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9 Radical Books About Motherhood

02/18/2015 09:14 am ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

The fallacy that motherhood turns previously intelligent, discerning, engaged Female Persons into more or less boring morons is predicated on another fallacy: that there is a dearth of intelligent, discerning, engaging writing and thinking about motherhood. In fact there is not.

Behold these nine books, which can be excellent company as one contemplates the gloriously fraught identity crisis of early motherhood. But wait! Henceforth kindly consider these revelatory books to be part of The Canon for all self-respecting literate humans, because when we subject serious writing/thinking about motherhood to some pre-fab "mommy lit" ghetto, we're rather coarsely revealing some of the most stagnant, pernicious misogyny known to humankind. Put more directly: sorry, but like it or not the fact remains that someone once gave birth to you.

Up The Sandbox by Anne Richardson Roiphe Published in the early seventies and later made into a movie starring Barbara Streisand, Roiphe's first novel features a frustrated heroine whose mundane daily life is punctuated by bursts of imagined parallel lives. Taking care of babies and small children is messy, exhausting, repetitive, very occasionally transcendent work, and dear God: someone has to do it. The gloriously funny fantasies of this young mother reveal just how much of her imagination and potential are (temporarily) buried beneath the practical demands of what is straight up the hardest work on earth.

The Baby by Viva The year is 1969, and the protagonist of this sprawling novel lives at the Chelsea Hotel with a French video artist, who has the oh-so avant-garde idea to film their child's birth and first three years (what an idea!). The ensuing adventures speak of a truly original writer, an independent thinker way ahead of her time. Having run away from the video artist and taken the baby to a makeshift commune, she says: "I finally understood what true happiness was: having friends with whom I could trust with my child." This is the most intelligent, hilarious, comprehensive account of unconventional parenting imaginable. Viva was a Warhol "superstar" and prolific writer for The Village Voice, Vanity Fair and elsewhere. I was so obsessed with this novel after I found it on a friend's bookshelf that it yielded an epigraph to my own (then in-progress) novel. Viva's a treasure. (Fun facts: The baby of the title grew up to be renowned yogi Alex Auder, and Viva's younger daughter is the actress Gaby Hoffmann.)

Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck I first read Steinbeck in Mr. Bellon's 11th grade AP English class. It was a joy unlike anything else I'd experienced (though that's not saying much circa 11th grade). It awoke in me a new understanding of literature, history, nature, the scope of human experience. I felt, for the first time, plugged into something bigger than my sad-ass adolescent problems. When I think of Steinbeck I imagine sunlight, and see my seventeen-year-old self as a waterlogged plant. Rose of Sharon is pregnant with the only real hope in the novel, and when she gives birth at the end, it's to a dead baby. I choke on the sorrow of it even still. And when they come upon the starving man, she offers him her full breasts, and he drinks, and is saved. I am now crying in a coffee shop.

The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante Everything Ferrante writes is worthwhile, but this slender gem hits it so far out of the park you can only squint at the horizon. A middle-aged woman rents a small apartment by the sea in a distant town for the summer. Instead of focusing on her academic work, she becomes obsessed with a young family she sees daily on the beach, which leads to startling recollections of her long-ago life as an extremely stressed young mother. This is one of the most perfect novels I've ever read, an experience of absolute narrative perfection. If the ending doesn't take your breath away (literally, as in GASP), I will eat my placenta in a stew. The intensity and the fearlessness and the utter lack of apology make this a lasting work of genius. (And I might eat my placenta in a stew regardless, so whatever.)

Home/Birth by Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker In this conversational "poemic", Zucker and Greenberg reveal birth and motherhood to be, in fact, a path of warriors. Not for the faint of heart, this is a meta-physical masterpiece about how we inhabit our bodies, mediate our power, and take full personal responsibility (or... don't) for the cultural inheritances we embrace and/or refuse when the time comes to give birth. If you're more interested in the color scheme of the nursery than in generally questioning authority, you'll probably be majorly assaulted by this one. About as provocative, challenging, necessary, shocking, vital, gorgeous, important, and badass a work of literature as they come. Questioning authority is important and women's bodies matter, maybe we can all agree on that much?

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman I completely missed the point of this book when I read it as an undergrad, assuming it to be, simply, a narrative about how society treats "crazy" women (uh, poorly). When I re-read it as the mother of a new baby, it was glaringly obvious that this pitiful narrator is a new mother. She laments that she's "too nervous to be with the baby," making clear that the occasion for her breakdown is hardly random. Neither the scholarly forward nor afterword in the edition I own sees fit to make mention of this fact. Bizarre! Back in the nineteenth century, treatment for specifically female "nervous" disorders ranged from confinement (essentially imprisonment) to hysterectomy. We've since moved on to lobotomy, shock treatment, and, of course, pills, pills, pills. But what if the majority of "crazy" women are actually having a sane response to a seriously insane culture?

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood I don't love this book, though it is host to a completely fascinating setup: a dystopia (Past? Present? Future?) in which women are enslaved breeders, subject to intense oppression and ritual. Atwood's prose bugs me; the narrative and tone don't quite suit one another, so it's like a zany soundtrack where a mournful would be appropriate. Maybe it's telling about my own deep longing for societal support structures in the childbearing year, but I read about the forced, isolated communal lives of these women with a degree of idealization. Things must be pretty freakin' bleak in contemporary childbearing culture if one can read about a brutal society in which pregnancy and birth are strictly regulated by pernicious pseudo-religious male overlords and think: hey, at least those women all are in it together!

Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich This book pretty much owns the canon. Ur-Goddess work, right here, setting the bar high. Poet Rich is an astonishing thinker, simply the best of the best of the best. She lays it all out, from cultural representations of motherhood to the history of women's bodies in birth and thereafter, to her own experiences as a mother and wife, which reflect her upbringing, creative life, and philosophical questioning. Her staggering wealth of references -- literary, historical, cultural -- make your typical contemporary online "think" pieces look like middle school debate club rejects. It's impossible to imagine any serious current conversations about these issues without the foundation of this essential work. I want to be buried with this book. If I could reach through the screen and press a copy into your hands, I would. Read it. Please. Now. Yesterday.

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver Love it or hate it, this is an unforgettable novel. Though its central question (are some kids simply born bad?) is an interesting one, Shriver admits that the seed for the book grew from her own ambivalence about whether or not she wanted to be a mother, herself. So she conjured this worst-case scenario, and it's thoroughly horrifying. But it's also deeply flawed, because the bad seed in question does not grow in a vacuum; the narrator is distant from and suspicious of her child even before he is born. So: does she immediately dislike him because he is so inherently bad? Or does he become an irretrievable psycho because his mother inherently dislikes him? Chicken, egg. Also, more than a little over the top. But fascinating. But flawed. But riveting. (Shriver ultimately decided not to have children. Which matters, and doesn't.) I read it five years ago and I still can't decide what I think. What do you think?

These nine books are just the tip of the iceberg, though. For further reading:

Pushed by Jennifer Block
Satan Says by Sharon Olds
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
Mother Says by Hal Sirowitz
All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior
Baby by Paula Bomer
For Her Own Good by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English
MotherKind by Jayne Anne Phillips
I Wore The Ocean in the Shape of A Girl by Kelle Groom
Labor Day, edited by Anna Solomon and Eleanor Henderson

Elisa Albert is the author of After Birth.