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5 Books That Honor the Complexity of Motherhood

For Mother's Day

By Emma Zaratian • May 06, 2019

The Literary Power of Complex Maternal Relationships

Mother's Day is this upcoming Sunday. It's a holiday often known for family get-togethers, floral bouquets, and "World's Best Mom" gifts. It also allows us time to reflect upon our relationships with our mothers, whose complex personalities have so unmistakably formed our own. According to social scientists, a maternal (or maternal-like) bond—whether biological or adopted—is arguably the strongest, most important relationship in a child's early years. A healthy attachment with a loving primary caregiver that fosters trust and affection will often dictate how secure and confident we feel later in life. And while most of us have received the gift of a devoted mother who offers unconditional love and support, not everyone is so fortunate.

We know mothers can be our best friends, can cook our favorite dishes, can console us when no one else's arms will do. But we also know the role of motherhood is incredibly difficult and demanding, especially with today's social and economic pressures—and not every woman carries the innate desire to build maternal bonds or the mental well-being to provide the security and stability that children need. Some authors, like Anne Sexton's daughter, Linda Sexton, and Maya Angelou have chosen to chisel down and examine the imperfect relationships they experienced with their mothers. Other authors delve deeper into the question of maternal identity and who defines it, whether it begins at pregnancy or from the point of newborn nurturing­—or possibly even later. And yet others examine their triumphs and seeming failures as mothers themselves.

As readers, we're often attracted to story arcs that follow the elaborate layers of the human spirit. Since we already know the simplified June Cleaver archetype is a rarity in reality, we are far more interested in exploring the richer, meatier memories, emotions and, ostensibly, struggles when it comes to mother-child chronicles. And so it should be! Because it's the ability to appreciate each mother's complicated, multifaceted personality—in other words, her humanity—that is the real honoring of motherhood. To that end, we've compiled a selection of novels and memoirs that we think offer deeper truths about how women fiercely love, protect, and sometimes neglect their children.

Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou

The late writer and activist Maya Angelou was a prolific memoir author, because, for her, the personal was always political. But it took her later in life to scribe the details of her close yet fraught relationship with her mother, who shipped Angelou and her brother off to live with their grandparents when she was three. In fact, Mom & Me & Mom is the last memoir Angelou ever wrote. The story recounts her struggle with feelings of maternal abandonment and later the support and adoration she received from the woman she called "Lady," providing a portal into mother-daughter forgiveness and the rewards of reconciliation.

Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran

A timely novel about human migration, maternal callings, and the multitudes of love, Shanthi Sekaran's Lucky Boy looks at motherhood (and immigration) from two perspectives: one of an undocumented immigrant, Soli, who falls pregnant in the U.S. and another from an Indian-American woman, Kavya, whose dreams of having a baby are dashed by infertility. When Soli is suddenly forced into a detention center and separated from her infant son, Kavya takes him in, nurtures him, and begins wrapping her heartstrings around a child whose biological mother never gave him up. As Soli fights for her son, Kavya does the same, leaving us wondering what we'd do in such an impossible scenario.

Paula by Isabel Allende

The Chilean-American writer's 1994 memoir, Paula, is poignantly written to her daughter, who is laying in a coma after a sudden grave illness. "Listen, Paula," she starts. "I am going to tell you a story, so when you wake up you will not feel so lost." But Paula never wakes up, and Isabel Allende is forced to work through her loss on her own with a deeply personal book about ancestors, spirits, and the whirl of internal and external contradictions every mother embodies.

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult

When Jenna was three, her mother disappeared from a New England elephant sanctuary where she worked. The now-teen Jenna is haunted by her mother's vanishing and believes she's still out there somewhere. By piecing bits of her mother's journals about the maternal instincts and grief experienced by elephants with her own fragmented memories­—and with the help of both a psychic and a private detective—Jenna discovers the true story of her mother's whereabouts. In Leaving Time, Jodi Picoult spins a suspenseful, emotionally fraught tale told from multiple viewpoints, shifting seamlessly between Jenna, the psychic, the detective, and her mother's journals on elephants. But it is what cannot be seen that eventually compels us to suspend disbelief, embrace the mystical, and accept that the bond between mother and daughter is truly unbreakable.

Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton by Linda Gray Sexton

In a cathartic attempt to make sense of her chaotic upbringing, writer Linda Gray Sexton chronicles her childhood and teenage years in the wake of her famous poet mother, Anne Sexton, who suffered from extreme bipolar disorder and addiction, but also taught Linda her craft of writing. With Anne, everything was all or nothing, and her daughter spares no details. Yet Searching for Mercy Street does not reduce the famous poet to a complete monster—and that is an artful act of mercy by the author. Despite the deep damage inflicted by Anne's selfish behavior and eventual suicide, Linda Sexton creates a line of understanding and a path to forgiveness through—or by virtue of—her own battles with depression.

More Notable Reads on Complex Maternal Relationships:

We wish you all a happy Mother's Day and hope you enjoy our recommendations. If you've already read one of the above titles or have your own suggestions, let us know your thoughts!

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Biography | Memoir | Nonfiction | Women_Authors
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