Sure, I may have recently sent my youngest out the door to preschool, but parenthood hasn’t stolen all of my brain cells yet. I haven’t forgotten those early days of mothering: heavy, milk-engorged breasts leaking against a tattered nursing bra in response to an infant wail at three oh six in the darkest part of the early morning.
Around-the-clock feedings, swaying in a darkened room with a babe in your lap, going through the zombified motions of a mother on the brink of losing it… I see you where you’re at, and I get it. You feel lonely, exhausted, and fatigued by the redistribution of postpartum hormones surging through a body you barely recognize.
You may think you need to spend your 1am feeding browsing Amazon Prime with tired eyes for another set of burp cloths or a different brand of baby socks (why don’t they ever just stay on?) but put away the retail therapy urge for a moment and consider utilizing Amazon’s other fab service: Kindle books. Or, if you’re a library patron, use the ebook service to download reading material.
If you have to be awake and pinned under a baby, you might as well use that phone screen glow to invest in some self-care, and yes, reading a good book can feel transformative. I know you think you don’t have time, or that reading in stops and fits isn’t worth it, but I’ve got recommendations that will have you laughing, crying, and–most importantly–feeling truly understood. Early motherhood is isolating, but these five books get it, and may be exactly what you need to read when you hear that hungry cry drift through the baby monitor in the middle of the night.
Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson
“I looked at the clock with the faint unconscious hope common to all mothers that time will somehow have passed magically away and the next time you look it will be bedtime.”
Even in your muddled mom-brain state of mind, I’m guessing you recognize the author’s name. Shirley Jackson is probably best known for her short story The Lottery. But Jackson was a prolific mid-century American writer and some of her best and under-read work centers around family life. In this memoir, she writes about raising her children in a Vermont farmhouse with a patient, humorous voice that is decidedly different than the eerie prose of her more popular horror story. She embraces the clutter and chaos of family life and while decades have passed since, her observations of motherhood are still relatable, right down to the reliance on an early morning mug of coffee.
And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready by Meaghan O’Connell
“We were in the middle of what felt like an ongoing emergency. Like someone was playing a practical joke on us. Endure the car crash of childbirth then, without sleeping, use your broken body to keep your tiny, fragile, precious, heartbreaking, mortal child alive. Rock, sway, bounce, pace, sing, hum.”
If you’re after a cathartic read, this is it. O’Connell throws gut punches on every page of her brutally honest memoir. Simply put: she writes about the stuff that rarely gets written about. Her passages on anxiety and self-doubt during early parenthood, or the deep well of fear that takes hold once she realizes that loving her baby means accepting his mortality, feels like a total therapy sesh. Or, more aptly, like the deep, hush-toned, three-cocktails-in conversation you’d have with your best mom friend if you could both just find a few hours to get together sans babies.
After Birth by Elisa Albert
“A baby opens you up, is the problem. No way around it unless you want to pay someone else to have it for you. There’s before and there’s after. To live in your body before is one thing. To live in your body after is another. Some deal by attempting to micromanage; some go crazy; some zone right the hell on out. Or all of the above.”
The protagonist in this novel, new mom Ari, is angry. Her son is one, and she’s still dealing with postpartum depression, an identity crisis, and loneliness. Sound familiar? When I first read this novel, I wasn’t sure I liked its abrasiveness, but the more I read, the more I felt seen. Part of the evolution of motherhood is naming our grief. We grieve for the loss of who we were without children, for our traumatic births stories, and for the impossibility of living up to the standards the world has placed on mothers’ shoulders. Good thing we have books like this that let us spend time with that grief and anger, guilt-free.
Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt
“The clerk says to me, “If you’re pregnant, you shouldn’t eat cold cuts.” Now that my belly shows, I’m public property. Strangers speak to me all the time. They tell me how I should do everything.”
I’m going to go ahead and admit that this is my favorite read on the list. It’s also the most unconventional. I read it at a time when my youngest was a sick, underweight baby and our lives were a flurry of hospital stays and medical mysteries. I swiped through the pages of this book from my perch in a hospital room easy chair mesmerized by its magical prose. It’s a ghost story, and a story about motherhood; it’s a tale about love and journey and belonging. It defies genre and the lyrical quality of the passages felt like a balm to the turbulent reality of early motherhood with a medically fragile baby.
Short Story Collection
Look How Happy I’m Making You by Polly Rosenwaike
“Once a baby is born, she will seem to expand ten times in size with her relentless needs and wants. She will care about you only in relation to herself, will claim residence in your arms and lock eyes as if to never let you go; and then, when the delicate fringe of her eyelashes finally comes to rest, you will be stuck awake, unable to turn away.”
If you’re not convinced you can commit to a full book, try this collection of short stories. Rosenwaike approaches motherhood from a dozen different angles, writing quick–yet packed full of emotion–stories about women who are making decisions about their motherhood journeys. She tackles infertility, death, pregnancy, divorce, postpartum depression, and the evolution of women’s lives with a frank and skillful voice.