Home books The Maze of Motherhood : Books on Being a Mother & More

The Maze of Motherhood : Books on Being a Mother & More

‘Mother and Baby Elizabeth’ by Bernhard Gutmann
Image courtesy of Sayari Debnath

We are done and dusted with the notion that motherhood brings joy – joy that is unchallenged, undeviating, unconditional, and unadulterated. Of course, there is an indescribable triumph in a well-raised child, yet it comes with its fair share of challenges. Motherhood is not an easy road and every mother will solemnly nod her head to this. Popular media is guilty of showing motherhood as a destination — one that culminates in nursing the perfect baby and affirming ideal womanhood. However, motherhood is not a destination at all, but a journey that starts well before the seed is sown.

As Belinda famously said in Fleabag, “Women are born with pain built-in. We carry it within ourselves.”, and that succinctly describes what womanhood is, motherhood or otherwise. The quest is long and arduous, and the female body reacts violently to both choosing motherhood and not. While the monthly ordeal of menstruation is bad enough, the anguish of motherhood is more pronounced. Apart from its physical manifestation, motherhood is the acceptance that your life is going to change irrevocably. We live in a time where gender roles are rigid and women, especially mothers, are subjected to the rigorous demands of their sex — it’s not enough to be a good mother; she must also have a successful career, make up for the absent father, and be prepared for future rounds of child-bearing.  

From fiction to memoirs, here are six books that have ousted the chaste image of mothers and motherhood. 

  • My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki

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My Year of Meats takes a hard look at the road to motherhood. In this book, Ozeki compares commercial meat production to the private lives of women. The two main characters of the novel, Jane (a documentarian who wants to expose the excesses of the American kitchen)  and Akiko (a modest Japanese housewife), are tied together with the yearning for a baby. A victim of a cancerous womb, Jane is unable to retain her pregnancies while Akiko cannot menstruate or get pregnant due to psychological trauma. Jane and Akiko are brilliant counterpoints where Jane’s first-person narrative lends the novel its candid tone, and Akiko’s eventual triumph is a poignant reminder that a frail body can house the fiercest of spirits. Ozeki reminds us that even in the most progressive societies, women and livestock are not perceived very differently — the worth of the female of any species relies on her fertility, and here the story unfolds like an industrial thriller where the larger social issues merge with the most intimate parts of the women’s lives. 

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  • Motherhood by Sheila Heti

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At 37, the author/protagonist is nervous about her time running out for motherhood. Heti puts together the experiences of her friends and mother and observes how women are treated as vessels of male offspring where women strike gold on birthing sons, and the birth of daughters means the assurance of a male child in the future generations. In Motherhood she makes a case for women by urging that they can exist on their own and without childbearing. By the end of the novel, we are left with necessary questions to determine if we are at all ready for pregnancy and everything that follows. Motherhood is a sincere attempt at realizing that the existential angst of motherhood and womanhood are intricately linked, and for a woman, there’s probably no escaping it.

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  • The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta

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The title of the book is a misnomer. Emecheta tells us right away that there are no joys of motherhood if you’re married to a brute of a husband, live in poverty, bear female children, and constantly have to worry about losing your household to a sister wife. Nnu Ego and her life is the central plot of the novel. The story begins from her conception and ends with her soul becoming the “chi” to her many children and grandchildren — a life (and afterlife) where there’s no sense of individuality and an innate understanding that a woman’s life belongs to everyone but her. A mother to seven children, Nnu Ego struggles to make ends meet. She sacrifices the meals of her and the daughters, entrusts only the sons with education, and marries off the girls early to whoever is ready with a bride price just so she can keep the household afloat. Nnu Ego also battles deeply personal crises of sexual insecurity, miscarriages, and marital rape. While she wonders how it’d be for her to exist just for herself and not just as an ‘appendage in the daily runs of her life, Nnu Ego never quite figures it out. A marvelous saga of motherhood and a vivid sketch of the Igbo culture, The Joys of Motherhood is a wonder to behold.

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  • The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

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The Argonauts is a tiny, expansive memoir. Nelson meditates on gender fluidity, transitioning, motherhood, sexuality, feminism, and family. The memoir relies on complex theories and personal experiences where Nelson discusses the changing pregnancy body and the transition of her trans-FTM partner. We follow her through moments of wonder and fear about babies, conception, the pains of carrying a growing fetus, and how people around her react to motherhood through culture and gender perceptions. She also offers us glances into her complicated relationship with her mother. Finally, when all is said and done, The Argonauts tells us that loving the child is the greatest joy of motherhood — and despite all the trials and tribulations, choosing to become a mother is a perfectly reasonable decision.

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  • Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder

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Nightbitch is a macabre, gruesome, and extraordinary take on motherhood. This is an elaborate metaphor of all that the female body undergoes through the process of childbearing is nothing less than Kafkaesque — you create a new body, the orifices become gateways, breasts become life-source, and your body hardly feels like your own anymore. Yoder examines motherhood from the perspective of failing bodies, dying sex drives, and uncharitable spouses. Added to that is the modern dilemma that forces women to choose between a career and family while demanding an invigorating social life and unaging beauty — there really is no way to win! Even though it’s so bizarre, Nightbitch is an incredible feat in vocalizing the pits of childrearing.

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  • Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li

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Motherhood magnifies all emotions and there’s possibly no other grief as insurmountable as losing a child. Where Reasons End is almost autobiographical in nature. Li lost her son to suicide at the age of 16 and the novel too revolves around a Chinese immigrant author/mother and her dead son, Nikolai. Li tries to find reasons for her grief with Socratic dialogues and metaphors of time and space. The conversations between the mother and the dead son are a cold reminder that the journey of motherhood continues even in the absence of the child — once you are in it, you carry bear the delights (and burdens) of motherhood until the end of your days.

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Sayari Debnath
Sayari Debnath
Sayari Debnath is a literature graduate from Calcutta, India. She enjoys talking about books, cats and Renaissance paintings. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.
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