With Mother’s Day coming up on Sunday, there’s no better time to read about the often ambivalent relationships between mothers and daughters. There’s a growing shelf of autobiographies dwelling on the complexities of the mother-child bond. Below we’ve chosen four terrific memoirs that illuminate that fine line between mothering and smothering.
The Year My Mother Came Back, by Alice Eve Cohen (2015)
There’s gentle magic realism in this mother-daughter memoir. The year of the title has two meanings: first was the last year of Louise Cohen’s life, when she and Alice reached a détente in their tense relationship. But then, nearly three decades later, Louise kept “coming back” during the difficult year that forms the kernel of the memoir—a year in which Cohen’s younger daughter, Eliana, had a leg-lengthening surgery; her adopted older daughter, Julia, met her birth mother; and Cohen herself underwent treatment for breast cancer. During radiation sessions, when she had to lie perfectly still for 10 minutes at a time, her departed mother would come and chat with her, reassuring her she was doing a good job.
“I’m acclimating to the sufficiency of imperfection, settling for being adequate, which is not so bad, in the scheme of things. My mother taught me that. She’s still teaching me that,” Cohen concludes. Wry and heartfelt, this is a wonderful book about motherhood in all its complexity. The magic realism is an added delight. Whatever your relationship, past or present, with your mother, this would make for heartwarming and humorous reading as Mother’s Day approaches.
What Comes Next and How to Like It, by Abigail Thomas (2015)
Thomas writes beautifully episodic memoirs in which chapters are often just a few sentences or paragraphs long. The overarching theme of this short book is Thomas’s 30-year friendship with Chuck, whom she met when they were colleagues at a publishing company. Many years afterwards, Thomas was astonished to find out that Chuck had been cheating on his wife—with her own daughter, Catherine. Negotiating her loyalties to these two loved ones has been one of the central challenges of Thomas’s recent life.
Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel (2012)
“I am not ultimately interested in writing fiction. I can’t make things up. Or rather, I can only make things up about things that have already happened,” writes Bechdel, a MacArthur Genius Award recipient. In this second memoir in graphic novel form (her first, Fun Home, told the story of her father’s early death and her own coming out and won Stonewall and Lambda Awards), Bechdel submits her relationship with her mother to intense psychological scrutiny. In strips of comics colored exclusively in shades of red and grey, Bechdel details therapy sessions, explores psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s theories of maternal bonding, and engages with literary reflections on the development of the self vs. the (m)other, especially Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.
Bechdel’s mother once told her “The self has no place in good writing”; Bechdel counters that the self is the only subject that she truly knows, but by extrapolating from the personal she can approach the universal: “If you write minutely and rigorously enough about your own life . . . you can transcend your particular self.”
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (2012)
Winterson’s memoir is like a ‘making of’ account of her lesbian coming-of-age novel, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (1985). What really happened was even worse in terms of the cruelty and rejection in Winterson’s adolescence. Mrs. Winterson, her adoptive mother, is portrayed as larger-than-life and full of idiosyncrasies—besotted with murder mysteries, prudish about sex, fanatical about religion, and convinced of her daughter’s wrongness.
This book is an attempt to understand Mrs. Winterson, but it is also the mission to find Winterson’s birth mother—and to reconcile the various women who have influenced her life. The lifelong search for a mother is like a mythological archetype, with Winterson taking on the role of questing heroine. Punchy prose, memorable scenes and characters, and an emotionally honest account of the subject’s journey through life’s vicissitudes make this top-notch autobiographical writing.
Further reading: Anne Lamott’s memoirs often reference her difficult relationship with her mother; her Salon article, “Why I Hate Mother’s Day,” deplores America’s sentimentalization of motherhood.