Fictional Moms Who Keep It Real

Everything is not your mother’s fault! This Mother’s Day, we’re honoring the women doing their best, which sometimes is no bed of roses.

By Jessica Dukes

Parenthood is an equally unique and commonplace experience, but one that fully changes your life. Most moms will agree that there’s no such thing as “perfect” and even if there was, very few could achieve it. The struggle: balancing who you were before children with who you are now, and who you hope to be…all while trying to raise the next generation of decent humans. We love these novels about women who hold on to their identities, even as they sacrifice everything for the sake of their families.

After Birth by Elisa Albert

Ari’s cesarean section wasn’t easy. Neither was healing, breastfeeding, sleeping, being a new mother, and hitting the pause button on her Ph.D. dissertation. A year into motherhood, Ari still feels isolated and exhausted, but mostly mad that not a single woman in her life told her that it would be like this. But then Mina moves to town, and Ari finally meets another mother who is just trying to define and live a genuine life. As their friendship develops, the healing begins and motherhood finally takes root in Ari’s heart.

The Glitch by Elisabeth Cohen

Everything about CEO Shelley Stone’s tightly wound life is about to come undone. When a young woman claiming to be a younger version of herself—right down to the matching names and scars on their shoulders—begins working at her company, Stone wonders if she’s losing it. The younger Shelley Stone has a lot to teach the older CEO about motherhood, marriage, and work-life balance, if only she can convince herself to reconsider her life.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Sunja is Korean, so falling in love with a married Japanese yakuza is dangerous on many fronts, especially once she gets pregnant. To save her reputation and her life, a local pastor agrees to marry Sunja, leave Korea, and live as an immigrant family in Japan. So begins a story repeated through generations—the Korean experience in Japan, the ones who could and could not assimilate, and the mothers who held their families together.

Love and Other Impossible Pursuits by Ayelet Waldman

Emelia’s perfect marriage includes a darling stepson, whom she is working very hard to love. They spend Wednesdays together, but every week feels like a test of her ability to be an acceptable stepmother. The news that she’s expecting a child of her own is thrilling, but then tragedy: the newborn doesn’t survive. In an instant, her world is overturned and she questions whether she can process the grief of losing her first child while co-parenting her stepson.

The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer

Amy Lamb and her friends used to have respectable, but lackluster, careers that they eventually abandoned in order to raise their children. A decade later, their kids are increasingly independent, which leaves the group of educated women wondering what to do with their lives. Their mothers fought to have careers and educate their daughters, so why are these women so unenthusiastic about picking up that fight themselves? We love Wolitzer’s study of what swirls inside the marriage-career-motherhood triangle.

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas

Joan is an artist who is dedicated to her work and grateful for her husband who agrees that children are definitely not a part of the plan. But then she gets pregnant and is shocked at her husband’s overjoyed reaction. Two sons and decades later, Joan finally completes her masterpiece—a novel that she hopes will mark her return to an elite club of literary superstars. Joan’s story is one of unrepentant dreams in the face of motherhood’s many challenges.

The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy

A group of new moms have a standing date for a well-deserved night out. Babysitters are arranged, bottles and dinners are prepared, and a few hours of adult time provide just the reset they need. Then single mom, Winnie, returns home to find a nightmare come true: her six-week-old son is missing. Her worst nightmare lasts thirteen long days, tests her friendships, and ends unexpectedly.

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

In 1680, merchant Jacob Vaark is offered a slave woman as payment to settle a debt. He loathes slavery, but chooses a woman who then begs Vaark to take her daughter Florens instead, assuring the girl’s escape from slavery. As a child, though, the only thing Florens understood about that day was that her mother gave her away, an abandonment that stains the rest of her life. At its core, A Mercy is about the impossible sacrifices mothers make, even though they may only be understood with decades of hindsight.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

Although an educated girl, Li-yan has a daughter out of wedlock and abandons her in the closest city. In doing this, Li-yan is sacrificing her past for her daughter’s future, forsaking her family and the one-child rule practiced in her remote, mountain tea-farming village in China. Haley, her child, is adopted and grows up in California, but often wonders about her mother. An ocean away, Li-yan longs to know the daughter she gave away. It’s a beautiful story of identity and the bond between mother and daughter.

That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam

Rebecca is white. Pricilla is black. Their relationship is that of “new mom and nanny,” but eventually they create a stable life together, depend on each other, and Rebecca is forced to confront her privileges. And then, Pricilla dies in childbirth. With no one else to take care of the baby boy, Rebecca rushes to adopt him. The fight of her life is now being the mother to two sons—one with a vastly different reality than the other.

America for Beginners by Leah Franqui

For Pival Sengupta, a mother’s love knows no time zone. Newly widowed, she plans what her friends in Kolkata think unimaginable: to travel across the United States. A year ago, her son Rahi admitted to the family that he was gay before moving to America. Soon after, her husband announced that Rahi was dead. Pival, tickets in hand, resolves to find the truth for herself and embarks on the road trip of a lifetime to reclaim her beloved son, dead or alive.

Edgar and Lucy by Victor Lodato

Edgar lives with his protective grandmother and his unstable mother, until his grandmother dies and he is lured into a mysterious new life by a strange man in town. Edgar and Conrad move to the remote New Jersey Pine Barrens, until his mother Lucy finally screws up enough courage to rescue him from his captor. As mothers go, Lucy’s not winning any awards, but at the last possible moment she summons the full force of her love for Edgar and tries to save them both.

The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings

Sarah St. John is grieving the sudden death of her only son alone, despite the barrage of advice and gifts from well-meaning friends and family. She’s lost in her reverie of him and their twenty-two years together, just the two of them. So when a young lady appears on her doorstep who is also mourning Cully’s death, Sarah decides to make room in her grief. What she doesn’t expect is just how much it will change her life.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

If ever there were a mother who lost everything—her family, her independence, control of her own body—even her very name—it’s Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale. That she survives the post-apocalyptic subjugation of all women is incredible enough. But then she finds a way to fight back, to reclaim her power in small ways, and protect her children? Well, that’s the stuff of Mother’s Day legends.

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