Parenthood, however it may look, is a shared experience worldwide. Yet, the reality of caring for a child is so often romanticised, and ultimately the emotions, stresses, and hardships of the parent are brushed aside.
Motherhood in particular is often painted in rosy hues and presented as a gift, never as a sacrifice, and these books about motherhood explore it from all angles.
From Japan to Argentina, these books about motherhood tell a different story, carving a place for the raw realities of the duality of motherhood, with all its loves and losses.
Essential Books about Motherhood
Here you will find depictions of women around the world striving for or against motherhood, struggling within the confines of motherhood, and examinations of how motherhood can usurp a woman’s identity and alter her mind.
We hope you enjoy this list of books about mothers and motherhood from Italy, Japan, Argentina, Canada, and the US!
Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
This brief yet suffocating and claustrophobic novel provides a look behind closed doors at a recently single mother in Italy. Though The Days of Abandonment centers on a breakup of husband and wife, the meat of the novel revolves around the mother’s fractured existence.
Even though Olga feels as if her world, her relationship with her husband Mario, has ended, the job of mothering her two children continues. Ferrante speaks to the unrelenting nature of parenthood, especially in single-parent circumstances.
Olga’s situation is incredibly isolating, and she openly expresses hatred and resentment toward her children, leading to a mood of unease for her children and for us as readers.
Ferrante leads us to both hate Olga and her treatment of her children, and find empathy for her, reframing her actions as reactions to trauma she has sustained.
Translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd
Breasts and Eggs, Kawakami’s first novel to be translated from the Japanese, is composed of two separate books, each examining different aspects of womanhood; they are two books about mothers, motherhood, and femininity.
The punk, angry debut novel uses the relationship between mother and daughter, Makiko and Midoriko, to demonstrate the different ways in which woman often hate their own bodies, whether they are adamantly opposed to the standard of beauty and femininity, or working hard to achieve it.
This section presents an example of a turbulent and painful mother and child relationship, and sets the stage for book 2, in which Makiko’s sister Natsuko struggles to decide if she wants to pursue motherhood through more “unconventional” routes.
Throughout Breasts and Eggs, the question of what womanhood “should” be used for, and what responsibilities being a woman holds is examined constantly.
Through the characters Natsuko interacts with, Kawakami poses questions on the ethics of bringing a child into the world. There is no “one size fits all” solution to the questions of motherhood, and Breasts and Eggs makes that abundantly clear.
Read More: Best Japanese Books in Translation
Translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff
This Argentinian novel set in the French countryside brings to light the darker aspects of motherhood, from the feeling of being trapped by a life you created, to the gradual loss of identity.
Harwicz examines the expectation that motherhood will become a woman’s defining characteristic, the most valuable and important piece of her identity.
Our narrator provides an intimate account of her degrading mental health from her own perspective, always hovering on the edge of an outburst or breakdown. She is, at once, feeble and brutal.
This desperate and brief novel echoes stories like “The Yellow Wallpaper,” what with the intense feelings of repression, the lack of empathy, and the expectation to rise to the challenge of motherhood despite the toll it can take on the psyche.
With stunningly poetic diction, delicate descriptions, and fiery depictions of rage, Harwicz provides, in one of the finest books about mothers and motherhood, an honest account of a mother utterly losing herself.
Motherthing by Aislie Hogarth
Motherthing is an intense and unsettling pseudo-horror novel that explores the toxic, demanding, and unhealthy relationships between in-laws.
Our protagonist is a Canadian woman named Abby whose husband has asked if they can move in with his mother to take care of her, since her physical and mental health is declining.
When the book opens, however, Ralph’s mother takes her own life, and her ghost begins to haunt the basement.
We frequently flash back to Abby’s relationship to her abusive mother-in-law, as well as her own troubled childhood with her love-obsessed and abused mother.
The tension and the horror builds to a bloody conclusion as Motherthing examines the toxicity of female relationships, and the ways in which patriarchy puts pressure on the roles of women.
This is a frightening and bold novel about motherhood unlike anything else you’ll read.
This Canadian novel features an unnamed narrator whose voice is virtually indistinguishable from Heti’s. As she nears her 40th year, our protagonist begins to wonder if she should want to have a child, and if it is necessary to fulfill this societal expectation.
Heti uses phases of the menstrual cycle as chapter titles, illustrating the ever-changing, cyclical nature of our narrator’s thoughts on motherhood, and highlighting how different she feels about her predicament at each phase.
Humorous and lighthearted, this is one of the sharpest books about mothers and motherhood; yet it also challenges readers to reframe this seemingly obligatory part of life in our minds.
Rosenwaike’s comprehensive collection of short stories feels incredibly realistic, and represents unique and varied experiences of women interacting with the idea of motherhood.
Whether they are desperately trying to conceive, looking to end an unwanted pregnancy, or just indifferent to the idea all-together, the women in Look How Happy I’m Making You are relatable and always honest.
They beg us as readers to find compassion, as we step briefly into each of their minds, seeing their respective situations through their eyes.
The Need takes a more science fiction-esque approach to discussions of motherhood, mixing thrilling and speculative elements with intimate and touching depictions of the sweeter aspects of motherhood, and uses the concept of duality quite literally.
Parenthood can be a tangled mess of joy and pain, and Phillips captures the duplexity of being a mother in this unique and poignant novel.
Our protagonist, Molly, comes face to face with a timeline and world in which she loses her children. In doing so, she must spend time and compete with a second version of herself, whose passion for motherhood is in many ways stronger than Molly’s own.
With nuance and care, Phillips speaks to the harmful nature of comparing one’s parenting to others, and asks the reader if anyone is more or less deserving of parenthood.
Read More: 20 Must-Read Books About Life
Goodman’s debut novel features an idyllic setting on a Vermont homestead and a traditional family structure, the picture of a “perfect” and “normal” life. Alma spends her time mothering her children, cooking and cleaning, and taking care of their animals while her husband pursues his career at a nearby college.
Out of boredom, loneliness, and frustration for the repetitive, seemingly fruitless nature of her tasks, she is driven to obsession over a mother in New York who shares her daily life on Instagram.
Goodman’s novel comments on the isolation of motherhood and the problematic nature of a second parent’s lack of involvement, and critiques the presentation of motherhood in the social media era.
Translated by Frances Riddle
Claudia Piñeiro is one of the most renowned, celebrated, and translated Argentine writers of all time. Though she is most famous for her crime fiction, Elena Knows is a very different beast: a heavy yet short literary novel that tackles big themes of religion, sexism, responsibility, and the fantasy vs reality.
The novel’s titular Elena is a woman in her sixties who is suffering with Parkinson’s. It’s hard for her to move around and yet she is on a journey across Buenos Aires to meet and talk with someone she hopes will understand her situation.
The situation in question concerns Elena’s daughter, Rita, who three months prior was found dead at their local church. Rita was found hanging from a rope in the belfry; the death was immediately written off as suicide but Elena refuses to believe that.
Her only evidence being that it was raining on the day of Rita’s death, and Rita had always avoided the church on rainy days for fear of lightning strikes.
There is more to Rita, more to Elena, more to everything than is first laid out, but this is not a crime novel. It’s one of the finest books about mothers, religion, and gender.
UK-based author Emily Itami grew up in Tokyo and cut her teeth as a travel writer. Fault Lines, her debut novel, is one of the most charming and delightful books set in Tokyo you’re likely to read any time soon.
Fault Lines follows Mizuki, a bored-to-tears housewife and mother of two. Mizuki spent years living in New York City, learning English, and almost becoming a successful singer. Now, back home in Tokyo, she has been married for many years and has two young children.
As books about mothers go, Fault Lines takes a more honest look at the selfishness of life. Mizuki’s husband, a zombie-like salaryman, pays her little attention. Her life is stagnant and grey. One day, however, while out with some French friends, she meets and quickly befriends Kiyoshi, a restauranteur.
Mizuki tries to convince herself that Kiyoshi is simply a new friend, but she cannot deny the love and lust for him that she feels. Kiyoshi has brought the world back into colour for her; he has reminded her of what passion feels like; he gives her a reason to talk and express herself.
All the while, Mizuki must continue on being a wife and mother; her responsibilities slip but she does her best to hold her life together. She has her responsibilities, but she has her own life to lead as well.
Fault Lines is one of the most relatable books about mothers and motherhood; it is a lively, charming, and witty novel about how the blandness of ordinary life can lead us to crisis, and how it doesn’t take much to knock us off balance entirely.
— Written by Haley Carlisle (she/her)
Haley is a US-based writer and content creator. She holds a BA in English and a position as a public librarian. Haley creates content for and manages an Instagram account and YouTube channel, where she reviews and discusses books. In 2019, she self-published a children’s book called Expeditious and Serafina: A Sleeping Beauty Retelling, and has since branched out to writing poetry, short stories, and personal essays.