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It's Complicated

It’s complicated might be shorthand for any variety of situations, but I think it really shines when describing the nature of family. We’ve just spent the weekend celebrating Mother’s Day, a holiday that can generate a wide range of emotions—whether you participate in the commercial observance or not.

Motherhood, too, is complicated. Exploring maternal ambivalence can be dicey territory, though. We tend to like our mothers a certain way—a way that, unfortunately, can eliminate their humanity.

Portrayals of mothers that include the messier, darker aspects of parenthood provide not only richer, more psychologically astute characterization, but also may help their readers feel less alone in their own experiences.

Here are few titles that feature a complex, nuanced glimpse into motherhood. Please note that some of these explore very difficult topics and may not be for every reader. Thankfully, that’s for each reader to decide. Isn’t intellectual freedom fun?

The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan

After a “very bad day” and in a state of desperation, Frida leaves her 18-month-old child home alone for two hours. In a near-future United States, this action requires that Frida relinquish custody of her child until she can prove that she has an acceptable level of maternal instinct. The School for Good Mothers is a type of reform school where women who have failed to demonstrate good mothering may go to prove themselves worthy of gaining back the custody of their children.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge may be one of the most memorable character in contemporary literature. As a mother, Olive is among the most complicated. Strout paints such a beautiful and painful portrait of a person who feels the world so deeply, yet cannot express her love in ways that others, her son and husband in particular, can easily receive. The HBO adaptation with Frances McDormand is equally brilliant.

The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante

A slip of a novel at less than 200 pages, this novel still packs a hard psychological punch. The “action” takes place almost entire inside the main character’s head. Leda is a woman who is enjoying a newfound sense of freedom, taking a vacation free from any familial obligations on the Ionian Sea. She arrives with her complicated history in tow as well, though.

With Teeth by Kristen Arnett

A Goodreads user began their review of this book with the following: “The perfect baby shower gift for someone you hate.” This is a tough book, and I honestly am not sure that I would describe my experience of reading it as enjoyable. Memorable, yes. Haunting, definitely. This is an unapologetically queer novel about child rearing, heteronormativity and and sexism within lesbian relationships, and maternal ambivalence.

That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam

I love Rumaan Alam and will read anything he writes! That said, I particularly enjoyed this one about Rebecca Stone, a new, overwhelmed mother and the woman she hires as a childcare worker. While the surface of this novel seems light, it is asking many questions about the child rearing experiences of the privileged and protected versus those of the poorer, more vulnerable. This is a deft exploration of parenthood, power, adoption and race.

Rebecca Howard is the regional manager of Tulsa City-County Library. During her 15 years with Tulsa City-County Library, Rebecca launched the readers advisory service Your Next Great Read, and served as TCCL’s county-wide Literacy Coordinator. Rebecca writes Public Radio Tulsa's monthly column Imprint.