British pediatrician turned psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott believed that a child’s sense of self is built by the kind of a relationship that they have with their primary caregiver—in most cases, their mother. There is no self for an infant without the nurturer who wipes his/her backside, takes career-interrupting breaks from work, and keeps track of Zoom lesson timetables. So deeply intertwined are mother and child that the relationship can wound or heal, or both. Sometimes in catastrophic ways.
So powerful is this connection that sometimes it alone suffices to take on the world. In Hindu mythology, Parvati creates and raises child Ganesha, entirely without the involvement (or knowledge) of her husband, Shiva. If you ask a Hindu, they’ll say he turned out fine. Even today, whispers it’s like you don’t even need men anymore. In the age of IVF, epidurals and great birth control, women have more agency than ever before.
Motherhood has never, ever been simple. It has always been broad, complex and multifaceted. It stretches you beyond your wildest imaginings of who you could be. And it crushes you in unexpected ways. There’s always non-fiction to tell you what to expect when you’re expecting and how to frame your parenting challenges sociologically. But nothing quite captures motherhood like a good old novel.
1. Sugarbread by Balli Kaur Jaiswal
Here’s a coming-of-age story set in a woefully underrepresented region of diaspora fiction: Singapore in the 90s. It’s a period writer Jaiswal is deeply connected with and she portrays it beautifully as she unfurls a tale spanning three generations of Sikh women. There is a mystery the solving of which is of utmost concern to the sweet, inquisitive heroine, Pin. Little Pin’s mother, Jini, has told her she is not to become like her. What does she mean? Then Pin’s grandmother moves in, upending the existing household order and resurfacing old secrets. With delectable prose (replete with talk of food, metaphors of food and love) and gorgeous detailing, one reviewer has called this novel “Singapore’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’”
2. Zikora by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Adichie is one of the most powerful and influential voices of our times and in Zikora, she tackles motherhood with sensitivity, nuance and breadth through the tale of the book’s eponymous protagonist, a high-flying lawyer abandoned by her lover. Zikora is pregnant and her mother flies down from Nigeria to help. Their relationship is no idyllic picture, but as Zikora learns more about her mother’s life and struggles, she also learns more about herself and more importantly, about her dreams for her coming child. In just 34 pages, the short story manages to be expansive in its coverage of black motherhood, and the agony and ecstasy of childbirth.
3. A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua
In China, Scarlett Chen, the mistress of her wealthy boss, finds out she is pregnant with his first male child. Delighted, the father of three daughters promptly sends her off to a secret maternity home in Los Angeles. Her son is to be born on American soil as a U.S. citizen, and thus a recipient of all the privileges that come along with it. But when a routine sonogram reveals something unexpected, Scarlett, along with a fellow unwed mother, Daisy, decides to make a break for it. Little do they know that Scarlett’s baby’s father is not far behind them. Adventurous, insightful and abundant in comic moments, the book reads like what the author herself has described the book as a “pregnant Thelma & Louise.”
4. The Last Queen by Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee
You know your Mumtaz Mahal and Jhansi Ki Rani. If you get Sony TV where you live, you also know Ahilyabai. But hear the name Jindan Kaur and chances are, it won’t ring even a payal bell. Kaur, the youngest of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s wives — and his favorite — was the mother of Maharaja Duleep Singh, who would ascend the throne at the tender age of six. She ruled as regent, valiantly fended off the British until they imprisoned and exiled her, and cruelly kidnapped her child. She was eventually reunited with him over thirteen years later (and only very briefly), when the British no longer saw her as a threat. “The Last Queen” is a must read for lovers of historical fiction and indefatigable heroines.
5. The New Wilderness by Diane Cook
Mother Earth is a mother, too and her suffering is an aching presence in “The New Wilderness,” a Booker-nominated, exhilarating work of speculative climate-fiction. In a dystopic world wracked by dense smog and monstrous metropolises, Bea makes a decision for her infant Agnes, who will die if she does not get access to clean air. So Bea and Agnes find themselves alongside eighteen other volunteers in an experiment in the Wilderness State to see if humans can exist as hunter-gatherers in nature without destroying it. The story is situated amidst much turmoil, both existential and temporal, as Bea and Agnes’ relationship is tested over and over again.
6. With Teeth by Kristen Arnett
Out in June
Motherhood and families come in all compositions, shapes and sizes and there’s nothing like looking into non-heteronormative families to see that we’re all messed up in the same way. With an absent wife and an increasingly unruly son, Sammie Lucas struggles to keep it together. When her son’s hostility finally spills over into physical aggression, Sammie must confront her role in the mess. Exploring themes of queer marriage and of course, motherhood at its scariest, With Teeth, like Arnett’s breakout critics’ fave “Mostly Dead Things” promises to pierce, move and entertain. Set in Florida and pouring forth copious amounts of Arnett’s warm and witty style, the novel is a great read in between nap times or for socially-distanced beach reading.
7. Beloved by Toni Morrison
In Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning novel set after the American Civil War, a woman makes a desperate choice — after all, who would wish a life of enslavement upon children whom you love? Not that there was any planning to it, but the attempt goes awry and so for years the protagonist, Sethe, her house, and her family are haunted by a spiteful infant spirit. Motherhood takes on a tragic, powerful face, one that transcends the realms. With a healthy dose of magical realism and gripping, page-turning prose, “Beloved” is a stunning work of literary fiction unlike any other, and if you let it in, you just might find yourself haunted by “Beloved” herself.
This story appears in the May issue of SEEMA Magazine, check it out here
Read more about other celebrating motherhood on SEEMA