Mom life can be funnier than SNL and more heartbreaking than Beaches. In other words, stranger than fiction. So on the days when self-help books are zero help at all (mainly because you’re too wrung-out to read them), the brilliant insights of a novel or really good memoir are like the best friend you can turn to at 3 a.m. Might as well read—you’re up anyway.

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the lost daughter parenting books
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“The Lost Daughter” by Elena Ferrante

If you’ve heard about Ferrante’s literary brilliance but find the prospect of reading her daunting, her third novel makes for a fine introduction. Like much of her work, it’s a vivid portrait of a woman grappling with past damage (both suffered and inflicted by her), the push-pull of domestic life and deep, devastating maternal ambivalence.

On children: “I felt their gazes longing to tame me, but more brilliant was the brightness of the life outside them, new colors, new bodies, new intelligence, a language to possess finally as if it were my true language, and nothing, nothing that seemed to me reconcilable with that domestic space from which they stared at me in expectation. Ah, to make them invisible, to no longer hear the demands of their flesh as commands more pressing, more powerful than those which came from mine.”

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“Swing Time” by Zadie Smith

This epic book is about so much more than mothers and daughters (like race and class identities, for starters). And yet those relationships are at its core. The story kicks off with the narrator and her best friend navigating childhood dreams of becoming dancers against the backdrop of life in the housing projects, and follows them as their lives diverge in the decades that follow. But the figures and messages of their mothers are never far from center stage.

On children: “What do we want from our mothers when we are children? Complete submission. Oh, it's very nice and rational and respectable to say that a woman has every right to her life, to her ambitions, to her needs and so on. That's what I've always demanded myself, but as a child, no. The truth is it's a war of attrition. Rationality doesn't come into it, not one bit. What you want from your mother is that she once and for all admit that she is your mother and only your mother and that battle with the rest of life is over.”

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operating instructions parenting books
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“Operating Instructions“ by Anne Lamott

A 35-year-old single mother’s now-classic account of her son’s first year is at turns harrowing and hilarious, wrenching and endlessly relatable.

On anxiety: “No, the worst thing, worse even than sitting around crying about that inevitable day when my son will leave for college, worse than thinking about whether or not in the meantime to get him those hideous baby shots he probably should have but that some babies die from, worse than the fears I have when I lie awake at 3:00 in the morning (that I won't be able to make enough money and will have to live in a tenement house where the rats will bite our heads while we sleep, or that I will lose my arms in some tragic accident and will have to go to court and diaper my son using only my mouth and feet and the judge won't think I've done a good enough job and will put Sam in a foster home), worse even than the fear I feel whenever a car full of teenagers drives past my house going 200 miles an hour on our sleepy little street, worse than thinking about my son being run over by one of those drunken teenagers, or of his one day becoming one of those teenagers—worse than just about anything else is the agonizing issue of how on earth anyone can bring a child into this world knowing full well that he or she is eventually going to have to go through the seventh and eighth grades.”

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one true thing parenting books
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“One True Thing” by Anna Quindlen

Forget the ugly-cry-inducing 1998 movie starring Meryl Streep and Renée Zellweger. The book upon which it is based cuts deeper and requires many more tissues.

On homesickness: “After my mother died, I had a feeling that was not unlike the homesickness that always filled me for the first few days when I went to stay at my grandparents' house, and even, I was stunned to discover, during the first few months of my freshman year at college. It was not really the home my mother had made that I yearned for. But I was sick in my soul for that greater meaning of home that we understand most purely when we are children, when it is a metaphor for all possible feelings of security, of safety, of what is predictable, gentle, and good in life.”

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a life s work parenting books
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“A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother” by Rachel Cusk

The award-winning British novelist applies her razor-sharp wit and intellect to what The New York Times called “the psychological and social changes that occur in the transition from woman to mother.” If misery loves company—and let's face it: first-time motherhood can be plenty miserable—Cusk is fine company indeed. 

On co-parenting: “For the first six months of Albertine’s life I looked after her at home while my partner continued to work. This experience forcefully revealed to me something to which I had never given much thought: the fact that after a child is born the lives of its mother and father diverge, so that where before they were living in a state of some equality, now they exist in a sort of feudal relation to each other. A day spent at home caring for a child could not be more different from a day spent working in an office. Whatever their relative merits, they are days spent on opposite sides of the world.”

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waiting for birdy parenting books
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“Waiting for Birdy” by Catherine Newman

Real Simple etiquette columnist Newman takes a lighthearted look at life with a toddler while pregnant: The anxiety, the aftermath, the expanding love. Her follow-up, Catastrophic Happiness: Finding Joy in Childhood's Messy Years, charts the course for raising kids ages 4 to 14.

On parenting pressure: “Sometimes I suspect that everybody sleeps with their kids, and the only difference is the level of denial you’re in.”

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