Celebrate Mother's Day with these 6 books about motherhood

Since it is Mother’s Day this weekend, we decided to focus on recent books with new perspectives of motherhood, say Heather and Arizona O'Neill.

Mother-daughter duo, Heather and Arizona O'Neill, focus on recent books with new perspectives on motherhood

Award-winning novelist Heather O'Neill, left, along with her daughter, filmmaker Arizona O'Neill, recommend these 6 books about motherhood. (Brian Lapuz/CBC)

Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere follows the stories of several mothers in a picture-perfect suburban town whose lives interlink. The first mother has a Wes Anderson brood of lovely and bright children. But when the youngest daughter begins to exhibit the repressed traits of her mother, the foundation of the family's utopian home begins to shake.

The second, a single mother who drifts from town to town with her daughter, looking down on those with conventional lifestyles while working on her peculiar and beautiful art projects, has a troubling secret the town will not let her keep.

Another woman, unable to conceive, is thrilled when an abandoned Chinese baby is found at the fire station. She and her husband call it a miracle. But when the biological mother resurfaces, the couple and their friends go to extreme lengths to keep the baby. The town argues over whether biology or ability to care for a child are what determine true motherhood. The complicated needs and concerns of interracial adoption are scrutinized by local papers and gossips.

This novel shows the many ways motherhood can look like and how it never fits just one mould, even though the town tries desperately to dispute this. There is no right way to be a mother, and there is no way for it not to be a complicated and fraught process.

Littel Fires Everywhere shows how motherhood never fits just one mould. (Arizona O'Neill)

Little Labors, by Rivka Galchen

Rivka Galchen has compiled a series of small essays written after her first baby is born. I have always adored books of philosophical meditation. Galchen proves you can figure out all the great philosophical questions within the domestic sphere, as she ruminates on her relationship to neighbours and her baby's first words.

Imagine Nietzsche in the grocery store with a baby in the shopping cart, clutching a bag of Doritos for dear life. Then he tears a page out of a vaccination booklet and writes a pensée about consciousness and free will on it while in the check-out line. It is not so much a book about motherhood as a book written by a mother and using the images at her disposal to create meditations.

In one essay, Galchen reflects on the large percentage of women writers in the Western canon who did not have children, almost to prove that having children is anathema to writing novels. It's somewhat taboo to suggest a woman can't write as much once she has a baby. I don't personally know why. You don't have time to do anything as much, so why would you have time to write novels? To assume otherwise would be to consider writing novels to be a magical act that doesn't require time and categorical effort.

Rivka Galchen doesn't fight the notion that having a baby changes her relationship with writing. She writes in a mode that mirrors, and doesn't try to hide, the temporal constraints of being a mother. The size of these essays capture the brief moments of time a mother is allotted while caring for a newborn. But the content also reflects the enormity of wisdom and the bursts of explosive tenderness and revelation that come with motherhood.

Rivka Galchen wrote a compilation of essays after her first baby was born and doesn’t try to hide the temporal constraints of being a mother. (Arizona O'Neill)

Motherhood, by Sheila Heti

Sheila Heti was really ahead of her time with the autofiction craze, writing books where the main character was named Sheila and other characters had the actual names of people in her life. Heti continues this trend in Motherhood, in which the lines between memoir and fiction are blurred.

In this book, the narrator is 39 and finds herself in the position of having to decide once and for all if she will have a baby. The narrator interrogates all her acquaintances who have had children, as they try to sum up the experience of motherhood for her in provocative and intriguing ways. Her boyfriend, who already has a child, yells out at one point that having a baby is the biggest scam! What is a female thinker to make of all this?

She periodically consults the I Ching, by tossing two coins in the air. She has conversations with it, in what becomes a hilarious absurdist dialogue. She is essentially having a conversation with herself, but pretending it is the unknown forces answering her.

And, indeed, motherhood is quintessentially the unknown. That is why the decision to have — or not have — a child can be so fraught. Heti also examines the idea of "mother" philosophically. The narrator's grandmother was a Holocaust survivor, and she ponders the obligation to have a Jewish child. She has such a fondness for her own mother, she is quite content to always be the daughter to a mother, eternally looking for wisdom, asking everyone around her, 'But why?'

In Motherhood, the lines between memoir and fiction are blurred. (Arizona O'Neill)

The Seed: Infertility is a Feminist Issue, by Alexandra Kimball

This is a brilliant and important essay on the subject of infertility.

The author relates her own grief at her repeated attempts to get pregnant, detailing the methods and treatments she received. She also speaks about the support groups she reached out to and her erased position in society as an infertile woman.

Furthermore, Kimball examines infertility in a feminist context. She challenges the strain of second-wave feminism that insisted infertility treatments and surrogacy were unnatural. Kimball points out the inherent fallacy in this line of thinking. How can abortion, an act solidly supported by the same feminists, be considered natural and within every woman's right, and fertility treatments be considered unnatural? Citing Donna Haraway, Kimball sees the merging of science and motherhood as a natural evolution.

Kimball is a virtuosic thinker, making nimble use of decades of feminist theory. At the same time, The Seed is highly readable. It's one of those books that is delightful because you realize with each page you are learning so much.

In The Seed, author Alexandra Kimball relates her own grief at her repeated attempts to get pregnant. (Arizona O'Neill)

Dear Scarlet: The Story of My Postpartum Depression, by Teresa Wong

This graphic novel is an incredibly honest portrayal of giving birth and the pitfalls that come with it.

When we first meet Wong, she is pregnant with her first child and is not even quite sure she wants a baby. She is constantly doubting herself and questions whether she'll be a good mother.

After the baby is born she feels completely alone and isolated from the world. She describes the sleep deprivation as wanting to go to the grocery store and to be buried alive with apples so she can finally sleep, hence the cover of the book. When she realizes she is experiencing the symptoms of postpartum depression, a huge weight is lifted off her shoulders and she can finally work towards feeling normal again.

She draws diagrams of the changes her body went through while being pregnant and it does not hold anything back.

This book is so important for everyone to read, to help those going through the enormous physical and spiritual transition that is motherhood.

In this graphic novel, Teresa Wong constantly doubts herself and questions whether she’ll be a good mother. (Arizona O'Neill)

Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward

Sing, Unburied, Sing is the story of a mother who isn't suited to be one. She has no natural mothering instincts. She takes her young son, Jojo, and infant daughter from their grandparents' house and brings them on a road trip to pick up their white father who is getting out of prison. She is oblivious to the needs of the children, and Jojo is forced to tend to his sister.

Her presence is, if anything detrimental, as she repeatedly puts her children in dangerous situations in order to pursue her own misguided sense of happiness. Her children both refuse to call her mother, addressing her by her given name, Leonie, instead.

Sing, Unburied, Sing also deals with the role the extended family plays in raising a child. The maternal grandparents take on a large role in raising the children, and Jojo becomes a mother of sorts to his sister. The family tree is deeply present in this novel. Its roots, which extend everywhere underneath them, is one of the most powerful aspects of the book. Jojo is deeply connected to everyone in his family's past, not only those he is biologically related to, but those who have become part of his family story through shared experience and history.

Having been a motherless child myself, I know it opens you to the world in a particular way. You are more vulnerable to others and abuse. But when the world touches you, it goes straight to your heart. Your arms are always stretched wide open to a mother that isn't there. And all things dark and mysterious and transcendent will reach their own arms open to that emptiness.

Leonie's family has a gift of seeing the dead, those who have died violently and cannot pass over to the other side. Whereas Leonie's murdered brother becomes a warm companion to her, a more troubling ghost haunts Jojo. Jojo finds himself connected to all the murdered black people who have bled in Mississippi. And though he has never heard his own mother tell a lullaby, he hears all the dead singing their painful, glorious songs. Isn't that what lullabies are anyways? Aren't they just your mother acquainting you with melancholy and loss and hardship, in the sweetest of ways that make you yawn and put you to sleep?

Sing, Unburied, Sing is the story of a mother who isn’t suited to be one. (Arizona O'Neill)


Heather and Arizona O'Neill

CBC Homerun Book Columnists

Heather O'Neill is an award winning novelist, short story writer, and essayist who lives in Montreal. She is Arizona's Mom. Arizona O'Neill is a filmmaker and avid reader who lives in Montreal. She is Heather's daughter. Follow them on their Instagram @oneillreads


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