The best books on the dark complexities of motherhood for rainy, non-hallmark kinds of days

Who am I?

I wear many aprons. I am a writer; a professor of creative writing and literature; a mother to five children – daughters and sons; the wife of a criminal defense attorney; and the daughter of therapists. I read and write at the intersection of these influences: crime, motherhood, and psychology. When I teach children’s literature, I lean toward the Brothers Grimm. Childhood is grittier – more suspenseful – when we darken the stories. The same is true of motherhood. Nobody wants to read about a perfect mother, especially when mothers spend so much of our psychic energy worried about our children in the forms of violence, illness, and death. I prefer to seek out books that complicate the otherwise pristine stories of our lives we pretend to tell.

I wrote...

The Motherhood Affidavits: A Memoir

By Laura Jean Baker,

Book cover of The Motherhood Affidavits: A Memoir

What is my book about?

With the birth of her first child, soon-to-be professor Laura Jean Baker finds herself electrified by oxytocin, the “love hormone”—the first effective antidote to her lifelong depression. Over the next eight years, her “oxy” cravings, and her family, only grow—to the dismay of her husband, Ryan, a freelance public defender. As her reckless baby-making threatens her family’s middle–class existence, Baker identifies more and more with Ryan’s legal clients, often drug-addled fellow citizens of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Is she any less desperate for her next fix?

Baker is in an impossible bind: The same drive that sustains her endangers her family; the cure is also the disease. She explores this all–too–human paradox by threading her story through those of her local counterparts who’ve run afoul of the law—like Rob McNally, the lovable junkie who keeps resurfacing in Ryan’s life.

The books I picked & why

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A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy

By Sue Klebold,

Book cover of A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy

Why this book?

If you vividly remember the Columbine High School shooting or any of the horrific moments of spectacle violence in the subsequent two decades (Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Parkland, etc.), this book answers questions you might have been afraid to ask, such as, how do parents of these “monsters next door”– in particular their mothers – survive in the wake of such horror, and where do they find grace? As a mother to three boys and two girls, in a 21st-century America that continues to be plagued by gun violence, I read (and re-read) Sue Klebold’s honest story, aware on every page, that the reverberating effects of Columbine, complete with active-shooter training in our kids’ schools, still permeate our everyday lives.

Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

By Kim Brooks,

Book cover of Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

Why this book?

On the opposite end of the crime continuum from A Mother’s Reckoning, this deeply researched personal narrative explores how the smallest missteps – leaving a child briefly alone in a vehicle in a public parking lot – can lead to a domino effect of potentially catastrophic outcomes for a mother figure, in this case, saved only by her white middle-class status. I’ve witnessed first-hand through personal experience and my husband’s work in the criminal justice system how communities rush to judge and persecute mothers for the smallest infractions.

Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace

By Ayelet Waldman,

Book cover of Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace

Why this book?

As a mother and a Women’s and Gender Studies educator, I was enthralled by Ayelet Waldman’s Modern Love scandal of 2005 in which she confessed to loving her husband, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, more than their four children, after which she landed a spot on the Oprah Winfrey stage to defend her position. Bad Mother picks up where that controversy left off, exploring the double standard for mothers, who are expected to see and treat children as the centers of their universe. This book is irreverent and refreshing. Perfect mothers – so-called “good moms” – are for Mother’s Day portraits only. This is a book to read on any other day of the year.

Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama

By Alison Bechdel,

Book cover of Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama

Why this book?

This book is perfect when paired with the P.D. Eastman version by the same title. In human life, we aren’t so different from the baby bird of the Dr. Seuss empire who believes a cow, a steamboat, or even a “Snort” might be his mother. The graphic component of this book in which Bechdel marries the whimsy of storybook illustrations with complex renderings of psychoanalytic theories explores the ways in which we are estranged from our mothers, despite their seeming omnipotence. It’s a visual and intellectual pleasure to read.

The Bitch

By Pilar Quintana, Lisa Dillman (translator),

Book cover of The Bitch

Why this book?

So much of this book is filled with folklore and magic, but the provocative and devastating ending, which raises important questions about motherhood and the fine line between animal and human consciousness, guts the reader as any honest book should. I’ve always been fascinated by the wide range of strong opinions people feel in response to a simple question: Are pets equal to children in the hierarchy of living things? I was fully transported into this surprising exploration of violence and motherhood.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in mothers, comics, and Colorado?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about mothers, comics, and Colorado.

Mothers Explore 45 books about mothers
Comics Explore 120 books about comics
Colorado Explore 37 books about Colorado

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like What My Mother and I Don't Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence, Mommy, Mama, and Me, and Owl Babies if you like this list.