I don’t know about you, but I’m done with romance. Ditto for adventure, mystery, fantasy, sentimentality and anything by Sophie Kinsella or Jonathan Franzen. I just … can’t. I guess I’ve been gravitating toward nonfiction, anyway, drawn to meaty personal narratives where the authors invite us in, offering not just a voyeuristic tour of their messy, complicated lives, but candid insights and new perspectives on some of life’s most perplexing issues.
Beach reads while the kiddos are splashing in the lake or wrestling in the backyard? Absolutely. Motherhood is full of rich, highly entertaining material. From learning how to navigate a new role as an adoptive parent to exploring deeper insights into caregiving to parenting tweens in a post-divorce, madcap menopausal world, here are four newly released memoirs that examine the bigger themes of modern mothering. Bittersweet, evocative, compelling, and often hilarious, you might find that these stories stay with you long after summer is over.
Acclaimed memoirist and Bellingham resident Susanne Antonetta adopts an infant from Seoul, South Korea, asking us to contemplate the concept of adoption as something larger, “a bond that is accepted with attention.” There are some terrific scenes early on, where Antonetta imagines being in labor before she picks up her new son at SeaTac (“I could have been trying to squeeze something the size of a football out of an opening in myself … instead I sat in an Asian fusion place, drinking ginger martinis”) and then not long thereafter, Antonetta is chased down by airport security when she’s just a little too eager to meet her new son.
As Antonetta grapples with how to define her family and bridge two cultures, she offers alternate perspectives, such as the context of Oceania, whose people lack a Western attachment to purely genetic ties (“we don’t think it’s all that important, who your mother is,” says one of her Hawaiian friends).
And later, as she navigates parenting Jin through adolescence, Antonetta asks some big coming-of-age questions:
As Jin grew into a teenager, the fact of his adoption came to the surface again. What exactly did he reject, in that pulling away? Was his rejection of me more complete, more shattering, because we shared no DNA? Did he, ultimately, not love me enough, and on top of that, resent me for taking him away from the country of his birth, the one place where he looked like everyone else around him?
In chronicling 15 years of Jin’s life, Antonetta beautifully weaves in her own childhood memories as well as her changing relationship with her parents (“I have adopted my parents as well as my son,” she writes) with astounding introspection. It’s a marvelous tribute to the joys and wonders of parenting, regardless of where or how your children were born.
Eight years ago, journalist and Bellevue mother Jennifer Haupt was approached by young woman in the genocide museum in Rwanda who asked her, “Will you be my mother?” It was a startling, heartbreaking experience for Haupt (who was in Rwanda on assignment in search of stories of faith and healing) but ended up discovering deeper truths about herself. Through three different narratives that take the reader from Rwanda to Kenya to Wisconsin and Seattle, Haupt examines the roles of parent, daughter and caregiver. Written with courageous honesty and exquisite prose, Haupt details her depression as she raises her boys, delves into the conflicts over helping children abroad versus her presence at home, and explores both her childhood anger over the loss of her sister and her struggles with grief as she takes on a new role as caretaker of her own mother. But even as Haupt confronts dark themes, the outcomes are transformational. In the end, we’re left with feelings of hope, courage, trust, and a profound faith in humanity.
As an aside, Shebooks, the book’s publisher, is worth checking out. A carefully curated collection of short e-books written by women, for women (the founders hail from More, Glamour, Real Simple and Sunset). All of these e-books are designed to be finished in an hour or two, which makes them all the more perfect for summer reading, amiright?
From the same bestselling author of The Middle Place, Glitter and Glue explores the bond between mothers and daughters. Corrigan starts out with a startling premise: “When I was growing up, my mom was guided by the strong belief that to befriend me was to deny me the one thing a kid really needed to survive childhood: a mother.”
In her exploration of this complicated dynamic, Corrigan takes us through her defining moments, primarily centered on a time period in her early twenties, when Corrigan worked as a nanny for a widower in Australia. Corrigan’s controlling mother looms large in the narrative, but rather than judge the relationship, Corrigan writes with a wise perspective, musing:
"The thing about mothers, I want to say, is that once the containment ends and one becomes two, you don’t always fit together so neatly … the living mother-daughter relationship, you learn over and over again, is a constant choice between adaptation and acceptance."
When Corrigan has children of her own, she’s able to offer an even wider view: “It may be that loving our children, radically and beyond reason, expands our capacity to love others, particularly our own mothers.” It is this theme that drives the book towards its heartfelt conclusion. The mother-daughter relationship, Corrigan explains, “is like a good book: You don’t have to be able to decode every passage to want to hug it when you finish.”
The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones, by Sandra Tsing Loh, W. W. Norton & Company, 2014
Does it say too much about me if I tell you I want to be Sandra Tsing Loh when I grow up? I’ve been a fan of Loh’s for a long time (her 2009 Mother on Fire: A True Motherf%#$@ Story About Parenting! and “Loh Down” series on NPR are personal faves) and The Madwoman in the Volvo does not disappoint. Whereas other writers tackling similar material might veer into woe-is-me or “ha ha, aren’t I funny?” territory, Loh writes in this witty, self-deprecating, no-holds-barred style that is as honest and revelatory as it is hilarious.
Loh’s life is messy to be sure: her Volvo is infested with ants, her marriage is over, things are complicated with “Mr. Y” (the new guy) and her hormones are on par with her tween daughters. Through a series of highly entertaining essays on midlife, parenting, caregiving and chaos, Loh shines a bright light on her own missteps, giving us the opportunity to more closely examine ours as well.