Reading has always been my route into understanding the world. As soon as I get interested in a topic, I immediately start searching Google for lists of books on that topic. So, when I found out I was pregnant I started Googling. I also headed to my local library: the baby and parenting section was mostly comprised of copies of What To Expect When You’re Expecting and baby name books, but I did manage to pick up a copy of Like A Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy by Angela Garbes. I devoured it in two days; it was exactly the kind of book I was looking for. I wasn’t interested in dry textbooks or manuals that would tell me the how. I wanted to hear from other women who had gone before me—with a smattering of interesting research into the science, history and culture of pregnancy and parenting. In other words, exactly what Garbes was offering.
There are many lists out there of books on pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood. BUT, ho hum, here’s my list of books I enjoyed and/or found particularly enlightening.
Like A Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy by Angela Garbes
As I mentioned, this was the first book about pregnancy and motherhood that I read. The book was inspired by Garbes’s own experience of being pregnant and struggling to find reliable information (I can definitely relate to this: I pretty much gave up Googling anything pregnancy related because the various blogs that showed up in the results offered wildly differing and often dubious advise). Garbes’s book also started life as an article she wrote for The Stranger about breast milk (worth a read!). She also wrote an article for The Cut about the lack of books by women of colour in lists of books on motherhood (she mentions many books I now want to add to my TBR list), and she gives some insight into the process of writing Like A Mother.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
I actually read this for the first time back in 2016, long before I was even thinking about babies. The Argonauts is about Nelson’s pregnancy and what it means to be a family outside of the context of a heterosexual nuclear family. When I read it back in 2016, Nelson’s account of giving birth was the first birth story I’d ever read and I remember thinking it sounded intense. Re-reading it while pregnant, I found it both reassuring and horrifying. As evidenced by the fact that I have already read it twice, this is a book I can see myself going back to again over the years (though I generally avoid re-reading) and getting something different from it each time. It’s about pregnancy and motherhood and family, but it’s about so much more: gender, art, and transformation.
And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready by Meaghan O’Connell
I actually listened to the audio book of this; I listened to it whilst riding the bus and the subway into Toronto, where I worked as a publicity intern during my pregnancy. Just thinking back to listening to this book makes me feel overwhelmed with nostalgia. O’Connell recounts her unexpected pregnancy and her postpartum journey through the conflicting demands of self, work, relationships, sex, and motherhood. At the time, I was surprised by a few things in the book. For example, when her son is just a few weeks old, she insists on escaping the house to go work in a coffee shop for a few hours, between breastfeeds. I think I judged O’Connell for wanting to be away from her baby when he was so young, but of course, I see things differently now. She also provides a detailed account of her son’s birth—seriously, I inhaled that stuff when I was pregnant.
Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting by Jennifer Traig
Traig does talk about her own experiences as a mother, but this is probably the most nonfiction-y book on this list. Traig delves into the history of parenting and, in doing so, questions the notion that parenting is something one can be a “natural” at or that there is one way to be a parent. She covers topics including childbirth, breastfeeding, weaning, sibling rivalries, and parenting books. Along the way she reveals some truly shocking practices from the past and shines a light on how we got to where we are today. Apparently, the reason women lie on their backs while giving birth (which is actually far from ideal because gravity) can be attributed to King Louis XIV, who liked to watch women giving birth, and the birthing stools used at the time obscured his view! In the past, parents have subjected their babies to such horrifying practices as near-constant swaddling and feeding them wine, instead of breastmilk (which was not considered appropriate food for babies). I could go on, but I wouldn’t want to spoil too much for you. This book is full of really fascinating facts and insights into parenting and certainly brings into question the notion of parenting as “natural”.
Amateur Hour: Motherhood in Essays and Swear Words by Kimberly Harrington
This was the first book I read after giving birth. It’s a collection of essays, although Harrington experiments with the form. For example, one chapter is written in the form of a job ad for motherhood. I loved this book, it felt like a breeze of fresh air in the sweaty mess of early motherhood. One quote in particular really struck me and I wrote it down in my baby journal (which was mostly a failed tally of when, for how long, and on which side my baby had last fed—how any sleep deprived parent is supposed to keep such a record, I’ve no idea, but it’s what I was advised to do by the hospital and baby manuals). Of the early days of motherhood, she writers: If you had told me then that I’d want to retain anything from those crushing minutes, hours, and days I would’ve thought you were two slices of bread short of a sandwich. But the window into everything being enough, me being enough, was precious and finite. The rest of it can still go—all those fluids and schedules, Cheerios in snack-size bags and cumulative gray-hair-and-wrinkle-causing fatigue. But not worrying about next week or next year because it might as well be a hundred years away? I would spritz it on my wrists like perfume. I find myself wanting to breath in deep every time I read that passage.
Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year by Anne Lamott
This was another audio book “read”: I mainly listened to this in the middle of the night, as I paced the living room floor with a tiny newborn. It does pretty much what it says on the tin, it’s a journal of her son’s first year, but it’s full of wisdom and insight (and more than a few moments that had me tearing up). I found myself wanting to “highlight” multiple passages and this might be another one I have to return to, perhaps in paper form next time, though I loved listening to Lamott’s voice.
So there’s my list. Let her know if there are any books about motherhood and parenting that you found useful or insightful!