Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Mothering narratives

by Susan

You carry a baby in the womb for nine months and then, when they're grown up, they call you collect, when they remember. She has her own life. And that's okay. I've learned to be patient. "Teach only love for that is what you are." The ups and downs; I live with it. And I've got a lot ahead of me and a lot to be proud of. I know: she is the reason I was born.

--Mona Simpson, Anywhere But Here

Back in the spring, after my mind had settled into its All Things Kitchens All the Time groove, with room for nothing else, LomaGirl left this request in comments:

I'm looking for mothering narratives- novels, essays, short stories, memoirs. Can you think of any books that you would classify as this? I would really appreciate some help!

And I immediately thought of the ending to the Mona Simpson; Lorrie Moore's "People Like That Are the Only People Here"; memoirs by Shirley Jackson and Louise Erdrich and Anne Lamott; Sue Miller's The Good Mother (although I never thought she was);  Jill in Robert Boswell's Crooked Hearts, trying to keep the family together after the eldest son literally destroys their house; the mother of the autistic boy in Anna Mitgutsch's Jakob; Pearl Tull in Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant; the two moms in Richmal Crompton's Family Roundabout; the mom in Joanna Cannan's Princes in the Land; and then, my mind went blank.

Since then:

Doris Lessing's The Sweetest Dream

A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book

Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows

Anne Tyler's Breathing Lessons, Searching for Caleb, etc.

Jackie Lyden's Daughter of the Queen of Sheba

I think I would classify most of my reading in the They fuck you up, your mum and dad vein, or else the good mothers of literature outside Demeter have failed to leave a mark on me.

Anyone else have some suggestions for LomaGirl? Jackie compiled her own list of the Best Books About Motherhood a couple weeks back and received some suggestions as well (I was particularly chagrined to realize I'd forgotten about Roxanna Robinson's Cost), but I feel we've only touched on the surface of the mothering narratives out there.


  1. Arlington Park (Rachel Cusk; novel)
    The Ten-Year Nap (Meg Wolitzer; novel)
    Operating Instructions (Anne Lamott; memoir)
    We Need to Talk about Kevin (Lionel Shriver; novel)
    The Fifth Child (Doris Lessing; novel)
    Live Among Savages / Raising Demons (Shirley Jackson; memoirs)
    Mildred Pearce (James M. Cain; novel)

  2. The Choir / Other People's Children / The Other Family (Joanna Trollope; novels)
    Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Amy Chua)

    Still looking over my shelves. These are what leapt out at me. (I see you've already included Lamott and Jackson in your suggestions.)

  3. A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother (Rachel Cusk; memoir)

  4. Thanks, Melissa! Keep 'em coming!

  5. The Mommy-Track Mysteries / Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace (Ayelet Waldman; novels and a memoir, respectively)
    The Joy Luck Club (Amy Tan; novel)
    I Don't Know How She Does It (Allison Pearson; novel)
    Certain Girls (Jennifer Weiner; fiction)
    The Deep End of the Ocean (Jacqueline Mitchard)
    Diary of a Provincial Lady (E.M. Delafield; fiction)
    Pocketful of Pinecones: Nature Study With the Gentle Art of Learning : A Story for Mother Culture (Karen Andreola; fiction plus, well, nature study)
    Our Town (Thornton Wilder; play)
    A Lantern in Her Hand (Bess Aldrich; fiction)
    Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (Rebecca Wells; fiction)
    Ronnie and Rosey (Judy Angell; YA fiction)
    Room (Emma Donoghue; fiction)

  6. A Map of the World (Jane Hamilton; fiction)
    Family Happiness (Laurie Colwin; fiction)
    Midwives (Chris Bohjalian; fiction)
    Housekeeper and the Professor (Yoko Ogawa; fiction)
    The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women (Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels; non-fiction)
    The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage (Cathi Hanauer, ed.; essays)

  7. I think I'm done. For now. Thanks for giving me "an assignment." Today was a rough day. There are fewer now. But, still... they come.

    I could likely write my own mother narrative at this point. (*wry, sad grin*)


    Best regards. I hope you're doing well, Susan.


  8. Ooh, Susan, great question. In addition to Erdrich and Lamott's mothering memoirs, I also liked Francesca Lia Block's. One of my favorite mother books is Behind the Scenes at the Museum. It resonated with me so much more strongly after I became a mother. I picked Mrs. Dalloway for my next book group as I wanted a mother/daughter narrative to juxtapose with the father son stuff in Gilead, The Road and Lamb. Handmaid's Tale is kind of about mothering, and I've also had Surfacing and Lady Oracle recommended.

  9. I remember thinking while reading We Need to Talk About Kevin: "There is no way the author of this book is a mother." Something about Eva just did not ring true. So I would list this book as a "false note mothering narrative."

    A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 by Laurel Ulrich is on my Amazon wishlist. More recent mothering narratives, numbering in the thousands, can be found on blogspot and wordpress.

  10. The first 2 I thought of Melissa already mentioned (Shriver and Lessing).

    From Jackie's list, I vouch for Beside the Sea, Veronique Olmi.

    Also, I think Penelope Mortimer's The Pumpkin Eater falls into this category -- I've ordered it but haven't received/read it yet.

    Sadly, I think all of these focus on the negative...

  11. Jayne Anne Phillips's top 10 books about motherhood:

  12. You've got a great list here! Can't beleive I forgot about Room and Amy Tan - I can recommend all her books as being great at showing the mother/daughter relationship.

    I'm going to spend the rest of the evening investigating the suggestions in this post - thank you!

  13. I marked this post to come back to later but it looks like my suggestions are all covered! :)

  14. Barbara Kingsolver, The Bean Trees.
    Martha Beck, Expecting Adam

    A quite disconcerting proportion of my perspective on mothering comes from Pearl Tull.

  15. I checked back a couple of times after my comment and then didn't see this post in July! I made a list, had my professor okay some books and require others, and I've started reading it. Some of the books you all have suggested are on there- some of them were ideas but didn't get on the list.
    About Kevin- interesting that Margaret WV thought it didn't ring true- I believe it's written by a man. I'm trying to read books by women about being mothers- not so much about their own mothers, though there is some of that, too. I'm going to keep a copy of the books you have suggested. And thank you for posting this as a blog post- some good food for thought here.
    I'll post my list to my blog if you want to check it out.

  16. "In the Country of Men" Hisham Matar - a bad mother by conventional standards - she's a drug addict and despises the boy's father, and tells him so every day - and the boy loves her so much (also a chilling book about Libya under Ghadaffi)

    "Wartime Lies" Louis Begley - the author in this fictionalized memoir makes his real-life mother into an aunt in the book - they are in hiding together in WWII Poland. The boy who is about 9 at the beginning of the book and maybe 14 or 15 at the end looks forward to the night when he can snuggle up to his mother--comes off as mildly incestuous. Also interesting because the child is not innocent as victims usually are, but develops some perverse cruel streaks.

    Have an allergy to the bad mother genre but there is an exception to every rule - "Crime and Punishment" - surely a classic of the bad mother genre.


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