Not Your Mom’s Book: Adventures in Postpartum Reading

It’s easy to think parenthood is this blissful experience full of unadulterated joy – after all, it’s a miracle. Social media is filled with things like the “mom challenge” (post 4 pictures of momming), and Sanctimommies uploading perfect pictures of their perfect kids in their perfect outfits and $1000 strollers, all with the hashtag #blessed.

And then there’s the rest of us. We’re thankful for our kids, but we also know it’s full of moments when you can’t remember if you’ve brushed your teeth or put on deodorant, when you answer the door for FedEx and only when they leave do you realize you never snapped up your nursing bra, or you start averaging one shower a week. (No? Just me?).

As a new mom, I knew cognitively that it would be hard. Very hard, especially because I was single. It was even harder than I expected – sleep deprivation is very real, and pervades everything. But I was also caught off-guard by feelings of inadequacy, ambivalence, and intense sadness. There weren’t enough hours in the day for anything, though I couldn’t tell you what I did all day. Once I went back to work, the time crunch got even worse, and I wondered how everyone looks so damn happy on Facebook and Instagram.

I turned to books, as is my norm. I read while my son was napping, I read while nursing, and I stay up late to read. The books I chose were, perhaps, unexpected tales of motherhood. For the first time, I sought out humor books on the subject. While I read books that weren’t about parenting (I didn’t, and don’t, want motherhood to subsume my identity), it was a breath of fresh air to find there were other women who were irreverent on the subject of motherhood – or, if not irreverent, at least weren’t sickeningly sweet and sentimental.

The first book I read was in the first week postpartum: Little Labors, by Rivka Galchen. I had taken a class with Rivka in graduate school, and having read her other books, I knew I wanted to read something smart and insightful. This book was slim enough to not be overwhelming, and was a compendium of essays and observations about motherhood, literature, and writing. As a fellow mother-writer, I suppose I was also searching for companionship in that book. A sort of nod, letting me know that it’s doable, this work of mothering and writing.

I first read I Heart My Little A-Holes, by Karen Alpert, before I had kids – before I was even pregnant – and found myself laughing out loud to myself. It’s even funnier now, because even though people gripe about toddlers being a-holes, let’s be real – babies can be jerks, too. They poop a million times a day – sometimes on you, they have a total disregard for your sleep schedule or life, and they prevent you from ever having a hot meal again. Rude.

Not that everyone on the Internet paints a rosy picture – Bunmi Laditan is known for her Facebook and Instagram posts that keep it real, warts and all. Her book, Toddlers are A-holes, is another book that actually made me LOL. Because when things are bad, you need to laugh. It’s how we survive.

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts isn’t irreverent, and it’s not solely about motherhood, but this was a book I returned to again and again both during my pregnancy and during my maternity leave. Nelson’s unmatched intellect about what makes a family, the meaning of changing bodies, and becoming a mother nourished me each time I read it. And each time, left me with more to think about.

What books about motherhood and/or parenting resonate with you?

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