Nowadays it seems there are two ways — and only two — to write about motherhood. There's cloying sentimentality, the kind most often seen on websites with soundtracks heavy on the Tchaikovsky or in slim volumes with pastel pink covers and titles like "A Letter to My Darling Little One."
More popular lately, though, is the bitter and cynical, motherhood-is-hell school. As the author of a book called Bad Mother, it's probably unsurprising that I usually take more pleasure in the latter. I am heartily sick of both.
I'm no sentimentalist, but clearly there's something about the project of motherhood that I enjoy — I've done it, after all, four times. This year I've decided to embrace books that are bracing and honest, yet do not shirk from the pleasures of parenthood. Books that tell the truth, but in which the truth is more joy than bitterness.
Life Among The Savages
Life Among the Savages, by Shirley Jackson, paperback, 256 pages, Penguin, list price: $15
Shirley Jackson, author of one of the most marvelously sinister novels of all time, The Haunting of Hill House, and of the short story The Lottery, also wrote two charming autobiographical novels about raising her four children in a ramshackle farmhouse in rural Vermont. In my favorite, Life Among the Savages, Jackson's humor is as snappy as her horror is creepy, and her children, though as messy and obstreperous as mine, seem never to inspire in her anything worse than a fond exasperation.
A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You
A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, by Amy Bloom, paperback, 164 pages, Vintage, list price: $13.95
The title story of Amy Bloom's short story collection, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, contains one of the most absolute expressions of a mother's love in fiction. Much of it takes place in the waiting room of a gender-reassignment surgeon. It's about a woman, no more nor less loving or self-sacrificing than any of us, who is determined to be the mother her child needs her to be. In this collection, ordinary women rise to the occasion demanded by motherhood, they make mistakes — some terrible — but they generally succeed in making up for them.
Family Man, by Calvin Trillin, paperback, 192 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, list price: $18
My last recommendation is not about mothers at all, but rather about fathers, or rather one father in particular. In his memoir Family Man, Calvin Trillin writes with unflinching good humor about his wife and daughters. He gives what I think is the single most useful piece of parenting advice, or advice about parenting advice, that I've ever read: "Getting advice on the best way to bring up children is like getting advice on the best way to breathe: sooner or later you're probably going to forget it and go back to your regular old in-and-out." Trillin gives the impression of being the best kind of husband; he not only wears the Snugli and pulls his domestic weight but is utterly enchanted by his family — he even writes poems about his wife's impeccable taste in clothes. Trillin and Family Man are so appealing and vicariously pleasurable that the book amounts to no less than mommy porn.
Ayelet Waldman is an essayist and author. She is the author of Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes. Her new novel, Red Hook Road, will be published in July. For more on motherhood from Ayelet, read her essay for The New York Times.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva