To Be a Mom or Not to Be: 5 Books About Motherhood in All Its Forms

Anna Bruno is a writer and teacher at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business. She is the author of the new novel, Ordinary Hazards, a transfixing debut about one woman’s epic journey back to a life worth living.

When I became a mother, relatively late, I began to understand two distinct and overlapping realities. I am both the woman I am now (a mother) and the woman I used to be (not a mother). The line is fuzzy, before motherhood and after, though my life has changed considerably. One thing I know for certain is that motherhood altered my wiring in a particular way: I worry about everything. From our current pandemic to that little piece of plastic—once benign, now a choking hazard—the anxieties of motherhood abound, and they are not limited to biological mothers.  

Child-rearing isn’t easy. Here are five novels to sympathize with.

The Need
by Helen Phillips

Blow up motherhood by a factor of two and you get THE NEED. My son was about a year old when I read this novel, which was either exactly the right time or exactly the wrong time. Does someone in the throes of motherhood want to read about the mundane details of motherhood? Maybe; maybe not. The fact that I can’t even answer that question speaks to the wonky intelligence of THE NEED. It’s bizarre, and also, it’s entirely normal, filled with details of lived experience.  

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The Need
Helen Phillips

***LONGLISTED FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD IN FICTION***

“An extraordinary and dazzlingly original work from one of our most gifted and interesting writers” (Emily St. John Mandel, author of The Glass Hotel). The Need, which finds a mother of two young children grappling with the dualities of motherhood after confronting a masked intruder in her home, is “like nothing you’ve ever read before…in a good way” (People).

When Molly, home alone with her two young children, hears footsteps in the living room, she tries to convince herself it’s the sleep deprivation. She’s been hearing things these days. Startling at loud noises. Imagining the worst-case scenario. It’s what mothers do, she knows.

But then the footsteps come again, and she catches a glimpse of movement.

Suddenly Molly finds herself face-to-face with an intruder who knows far too much about her and her family. As she attempts to protect those she loves most, Molly must also acknowledge her own frailty. Molly slips down an existential rabbit hole where she must confront the dualities of motherhood: the ecstasy and the dread; the languor and the ferocity; the banality and the transcendence as the book hurtles toward a mind-bending conclusion.

In The Need, Helen Phillips has created a subversive, speculative thriller that comes to life through blazing, arresting prose and gorgeous, haunting imagery. “Brilliant” (Entertainment Weekly), “grotesque and lovely” (The New York Times Book Review, Editor’s Choice), and “wildly captivating” (O, The Oprah Magazine), The Need is a glorious celebration of the bizarre and beautiful nature of our everyday lives and “showcases an extraordinary writer at her electrifying best” (Publishers Weekly, starred review).

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Nothing to See Here
by Kevin Wilson

My top choice on (not) being a mother: Lillian isn’t a mother biologically but she becomes one fast. Wilson’s meditations on what make her a mother are at the same time simple and profound. Her worry progresses exponentially, first about her “governess” job, then about the children’s safety and well-being, and finally about the likelihood that she will fail them. When she reaches this third stage of worry, one thing becomes clear: She ia mother. 

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Nothing to See Here
Kevin Wilson

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MENTIONED IN:

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Make It Scream, Make It Burn
by Leslie Jamison

In her essay Daughter of a Ghost, Jamison examines the psychological peril of becoming a stepmother. She is acutely aware that she is both a mother and not a mother to her stepdaughter. Jamison’s examination of the dynamics of stepmotherhood offers a lens into motherhood in all forms 

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Make It Scream, Make It Burn
Leslie Jamison

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MENTIONED IN:

To Be a Mom or Not to Be: 5 Books About Motherhood in All Its Forms

By Anna Bruno | August 21, 2020

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Commonwealth
by Ann Patchett

When Teresa sends her four children to Virginia for the summer to stay with her ex-husband and his new wife, Beverly, she revels in the idea of her toddler crawling on Beverly’s beautiful head as she tries to rest in bed. Teresa’s fantasy so perfectly captures the unbearable absence of a child and the lure of personal autonomy. 

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Commonwealth
Ann Patchett

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The Woman Upstairs
by Claire Messud

Messud’s narrator, Nora, offers a personal meditation on what it means to be single and childless at a certain age (pushing forty). If COMMONWEALTH is about the existential dread of raising (and avoiding) two biological children and four stepchildren, THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS is about the existential dread of not doing any of that. Either way, there is sorrow, and on occasion, levity. 

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The Woman Upstairs
Claire Messud

The Woman Upstairs is a masterly portrait of Nora Eldridge, a thirty-seven-year-old elementary school teacher on the verge of disappearing. Having abandoned her desire to be an artist, she has become the “woman upstairs,” a reliable friend and tidy neighbor always on the fringe of others’ achievements. Written with intimacy and piercing emotion, The Woman Upstairs is an urgently dispatched story of obsession and artistic fulfillment that explores the thrill—and the devastating cost—of being a woman in America today.

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