undoubtedly fall in love with. Frankel’s story centers around the Walsh-Adams family, who have just welcomed their fifth son, Claude, into the world. It quickly becomes clear, even before his first day of kindergarten, that Claude is transgender — and while Claude’s parents, Rosie and Penn, love their child completely, they’re afraid the world might not feel the same. This is a beautiful novel about the unexpected curve-balls of parent/child relationships, and the limitless boundaries of family love.