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BooksMay 11, 2024

Motherhood: A reading journey


Ella Borrie on the best books about motherhood she’s come across so far.

Over the past few years I’ve been drawn to books about motherhood. I’m fascinated by the joys and horrors of becoming a parent. The question of children also feels more pressing than it used to. It’s like I’ve been receiving a transmission from an otherworldly source. The signal is getting stronger and is coming more regularly, but I’m not sure what it’s saying. I’ve been hoovering up anything that might help me translate and offer some wisdom for the path forward. 

The books I’ve read so far traverse the delight, anger and boredom of motherhood. They present parenthood as transcendent – something miraculous (an almost mystical creation force) and messy (painful in every sense). Through my reading I’ve learnt that motherhood is complicated. It is an intimate thing but the societal expectations placed on mothers have political implications. I’ve learned that pregnancy is impressive; it’s one of the most extreme things the human body can do. The physical and emotional changes that accompany pregnancy are a little alarming, as is the lack of respect and support offered to mothers for the work they do. I’m also compelled by the heartbreak of motherhood and the surrender of control that is required when someone becomes a parent. 

I’m not finished on my reading journey yet, but here are some of the best books I’ve read so far.

Motherhood by Sheila Heti

Motherhood is a classic in the no-plot-just-vibes genre. The narrator is unsure whether she should have a child and the novel is structured around a series of questions she asks herself to discover an answer. There are no absolutes in this book – it makes for explosive and explorative reading. It’s a good place to start if you’re curious and uncertain.

The Most Important Job in the World by Gina Rushton

This is a clear-eyed non-fiction book about how motherhood intersects with big ideas like reproductive justice and the division of domestic labour. It is sharp, well informed, and gave me new language to think about complicated topics. The book has an (righteously, in my opinion) angry tone and explores the frustrations and injustices of parenting. The chapter on climate change uses the 2020 Australian bushfires as a focal point and I’m haunted by the image of how placentas (a protective organ that are usually pink) were blackened by wildfire smoke. 

Past Lives by Leah Dodd

Past Lives explores everyday life in precise detail. Caring for a young child is an important texture in this book, it is a source of delight and work. These poems understand how deadpan humour turns into sincerity and what images are mundane while also being dramatic/tragic. I cried when I heard Tether read aloud for the first time. The poem imagines the unwinding of a mother and child’s togetherness: “once we were connected / by a vein and two arteries         ever since, / we drift           I take these gifts with grace”.

This is a story about your mother by Louise Wallace

This poetry collection examines how motherhood is a shapeshifting force. Meaning follows form in these dextrous poems where Louise Wallace twists Huggies’ week-by-week pregnancy emails, making them something unrecognisable. Motherhood is presented as a site of change, as something new with familiar parts. Wallace has also just published her first novel, Ash (reviewed here), about the pressures of motherhood and the stress of hidden labour. 

Matrescence by Lucy Jones

Matrescence is a thorough book about the process of becoming a mother. Lucy Jones explores the physiological, psychological and social transformations that happen as someone passes through the portal of motherhood. This is a good book if you like well written non-fiction and nature writing. Matrescence was brain-bending and I think it might the best book I’ll read in 2024. 

Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder

This is another book focused on metamorphosis. In Nightbitch the main character is so frustrated by the realities of motherhood she literally turns into a dog. I loved how the book embraced embodied anger and played out the idea of animal instincts and loss of identity to an extreme conclusion. 

Diary of a Void by Emi Yagi

Diary of a Void is a quietly subversive novel where a woman gains a sense of self by faking a pregnancy. Her experience is the opposite of what motherhood normally is; she gains time, bodily autonomy and a release from the monotony of her life. This is a gentle and funny book that creates a clever tension with the reader. While the novel depicts having a baby as a freeing experience, we know that that is far from the reality. 

Essential Labour: Mothering as Social Change by Angela Garbes

This memoir places motherhood firmly in the civic space. Angela Garbes argues that because motherhood is highly skilled and indispensable work it has the potential to be a disruptive force for good. I liked how the book described “the geography of mothering” and focused on the importance of community in parenthood.

Otherhood, edited by Alie Benge, Lil O’Brien and Kathryn van Beek

Otherhood has just come out and I’m extremely excited for this homegrown essay collection about being childless, childfree and child-adjacent. Among others, the book features Kate Camp’s brilliant essayWhy Are There So Many Songs About Rainbows?’ about her experience of IVF. This book appeals to me as motherhood isn’t presented as a foregone conclusion. I’m looking forward to reading how the contributing writers are navigating the many paths life can take.

All of the books mentioned above can be ordered from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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