The connection we share with our mothers—and/or the state of being a mother ourselves—can range from loving and reverential to difficult and draining. No matter how you feel about motherhood, these books offer insight for all.
In his compelling memoir, Mama’s Boy: A Story of Our Americas, Dustin Lance Black, writer of the Oscar-winning screenplay Milk, chronicles the life of his brave, determined mother, Anne, and the evolution of their relationship. Anne was born into a family of poor Louisiana sharecroppers and was paralyzed by polio as a child, yet she went on to have a fulfilling career and marry three times. She brought up Black and his two brothers in a Mormon household, which led to friction as Black came of age in the 1980s, grappling with his identity and concealing his sexual orientation from Anne and the rest of his family. But as he entered film school and became involved in the gay marriage movement, he and Anne discovered common ground. The story he tells is one of perseverance, acceptance and, ultimately, hope. “If my mom and I could find the bridges between us, then perhaps our neighbors and those closest to us could too,” he writes. “Perhaps we could live on a higher plane than politics.”
A group of today’s leading authors explore freighted family bonds in What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence. Assembled by Michele Filgate, a contributing editor at Literary Hub, this stirring collection of essays offers diverse takes on the ties that bind mother and child. In “Her Body/My Body,” Nayomi Munaweera recalls growing up in a family that, due to her unstable mother, was filled with upheaval and violence. André Aciman shares poignant memories of his deaf mother in “Can You Hear Me?” Filgate, in the book’s powerful title essay, writes about the stepfather who abused her and how his actions affected her mother. Other contributors include Alexander Chee, Carmen Maria Machado and Kiese Laymon. Readers seeking to make sense of their own family histories will find much to savor in these eloquent, insightful essays.
The incomparable Anna Quindlen explores a modified form of motherhood in her delightful new memoir, Nanaville: Adventures in Grandparenting. With the arrival of little Arthur, the child of her eldest son, Quindlen writes, “I became something different than I’d ever been before.” As a grandmother, she finds fresh use for her maternal skills and works to redefine her place in the family, a process that proves at times to be bittersweet. “We were mother and father, most of us, before we became grandmother and grandfather,” she writes. “And because of that it is sometimes hard to accept that we have been pushed slightly to the perimeter.” Along with sharing episodes from her time as a newly minted nana, she contemplates developments in childrearing and reflects on her own past as a mom. Quindlen puts her stamp on topics that are timeless, and her faithful followers will welcome this revealing, beautifully crafted account of family life.
Journalist Dani McClain delivers an electrifying assessment of contemporary parenting in We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood. Given the current social climate, “motherhood is deeply political,” McClain says, as black mothers contend with inadequate healthcare and widespread racial prejudice. A frequent contributor to The Nation and Slate, McClain herself is the mother of a young daughter, and she wrote We Live for the We as an exploration of how best to raise a black girl in today’s world. McClain interviews activist mothers working to bring about social change to find out how they’re handling parenthood. The perspectives of these women—artists and academics, health care workers and teachers—are honest and heartfelt. McClain structures the text around the life of a child, moving from babyhood to the tween years and beyond while looking at parenting issues such as education, religion and sex. Earnest and inspiring, We Live for the We offers invaluable guidance for bringing up the next generation of black Americans.
Providing a weird, wonderful overview of family life in the 19th century, Ungovernable: The Victorian Parent’s Guide to Raising Flawless Children is a catalog of extremely questionable child-rearing techniques collected by brilliant satirist Therese Oneill. She presents this strange-but-true slice of Victorian life in the form of a Q&A between a genial narrator advocating for old-school approaches and a somewhat befuddled modern-day mother. “Here you will learn about discipline, morals, and the devastating repercussions of allowing a child to eat fruit,” Oneill writes. (In Victorian times, fruit was thought to be harmful to youngsters.) Typical disciplinary measures included dunking a child’s head in a water barrel, spankings and, in the classroom, the use of a dunce cap. Mothers who take themselves to task for being imperfect parents need only peruse Ungovernable to feel better about their efforts.