A few of Motherwell’s favorite parenting books

By Lauren Apfel

Catastrophic Happiness, by Catherine Newman

The parent I want to be floats in and out of my life, and some days it speaks through me, and other days I lunge after it like a shaft of sunlight.

Motherhood is a wild ride and Newman captures its nuances (and paradoxes) perfectly in this memoir, which is as humorous as it is heart-tugging. The wonderful anecdotes that make up the book—about tantrums and manners, boredom and hard conversations—are specific to Newman’s own family. But so much of the emotion she conveys is universal.

Child, Please, by Ylonda Gault Caviness

Mama had balance—without really even trying—and without a gaggle of contrived self-help tips telling her how to get it. She and her friends didn’t sit around and gab about balance between drags on their cigarettes, saying, “Girrrl, I gotta get me some balance!”

Caviness starts her parenting journey in the way of many modern mothers, sacrificially and intensively. And very differently from how she was raised herself. Over time, though, she realizes her own Mama had it right—a smart, strong, black woman full of “old-school” wisdom. This is the story of how those lessons helped Caviness “check herself” before she “wrecked herself.” You can read Motherwell’s excerpt of Child, Please here.

The Gift of Failure, by Jessica Lahey

Every time we rescue, hover or otherwise save our children from a challenge, we send a very clear message: that we believe they are incompetent, incapable, and unworthy of our trust. 

In an age where parents are more involved in their children’s lives than ever before, and more invested in their success, Lahey’s book is a breath of fresh air. A middle school teacher who has witnessed the worst of helicopter parenting, she shines a light on how crucial it is to step back and let our kids fail, in big ways and small, and offers pragmatic advice on how to encourage them to take responsibly for themselves. See Motherwell’s author Q&A with Jessica Lahey here.

Girls & Sex, by Peggy Orenstein

In their sexual encounters, girls, it seemed, were growing more accustomed to coercion and discomfort than, say, orgasm.

A bold and original cultural commentary on exactly what it says in the title. Orenstein has interviewed over 70 girls in this book to uncover what they think, feel and fear about sex in the twenty-first century. The results will make you cringe and they will make you livid, but the take-home is a crucial one. Open dialogue with your daughters—and sons—about sexual consent, pleasure, reciprocity and dignity is the only way forward. See Motherwell’s original series on Girls & Sex here and our review here.

Mamaleh Knows Best, by Marjorie Ingall

I’m going to say it straight out: Jewish parenting methods are responsible for the outsized success of the Jewish people. But to paraphrase the old Levy’s rye bread slogan, you don’t have to be Jewish to be a Jewish mother. 

If the idea of a Jewish mother conjures up unsavory images plucked right out of Portnoy’s Complaint and Seinfeld—of nagging, overbearing, guilt-inducing women—Ingall’s book works to set the record straight. Not only does she turn the stereotype of the Jewish mother on its head, but she deftly paints a picture of the ways in which mamalehs through history—with their emphasis on independence, original thinking, discipline and education—have managed to raise exemplary children.

The Middlepause, by Marina Benjamin

I’ve never felt us to be more mirrored…While her hormones rage, mine are plummeting. She’s discovered sleep; I’m suddenly insomniac. Her memory is a fine-tuned thing; mine is perpetually tripping up. At the same time, both of us ricochet between crankiness and euphoria. 

Not a parenting book per se, but a deeply thoughtful account of what it means to turn fifty in a culture increasingly obsessed with youth. Benjamin gracefully chronicles her experience with ageing, and with menopause in particular, exploring the effects it has on her body, her psychology and her role as both mother and daughter.

My Heart Can’t Even Believe It, by Amy Silverman

And then one day around Sophie’s seventh birthday, I woke up and realized she was no longer my daughter with Down Syndrome. She was my kid and I loved her not because I was supposed to. 

Silverman’s daughter, Sophie, has Down Syndrome and this memoir tells the story that began unfolding the day she was born. It is an honest and touching look at the way life changes after such a diagnosis—the medical issues, the developmental stumbling blocks, the concerns for the future—but also the ways in which it doesn’t: a mother’s persistent support of her child. You can read Motherwell’s excerpt of My Heart Can’t Even Believe It here.

The Science of Mom, by Alice Callahan

Science can help us sidestep the opinions and philosophies and anecdotes that fuel parenting debates. We look to science not to confirm what we want to believe or to prove others wrong, but rather to make the best decisions we can as parents. 

New parents face an onslaught of contradictory information these days about how best to raise their kids. As laypeople, it’s very difficult to sift through the evidence and figure out what’s hype and what’s fact—especially with the internet heralding one scientific study after another. Callahan’s book is invaluable for doing this work for us: illuminating the science behind the hard parenting questions, e.g. breastfeeding and sleep training, in a manner that is balanced, thoughtful and reassuring.

Unfinished Business, by Anne-Marie Slaughter

The message that a woman’s traditional work of caregiving—anchoring the family by tending to material needs and nourishing minds and souls—is somehow less important than a man’s traditional work of earning an income to support that family is false and harmful.

A very important book that lays bare the emotional, structural and cultural barriers to achieving true gender equality in the workplace—and the home. Slaughter, who is famous for interrogating the idea that women can “have it all” and finding it wanting, exposes the mantras that we have historically clung to about male and female roles as the half-truths they are. She then offers real avenues for change by encouraging a shift in the way we understand the concepts of breadwinning, caregiving, and the balance between them.

Untangled, by Lisa Damour

When you understand what makes your daughter tick, she suddenly makes a lot more sense. When you have a map of adolescent development, it’s a lot easier to guide your daughter toward becoming the grounded young woman you want her to be.

A smart and systematic examination of the female transition from childhood to adolescence. As a clinical psychologist with a specialty in teenage girls, Damour sees predictable patterns in how they develop. Isolating seven distinct “strands” of growth, the book is full of sound, practical advice about how to parent through the “normal” issues tween and teen girls struggle with, such as harnessing their emotions and rejecting authority. But it also lets you know when it’s time to worry.

Lauren Apfel is co-founder and executive editor of Motherwell. When she is not knee-deep in parenting books, she loves to read modern fiction and psychological thrillers—mainly in bed. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

Note: We share the books we love—and we may receive a small compensation if you choose to buy.

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