By Lauren Apfel
All Joy and No Fun (2014), by Jennifer Senior
One could argue that the whole experience of being a parent exposes the superficiality of our preoccupation with happiness, which usually takes the form of pursuing pleasure or finding bliss.
The quintessential commentary on the “paradox of modern parenting.” We are a generation of parents more invested in our children than ever before: we participate far more in their day-to-day lives, we attend to the details of their upbringing with far more intensiveness. Our kids, in other words, infuse our lives with an unprecedented existential meaning, and yet, and yet we aren’t particularly happy. This brilliant sociological study unpacks the apparent contradiction.
A Life’s Work (2001), by Rachel Cusk
Birth is not merely that which divides women from men: it also divides women from themselves…To discover this is to feel that your life has become irretrievably mired in conflict.
An intense journey through one woman’s transition to motherhood. Cusk’s prose is vibrant and erudite as she illuminates the psychological vagaries inherent in new motherhood. Studded with literary references and brimming with insight, this book uses the power of language to come to terms with the profound identity shift women often experience when they have a baby.
The Art of Waiting (2016), by Belle Boggs
A large part of the pressure and frustration of infertility is the idea that fertility is normal, natural, and healthy, while infertility is rare and unnatural and means something is wrong with you.
Part memoir, part exploration of the medical and psychological toll infertility can take on a woman, this book is for anybody who has waited for a baby in any capacity. Boggs delves into the history of IVF, but she also traces her own winding path to motherhood, with beauty and poise and self-awareness throughout.
Baby Meets World (2013), by Nicholas Day
This isn’t a book about how to do things with babies. It’s a book about how babies do things.
Suck, Smile, Touch, Toddle: Day infuses these otherwise mundane infant activities with fascinating brush strokes of color. Through a cocktail of personal reflection, scientific investigation and cross-cultural examination, we learn that many of the things we take for granted as set in stone when it comes to raising a baby are anything but. Wet nurses, early displays of emotion, bonding, the metrics of normality, this wonderfully engaging book gets to grips with the baby’s world…from the baby’s perspective.
Bad Mother (2009), by Ayelet Waldman
If a Good Mother was one who loved her children more than anyone in the world…then I was a Bad Mother, because I loved my husband more than my children.
Waldman is the poster child for the phenomenon of confessional motherhood writing. In this collection of 18 thoughtful essays, honesty is the name of the game. From her inability to breastfeed a fourth child with a malformed palate to the termination of a much-wanted fetus due to a genetic abnormality, there is no cobwebbed corner of the guilt and sense of failure that can accompany our parenting choices left un-scoured. An utterly refreshing read.
Bringing up Bébé (2012), by Pamela Druckerman
The French have managed to be involved without becoming obsessive. They assume that even good parent aren’t at the constant service of their children, and that there’s not need to feel guilty about this.
As an American raising her children in Paris, Druckerman is able to shine a spotlight onto “French parenting,” and what makes it so damn appealing. The wee ones sit charmingly through meals that don’t include fish fingers or applesauce, while their parents carve out ample time to be full-fledged adults and not just chronic caretakers. Bringing up Bébé is a stylish, well-observed memoir, but it is also a vehicle through which to engage in some gentle—but necessary—cultural self-reflection.
Cinderella Ate My Daughter (2011), by Peggy Orenstein
I do not question that little girls like to play princesses…But when you’re talking about 26,000 items (and that’s just Disney), it’s a little hard to say where “want” ends and “coercion” begins.
For feminist parents of daughters everywhere, Orenstein’s book is required reading. Girlhood today is laden with an emphasis on looks and on being nice; premature sexualization abounds in the media. Your daughter’s obsession with pink and princesses in the early years may seem innocuous enough, but with wit and a deft hand Orenstein paints a more circumspect picture of our “girly-girl” culture—one that serves as both a guide and a warning.
On Immunity (2014), by Eula Bliss
My son’s birth brought with it an exaggerated sense of both my own power and my own powerlessness.
A nuanced, detailed exploration of immunizations—and also of parental fear. Bliss weaves personal anecdote and scientific analysis to bring to light the latest research on vaccines, immunity, hygiene, germs and our understanding of risk. This genre-bending book is a intriguing account of modern parenting as seen through the lens of the lengths we will go to protect our children.
Perfect Madness (2005), by Judith Warner
We are consumed with doing for our children in mind and soul and body—and the result is we are so depleted that we have little of ourselves left for ourselves.
This is a haunting, bold, and in-depth look at the dark side of intensive parenting: its structural and societal causes, and what it means for mothers in particular. The birth of children inevitably invites new stresses into a person’s life, but why are mothers today suffering from such an unprecedented degree of anxiety? Warner calls it the “mommy mystique”—the debilitating web of beliefs that we alone are responsible for our children’s success and happiness—and she unfurls the implications brilliantly, if not alarmingly, in this sociological study of “motherhood in the age of anxiety.”
Pink Brain, Blue Brain (2009), by Lise Eliot
Overall, boys’ and girls’ brains are remarkably alike.
Absolutely essential reading on gender differences in a child’s growing brain—the reality and, more importantly, the myths. A neuroscientist who works in the field of “plasticity,” Eliot is a breath of fresh air as she chronicles how the brain changes in response to its own experience and the role that this plays in gender development. Far from being innate, we come to see, the differences between boys’ and girls’ brains are exacerbated by our own stereotypical behavior as adults. This behavior creates “troublesome gaps” between our sons and our daughters, gaps which this book will help parents reduce.
The Shape of the Eye (2011), by George Estreich
Nobody, so far as I know, finds out that a newborn child has Down syndrome, shrugs, and returns to decorating the nursery. We were undone by the news for a long time.
A stunning meditation on raising and loving a child with Down syndrome. The beauty and lyricism of the prose, alongside Estreich’s careful attention to detail, will sink deep into your bones and pull you through the story of Laura’s diagnosis and early years, her medical challenges and successes. Never overly sentimental and always vitally honest, this memoir will stay with you long after you close the covers.
To Siri, with Love (2017), by Judith Newman
He is the average kid with autism. He may or may not work, may or may not have independence, friendships, partners…He is, like so many others, the adored, frustrating Question Mark.
Witty, tender and informative in equal measures, Newman’s book is a window into life with a child with autism. Or, at least, one child with autism, as it is a deeply personal account of what it is like to be the mother of Gus—a twin, a trainspotter, a lover of repetition and, of course, Apple’s electronic assistant, Siri. Replete with gripping, granular details about the highs and lows of raising a non-neurotypical kid, by the last page you can’t help but feel a part of this delightfully quirky family.
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, memoir, and psychological thrillers—mainly in bed. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.