From fertility problems to breastfeeding and childcare issues to social isolation, motherhood is full of anxiety and fears. In our society, it’s also full of vilification, shame, and blame. Friends, family members, and even strangers can say things like “You aren’t eating organic” or “You’re going back to work” in the same tone as someone might accuse mothers of committing murder. These nine psychological thrillers about motherhood combine the two themes: maternal anxiety and murder. From a mother who becomes obsessed with her egg donor to a woman struggling with Postpartum Mood Disorder to a son wondering if he killed his own mom, one thing is clear: In these books, being a mother and having a mother are both complicated. And the mother relationships in these nine books will keep your spine tingling, your heart racing, and your fingers turning pages from beginning to end.
Her Daughter’s Mother by Daniela Petrova
Lana and Tyler are in their late 30s and struggling to get pregnant. After several heartbreaking miscarriages and failed rounds of IVF, they find an anonymous egg donor. Even though the two break up, Lana goes through with the last procedure. This time it’s a success. Everything should stop here with a happily-ish ever after. But then Lana sees the egg donor, Katya, on the subway, recognizing her from the donation center photograph. The two develop a creepy, slightly co-dependent relationship, which Lana knows isn’t normal or healthy. But when Katya disappears, Lana wants to find out what happened and if Tyler’s involved. She delves deeply into Katya’s past looking for answers, even as she becomes a suspect.
The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy
Part thriller, part story on the triumph of female friendship and pressures of motherhood, The Perfect Mother begins with a group of women who all gave birth in the same neighborhood in the same month. They call themselves the “May Mothers” and meet in the park twice a week to stave off the isolation of new motherhood. When they agree to meet up at a local bar one night, without their babies, it seems like the next step of friendship. But these relationships will be tested after one of their babies is abducted and the media turns on all of them, painting them as bad mothers. Each woman in the group responds differently, but they all feel compelled to try and find out what happened and bring the kidnapped baby home.
The Perfect Nanny by Leïla Slimani, Translated by Sam Taylor
The book opens, graphically, with a Parisian nanny murdering the two young children she looks after. There is no mystery in who or what happened to these children. The reader knows this from the very first page. The question of why is what this thriller attempts to explain. And it’s a question that lingers even after the book is over. The narrative jumps back in time to show Myriam deciding to go back to work as a lawyer and the hunt for the nanny. She and her husband feel thrilled when they find Louise, who goes above and beyond to meet all of their children’s needs. But what is this veneer of perfection hiding? And were there clues Myriam should have seen coming that Louise would transform from the savior to her family into its violent downfall?
Miracle Creek by Angie Kim
This courtroom thriller focuses on a mother on trial for killing her own child when an experimental medical treatment goes wrong. Young and Pak Yoo are Korean immigrants in Virginia whose business is running an Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy Machine they’ve nicknamed the Miracle Submarine. The story begins when the device explodes, killing two people including a young autistic boy. The boy’s mother, Elizabeth Ward, is put on trial for intentionally causing the explosion to kill her son. But as the trial continues, it seems other witnesses of the explosion—including the Yoo family—are keeping secrets about the fire as well.
The Other Mother by Carol Goodman
Postpartum Mood Disorder plays a central role in this story, where a new mother becomes convinced she is a risk to her infant daughter. Daphne Marist runs away from her life and her husband, when he threatens to take their baby Chloe away claiming she’s an unfit mother. Working up in the Catskills under an assumed name, Daphne tries to figure out what happened to her life. These puzzle pieces include an attempted overdose she doesn’t remember, a wet baby blanket, and her obsessive friendship with fellow new mother Laurel. Besides working out her past and trying to care for her baby, Daphne also works to resist an unravelling mystery at the local mental asylum. And until the last chapter, it’s unclear who or what really poses the biggest threat to little Chloe.
Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson
The world thinks Mary killed a baby when she was nine years old. She’s never confirmed or denied this. But when a white baby dies under the care of a Black woman and her child, someone needs to be punished. And Mary’s spent the last six years in a juvenile detention center, before being moved to a group home. But now Mary’s pregnant with a baby of her own. And the state is threatening to take that child away. But Mary’s future, along with her own memories of what happened, are wrapped up in her mother—who might be the most untrustworthy character of all. This YA thriller is told through Mary’s perspective and will keep you guessing about what happened from beginning to end. It also meditates on the meaning of motherhood as three generations face the effects of one terrible crime.
The Lost Ones by Sheena Kamal
Nora Watts gave her baby up for adoption 15 years ago. But one night, the girl’s adoptive father calls her. The daughter—a teenage girl that looks so much like Nora—is missing. And he wants Nora’s help finding her. She has plenty of her own problems. After growing up in foster care and dealing with substance abuse, she’s worked hard to create distance from her painful past. And helping this girl will bring all of that back up again. But when she see’s a picture of the girl, Bonnie, Nora knows she has to try to help, no matter what it costs her.
THe Good SOn by by You-Jeong Jeong, translated by Chi-Young Kim
This motherhood-themed thriller moves away from the parent and puts us in the perspective of the child. Twenty-six-year-old Yu-jin has suffered from seizures and memory loss for his whole life. But when he discovers his mother’s body in a pool of blood in their Seoul home, he remembers one thing. Her calling his name. But he’s not sure if she was calling for help or begging him not to kill her. He feels determined to find out the truth about what happened. But that means looking into family secrets about his complicated relationship with his mother. You-Jeong Jeong is called “Korea’s Stephen King,” and after reading this book you’ll certainly understand why.
Not Her Daughter by Rea Frey
Sarah Walker is a kidnapper. It started when she witnesses a fraught exchange between 5-year-old Emma and her exhausted mother Amy. Something about the moment sticks with Sarah. When she runs into Emma again after her mother’s locked the child out of the house, Sarah takes her. Emma is grateful to be free from her cruel mother and totally checked-out dad. As she and Sarah move around to avoid the nationwide hunt, they begin to form a strong maternal relationship. She never received this kind of love and attention from her “real parents.” Meanwhile, Amy alternates between shame that she locked her daughter outside and gratitude that she’s gone. And Sarah is overwhelmed with guilt and disbelief about what she’s done. A split-second decision totally changed all three of their lives. And questions of fuzzy morality float through the gripping plot of these interconnected characters.
And once you’ve gotten your fill of psychological thrillers about motherhood, you might want to read some less spooky books about Moms or, perhaps, will want to continue down this dark and twisty literary pathway.
Editor’s Note: This post has been edited to remove a possible spoiler.