The Books Briefing: There’s No One Right Way to Be a Mother

Your weekly guide to the best in books

Ben Curtis / AP

“Maternity entails its own unsettling journeys,” The Atlantic’s literary editor, Ann Hulbert, wrote earlier this year. It’s a statement that underscores the fact that motherhood can be fraught for many women, regardless of whether they have children. There’s no singular or “right” way to be a mother, and fiction and nonfiction works alike have been excavating the maternal role of women for years.

A 1979 novel by Yuko Tsushima, which was recently translated into English, uses one single mother’s experience to explore what raising a child on your own is like, especially in a community that offers little support for doing so. Lisa Ko’s The Leavers depicts an undocumented woman whose ambivalence about motherhood pushes back against the selfless-immigrant narrative, while the memoir Rock Needs River by Vanessa McGrady illuminates some of the stressful situations that come with pursuing an open adoption.

Emily Bernard, responding to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, reflects on how it feels to be a black mother in a post-Ferguson America. And in Motherhood, Sheila Heti addresses the decision to not have children, and how that fits within one’s larger work in a creative field.

Each week in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas, and ask you for recommendations of what our list left out.

Check out past issues here. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

What We’re Reading

The careful craft of writing female subjectivity
“The brilliance of Territory [of Light] is that [Yuko] Tsushima’s skilled attention to her narrator’s inner struggles ultimately asks the reader to feel empathy not just for one woman but also for a whole strata of women living with little societal support.”

📚Territory of Light, by Yuko Tsushima

Writing about parenthood when you’re not a parent
“At its core … [Sheila] Heti’s struggle against motherhood is less about art than it is about authenticity—the challenge of being what one truly is. For Heti, her true self is simply not a mother.”

📚 Motherhood, by Sheila Heti
📚 Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces, by Michael Chabon

A wrenching tale about the disappearance of an undocumented mother
“[Polly] certainly doesn’t fit the profile of the idealized, nurturing mother, the selfless immigrant woman who doesn’t mind doing backbreaking work if it means a better life for her son. Polly is driven by dreams and demands of her own.”

📚 The Leavers, by Lisa Ko

The hardship of a very open adoption
Rock Needs River reminds the reader that although open adoption is often characterized nowadays as the enlightened, humane way to adopt a child, it can come with its own complications.”

📚 Rock Needs River, by Vanessa McGrady
📚 Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution Is Transforming Our Families—And America, by Adam Pertman

Raising African American daughters in the Age of Ferguson
“My role in this life, in this Age of Ferguson, seems to have both enlarged and shrunk to ‘Mother,’ custodian and shepherd of the lives of two dark girls who must navigate a world that I had believed would be different.”

📚 Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
📚 Black Boy, by Richard Wright

You Recommend

What’s a book focused on motherhood or parenting that you’d recommend? Tweet at us with the hashtag #TheAtlanticBooksBriefing, or fill out the form here.

The Reference Desk

(New York Public Library)

Are you struggling with writing your first novel, getting the perfect book for your bibliophile friend’s birthday, or finding poetry that speaks to you? Write to the Books Briefing team at or reply directly to this email with any of your writing- or reading-related dilemmas. We might feature one of your questions in a future edition of the Books Briefing and offer a few books or related Atlantic pieces that might help you out.

This week’s question comes from Annette Thies: “I have written letters to my son since he was born and want to put them into some format for him to read and reference when I’m no longer around, but I don’t want to do a memoir. I’d love any suggestions.”

This is a lovely idea, and letters certainly lend themselves to being collected in some way. Although it would be a time- and labor-intensive process, recording yourself reading the letters might be something your son would appreciate, if he’s the person you’re most looking to share them with. The Beatlebone author Kevin Barry argues that writers should take advantage of the auditory aspect of storytelling:

One thing can still arrest us, slow us down, and stop us in our tracks: the human voice. I think this explains the explosion in podcasts and radio narratives. The human voice still holds our attention, allowing us to tune in to a narrative in a way we find increasingly difficult on the page.

Readers and listeners … want their stories to come at them directly in the form of a human voice. While everybody says that book sales are dropping, there’s an explosion in literary events, book festivals, spoken word events. People want to listen, and they want to hear stories.

To accompany any recording, or in place of one, collating your letters chronologically in a scrapbook-like format would allow your son to have them all in one place, and to find specific letters if he would like to.

This week’s newsletter is written by Tori Latham. The book she’s reading right now is The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson.

Comments, questions, typos? Reply to this email to reach the Books Briefing team.

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