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Investigating Motherhood

A recommended reading list by the author of the new book Motherlike.

Book Cover Motherlike

Motherlike is up for giveaway until the end of this month.

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Motherhood is raw, terrifying, thrilling, mundane, horrible and thought-provoking. It is an act that raises so many philosophical questions that it begs to be written and read about, and yet it’s so often thought of as a niche topic. The books on this list, ranging from fiction to nonfiction to poetry, challenge the idea that motherhood isn’t worthy of serious inquiry. Whatever your relationship to mothering, these works are compelling, rich investigations of a process that affects all of us.


Book Cover Natural Killer

Natural Killer, by Harriet Alida Lye

When Lye was 15, she was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia referred to as the “Natural Killer,” as—until Lye—there were no known survivors of the disease. Through fragments of prose, this memoir recounts Lye’s experience suffering through and surviving this cancer, alongside the   experience of becoming unexpectedly pregnant over a decade later (she’d been told she would not be able to conceive due to her cancer treatment). The contrast between her thoughtful, intimate writing on her youthful confrontation with death and her reflections on the process of her body bringing life into being is striking and speaks in rich nuance to the role of death in love and life.  


Book Cover the Outer Wards

The Outer Wards, by Sadiqa de Meijer

The Outer Wards is a collection of poems centred around the author’s days spent caring for her young daughter. It’s a cliché to say that a poet finds the extraordinary in the ordinary, but the way de Meijer does it here—in the context of the endless loop of mothering—is so quietly elegant. I felt carried along by her lines, as if in a stream, until she stopped to uncover something heavy or bright.

The ordinary world of mother and daughter here is interrupted when the author suffers a prolonged, serious illness, during which she cannot mother as she wishes. Here, she speculates about what her death would mean to her daughter. Fortunately, she comes out the other side, offering us (and her daughter) “Reparations.” This book underscores the singular mix of monotony and wonder that comes with caring for a young child and speaks to how fragile life is in the first place.


Book Cover The Mother Zone

The Mother Zone, by Marni Jackson

I read this book—a 1992 memoir about raising a son as a feminist woman in a straight marriage—while I was writing my first draft of Motherlike, and I was amazed (and troubled) at how relevant it still felt. This is a story about the shock of motherhood, which Jackson argues is an experience no one is prepared for, a phenomenon, she says, perpetuated partly by the missing voices of mothers in public discourse. While telling her story, she asks how we can “recast motherhood in a way that no longer idealizes or demeans the experience.” She also writes of the challenges of raising her child, working, managing a household, and negotiating a marriage in a candid, highly intelligent and laugh-out-loud funny way.


Book Cover Hold My Girl

Hold My Girl, by Charlene Carr

I read this novel about two women whose eggs were switched at an IVF clinic in two days. It’s a compelling, page-turner that examines what it means to be a mother, as well as how infertility affects women who’d like to conceive. Early in the book, Katherine, one of two main characters, discovers her young daughter—the one she carried, birthed, and has been raising, is not biologically hers. Her eggs were switched with those of another IVF patient named Tess, who lost her(/their) baby in utero. The ensuing story explores the struggles of infertility, grief, racial identity (Katherine is Black, Tess is white), and our ideas about what makes a good mother (something I think a lot about myself). I really appreciate that this novel centres around infertility, a common experience that deserves infinitely more space in our literature about mothering.  


Book Cover Mother Muse

Mother Muse, by Lorna Goodison

This poetry collection helped sustain me through the dark early winter months this year. It’s a lush, lyrical book centred in Jamaica and lit up by mothers and motherhoods of all types.

There are poems here about Sister Mary Ignatius, a nun who "mothered" many musicians on the Jamaican music scene, who helped turn “ragamuffins this world would write off” into “men who make / music that will save them.” Another set of poems is about Anita “Margarita” Mahfood, a famous Jamaican Rhumba dancer and musician whose biological children were taken away from her by her husband (and who was later murdered by her boyfriend). But this collection is also threaded through with memories of lost and missing biological mothers—what they meant to, and did for, their children, and what they left in them that lives on. I loved how this book worked to expand the definitions of muse and mother, allowing for complexity. 


Book Cover My Work

My Work, by Olga Raven (Translated by Sophia Hersi Smith and Jennifer Russell)

This brilliant, strange novel about motherhood written in “continuations” instead of chapters is one of the best, most honest, and most relatable works of literature I’ve ever read on the topic. I vigorously underlined so many passages and sentences that my copy looks like I’m using it to study for a university exam. I felt like the author had crawled inside me and given voice to things about motherhood that I’d never quite managed to articulate. The story is written in a mix of prose, letters, poetry, news headlines, journal entries and letters and centres around Anna, who has just given birth to her son and is totally startled by motherhood. She is alienated from herself, her partner and society, and sinking into obsession and depression, desperately trying to grasp onto something—art perhaps. The writing here is utterly original in its look at the intimacy, mundanity, claustrophobia, beauty and anxiety that comes along with giving birth and raising a child.


Book Cover Good Mom on Paper

Good Mom on Paper, edited by Stacey May Fowles and Jen Sookfong Lee

I devoured this collection of essays about balancing creative work and motherhood, grabbing it while my youngest busied himself with a train for a few minutes or my kids were focused on breakfast for ten. It is endlessly pick-up-able and put-down-able, with essays from 20 very different authors on making the creative thing work while caring for tiny people. In the foreword to the book, editors Jen Sookfong Lee and Stacey May Fowles write that reading these stories gave them a sense of comfort, noting that women have always exchanged stories like this in private for exactly that reason. The tone here is akin to that: intimate and comfortable, and we get a glimpse of the endlessly varied experiences of motherhood and creative output, as well as the shared frustrations and joys. From Meaghan Strimas writing about trying to get some work down in a run-down trailer at a tree camp to Nikkya Hargrove writing about winning a spot at a residency that will provide care for her four-year-old twins (only to have it paused for COVID) to Rachel Giese on why a book is not a baby, there will be something you recognize yourself in here, a conversation you want to be part of.


Book Cover Motherlike

Learn more about Motherlike:

As soon as Katherine Leyton discovered she was pregnant, a powerful reckoning began. Motherlike is both a feminist memoir of new motherhood as well as a rumination on womanhood. A book for anyone interested in an honest and revealing look at a process that is essential to our experience as humans, and yet is routinely unexamined and dismissed.

Sharp and intensely candid, entertaining, and deeply poignant, Leyton weaves her own experience of becoming a mother to her son (the shocks, the strangeness, and the pleasures) with historical research and cultural commentary. Everything from the history of the birth control pill and the objectification of women's bodies to the risks of labour and the realities of being postpartum. Leyton invites us into a very personal story that reflects a larger picture of ourselves.

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