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.

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The books I picked & why

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

Laura Jean Baker Why did I love 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.

By Sue Klebold,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Mother's Reckoning as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Over the course of minutes, they would kill twelve students and a teacher and wound twenty-four others before taking their own lives.

For the last sixteen years, Sue Klebold, Dylan's mother, has lived with the indescribable grief and shame of that day. How could her child, the promising young man she had loved and raised, be responsible for such horror? And how, as his mother, had she not known something was wrong? Were there subtle signs she had missed? What, if anything, could…

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

Laura Jean Baker Why did I love 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.

By Kim Brooks,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Small Animals as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One cool spring morning, Kim Brooks made a split-second decision to leave her four-year-old son in the car while she ran into a store. What happened would consume the next several years of her life and ultimately motivated her to begin writing about the broader subject of parenthood and fear. In Small Animals, Brooks asks, Of all the emotions inherent in parenting, is there any more universal or profound than fear? To be a parent is to be afraid. And yet, the objects and intensity of our fear vary based on culture, temperament, and the historical moment in which we…

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

Laura Jean Baker Why did I love 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.

By Ayelet Waldman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Bad Mother as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'I want to be in the company of her frank intelligence forever' Nigella Lawson
In our mothers' day there were good mothers, indifferent mothers, and occasionally, great mothers. Today we have only Bad Mothers: If you work, you're neglectful; if you stay home, you're smothering. If you discipline, you're buying them a spot on the shrink's couch; if you let them run wild, they will be into drugs by seventh grade. Is it any wonder so many women refer to themselves at one time or another as a "bad mother"?
Writing with remarkable candor, and dispensing much hilarious and helpful…

Book cover of Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama

Laura Jean Baker Why did I love 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.

By Alison Bechdel,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An expansive, moving and captivating graphic memoir from the author of Fun Home.

Alison Bechdel's Fun Home was a literary phenomenon. While Fun Home explored Bechdel's relationship with her father, a closeted homosexual, this memoir is about her mother - a voracious reader, a music lover, a passionate amateur actor. Also a woman, unhappily married to a gay man, whose artistic aspirations simmered under the surface of Bechdel's childhood... and who stopped touching or kissing her daughter goodnight, for ever, when she was seven.

Poignantly, hilariously, Bechdel embarks on a quest for answers concerning the mother-daughter gulf.

'As absorbing as…

Book cover of The Bitch

Laura Jean Baker Why did I love 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.

By Pilar Quintana, Lisa Dillman (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Bitch as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

*Finalist for the US National Book Award for Translated Literature 2020*

In Colombia's brutal jungle, childless Damaris develops an intense and ultimately doomed relationship with an orphaned puppy.

Colombia's Pacific coast, where everyday life entails warding off the brutal forces of nature. In this constant struggle, nothing is taken for granted.

Damaris lives with her fisherman husband in a shack on a bluff overlooking the sea. Childless and at that age 'when women dry up,' as her uncle puts it, she is eager to adopt an orphaned puppy. But this act may bring more than just affection into her home.…

You might also like...

Brother. Do. You. Love. Me.

By Manni Coe, Reuben Coe (illustrator),

Book cover of Brother. Do. You. Love. Me.

Manni Coe Author Of Brother. Do. You. Love. Me.

New book alert!

Who am I?

As a gay man born into an evangelical Christian family, my coming out story was wrought with pain, trauma, and separation from family and loved ones. In the same year I lost my best friend in an accident. My world tumbled and I had to crawl back to a place of reckoning. Walking became my path to healing. So when my brother Reuben, who has Down's syndrome sent me a message from the isolation of a care home in the pandemic, I knew he was in trouble. Those five words - ´brother. do. you. love. me.´changed our lives. I thought I might know a way to save him.

Manni's book list on memoirs that capture the struggle of everyday life

What is my book about?

Brother. Do. You. Love. Me. is a true story of brotherly love overcoming all. Reuben, who has Down's syndrome, was trapped in a care home during the pandemic, spiralling deeper into a non-verbal depression. From isolation and in desperation, he sent his older brother Manni a text, "brother. do. you. love. me."

This cry for help, this SOS in the sand unleashed a brotherly love that had Manni travelling back to the UK mid-pandemic to rescue his brother from the care home, and together they sheltered from the world in a cottage in deepest, darkest Dorset. There began a journey of recovery and rediscovery. Little by little, the brothers had to piece back together Reuben's world, help him to find his voice and find ways for him to trust the world again. This is a book about care, about Down's syndrome, about love. It is a story of resilience and patience in a world that Reuben thought had abandoned him.

Brother. Do. You. Love. Me.

By Manni Coe, Reuben Coe (illustrator),

What is this book about?

The story of two brothers, one with Down syndrome, and their extraordinary journey of resilience and repair.

"Profoundly moving and hugely uplifting."—Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Reuben, aged 38, was living in a home for adults with learning disabilities. He hadn’t established an independent life in the care system and was still struggling to accept that he had Down syndrome. Depressed and in a fog of antidepressants, he hadn’t spoken for over a year. The only way he expressed himself was by writing poems or drawing felt-tip scenes from his favorite musicals…

5 book lists we think you will like!

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