Alternative Mothers in Literature

27th Mar 2014

My mum is fab. She has crazy red hair and goes into her garden at two am to kill slugs with beer. She gave me an example of going for it in a career you love, and every Christmas she still goes slightly insane, puts on a monkey hand puppet, and flips out.

But you know what? I also have an awesome mother-in-law, wonderful godmothers, terrific aunts, and a whole group of witty, wise, wonderful women who helped raise me.

I know women who spent years going through hellish fertility treatments. I know single mothers and lesbian couples, biological and adoptive and foster mothers, and yet when I go down to the shops in a panic on Mother’s Day morning, I see only the same few cards – all pink, all floral, and all saying “Best Mum Ever.”

Luckily, books do better than greeting cards, celebrating all kinds of complicated, inspiring alternative motherhood. Here are five of the best.

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, by Rebecca Wells

Flashing back and forward across three generations of Southern American women, we see the lifelong bonds of friendship between Vivi, Teensie, Necie, and Caro – the Ya-Ya Sisterhood themselves.

Vivi is the centre of the novel – bright, lively, and very very damaged. In the secretive, keeping-up-appearances world of the early 1960’s, Vivi’s breakdown goes unnoticed by all but her family and the Ya-Yas – who, over the years, become an extended circle of alternative mothers to Vivi’s own children.

Constance, by Patricia Clapp

Stepmothers in literature get a bad rap. Okay, there are reasons for this – you turn twelve and start hating your mum, but that’s psychologically painful, so you swap her round in your head for an “imposter.”

So Cinderella and Snow White can scream “you’re not my REAL MUM!” as much as they like in our cultural coming-of-age stories without disrupting the ego, but it still sucks for real-life stepmums. In Constance, though, we get a positive portrayal of the stepmother-stepdaughter relationship.

Constance Hopkins is fourteen when her family travels to the colonies on the Mayflower. Over the next seven years, through starvation and disease, navigating village politics and first romances, we see Constance, and the Plymouth Colony itself, grow and change.

Through it all, one of the most compelling stories is that of her growing bond with her stepmother, Elizabeth. From a strained and distant relationship at the start, the two women grow and change together, triumphing over dangerous births, terrible loss, and the day-to-day struggle to survive.

Elizabeth is by turns wise, impatient, frightened, and no-nonsense – a young woman probably not much older than Constance herself, navigating her way through a new world. this is a love song to one of many women who have had to raise two successive generations against all odds.

Operating Instructions, by Anne Lamott

Thirty-five years old, three years sober, Anne finds herself pregnant and dumped. Eventually deciding to keep the baby, she does what she always does – she writes.

Flinching neither from her own darkness nor from the boredom and terror of single parenthood, but with plenty of humour and warmth, this memoir covers faith, politics, cancer, friendship, family, jealousy, dating, and making a sport out of chasing the baby’s poop balls around the bedroom.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou

The first volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiography starts when she and her brother are sent, at the age of three, to live with their grandmother. They are labelled, like luggage. It ends when Maya becomes pregnant at the age of 16.

Framed by motherhood – Maya’s mother’s abandonment and her own pregnancy – this searing, poetic, groundbreaking autobiography explores racism, dignity, self-respect, poverty, and violence.

Momma, Maya’s grandmother, is the emotional heart of the book’s first half – she steps in when Maya and her brother are abandoned, she hides their uncle in a bin to protect him from the Ku Klux Klan, she runs the general store, and, through Maya’s eyes, we see her fight for her and her family’s dignity against the daily assault of a segregated society.

Banned from many high schools and libraries when it was first published, this is a love song to one of many women who have had to raise two successive generations against all odds.

Waiting for Daisy, by Peggy Orenstein

Peggy and her husband went through six years of fertility treatments, multiple miscarriages, several failed adoptions, and, finally, a successful pregnancy – but this is more than a memoir, it is an exploration of motherhood across three continents.

Orenstein is a journalist, and she mixes her own story with those she writes during her six-year struggle to become a mother, to fascinating and moving effect.

From Japanese orphanages to Hiroshima memorials, to interviews with women struggling to reconcile motherhood and feminism, to frustration with the bureaucracy of adoption and the medical-industrial complex, to searingly honest portrayals of the effects of stress and pain on even the strongest marriage, this is a wonderful book about modern motherhood around the world.