Top 10 Great Sanity-Saving Books for Moms

Top 10 Great Sanity-Saving Books for Moms

The Big RumpusBy Beth Eakman

For all of its blessings, motherhood can make you feel like you’ve got a leak in your beanbag. How’s a mom to maintain sanity in the face of isolation, exhaustion, straight up absurdity, and mental health obstacles, especially when you might be facing gatherings that involve extended family? You need commiseration, you need a laugh, you need advice—but not from some overachiever with sparkling bathrooms and abs of steel. Just in time for the holidays, Brain, Child‘s got you covered, from morning sickness to toddler anarchy to eye rolling teens. Grab one of these books, some new and some classic, and take some deep breaths. Not surprisingly, you will find some overlap here with a previous Brain, Child Top 10, on humor.

  1. Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott (Anchor)

I read Lamott’s chronicle of her son Sam’s first year when I was pregnant with my first child and increasingly overwhelmed by the general weirdness of the experience. Lamott wrote Operating Instructions when she was in her mid-thirties, broke, pregnant, and single. Her son’s father had bailed out pretty quickly after she decided to have the baby. While her survival strategy of creating the proverbial village to help her raise her child is inspiring, the true sanity lifelines are the moments when she reflects on her own mental state. She frets about “the increasingly familiar sense that I am losing my grip on reality” and wonders if she is “well enough to be a mother.” This book is a modern parenting classic for a reason. She manages to confront the “mind-boggling questions” with humor, quite a bit of it (the laugh-til-you shake the bed, cry, and pee a little bit because your bladder is wrecked and that’s your life now) and if Anne Lamott can laugh about it, so can you.

  1. The Hip Mama Survival Guide by Ariel Gore (Hachette)

Alongside the standard-issue, sunny advice books about what we should expect and do and buy, with their assumptions that all mothers are married, middle-class, and settled, Gore’s memoir/advice is a refreshing reminder that real life doesn’t look like a catalog shoot. Based on her late nineties ‘zine Hip Mama, this survival guide isn’t using the term survival ironically. While the proper care of genital piercings during pregnancy and childbirth or dealing with custody issues may not be priority topics for all readers, Gore’s wit and honesty make them universally compelling. Her treatment of the hard stuff, the isolation, sleep deprivation, and postpartum depression is among the most grounded you’ll find. She’s warm and funny and pulls no punches. Motherhood has beautiful moments, she says, but who needs help with those? The Hip Mama Survival Guide is like your smartest, funniest friend for the tough moments.

  1. The Big Rumpus by Ayun Halliday (Seal Press)

By some miracle, Brain, Child Magazine sent me an invitation to subscribe to their brand new magazine when my daughter was about one-year old and among the treasures therein, I discovered Halliday’s essays. The Big Rumpus (another book to spring from an author’s ‘zine, The East Village Inky) follows Halliday’s adventures raising her toddler daughter Inky and her new baby brother in New York City. Early in the book she describes herself as Io of Greek mythology, a woman who’d run afoul of the gods and been turned into  a cow cursed with a cloud of biting flies. The flies, she says, want breakfast and tv and candy vitamins. They do not understand coffee or NPR. My son was born just before The Big Rumpus hit the stores and I was floored with gratitude to discover that the time in the afternoons between nap time and dinner time were torturous for someone besides me: “fucking grueling, mate,” Halliday writes. You’ll be relieved to know that you are not alone.

  1. Honest Toddler: A Child’s Guide to Parenting by Bunmi Laditan (Scribner)

In much the same way that moms used ‘zines in the 1990s and early 2000s, social media set the stage for a twenty-first century revolution in virtual community building and group-sourced sanity salvation for moms. Often called “the Mommy Bloggers,” (a bit condescendingly if you ask me) authors like Honest Toddler’s Bunmi Laditan found that the short form required for Facebook posts and tweets was perfect for both authors and readers: people with kids who don’t have time to read but need regular mental health boluses. Honest Toddler, first the social media posts and then the book, is written in the voice of the little despot inside every toddler. “In bed,” writes HT, “just noticed the color of my socks. They’re not going to work. Not tonight.” Hooray! You are not paranoid. The little stinkers ARE plotting against you. “Crushed the contents of an entire box of Ritz crackers. Hungry for Ritz crackers. Not these ones. They’re broken.” The short essays in which the toddler holds forth on Halloween and not being at all sorry for hitting another child are treasures.

  1. People I Want to Punch in the Throat by Jen Mann (Ballantine)

Here’s another brilliantly hilarious book of essays that started as a blog. Mann’s People I Want to Punch in the Throat takes on those people you’ve been secretly wishing harm from your front window. When my kids were little, the scrapbooking craze was peaking and so many moms in my neighborhood were selling pricey scrapbooking gear that I had to question the concept of supply and demand economics. I saw them walking down the street carting their special scrapbooking supply tackle boxes on wheels to a “party,” really a thinly disguised excuse for commerce and day drinking. I don’t drink and I might have scrapbooked if my kids ever wore pants between the ages of two and ten. Mann gives appropriately snarky voice to my lowest and least generous feelings toward “overachieving moms,” “douchey dads,” and other suburban scourges, and reading this book can provide a catharsis that is probably better and certainly more legal than doing the actual punching.

  1. The Lunchbox Chronicles by Marion Winik (Vintage)

Winik’s best-selling and now classic 1999 memoir of raising two young sons on her own is loosely structured around the hours of the day, which is appropriate for motherhood’s middle years. The kids are no longer babies, so you’ve got something resembling a regular schedule. On the other hand, getting through the day can still feel like a series of minor miracles. Winik shares her worst mommy moments—and heaven knows we all need to hear that we aren’t the only ones whose best intentions have gone the way of our dieting resolutions, often before lunch. Her epic treatment of the battle against the pestilence of head lice had me in stitches and her claim that there is an inverse relationship between the amount of effort you put into food and how much your kids like it is some sort of parenting law. Each short chapter can be read as a stand-alone essay, which works well for the waits in dentists’ offices, carpool lineups, and soccer practices that are the hallmarks of elementary-school.

  1. The Science of Parenthood by Norine Dworkin-McDaniel. and Jessica Zeigler (She Writes Press)

You’ll want to start this brightly illustrated collection of meme-style cartoons, infographics, and very short comic essays before your kids are old enough to need to do science fair projects. The entertaining entries will not only make you laugh, they’ll remind you that you once took science classes and might remember some vague concepts, which you will need when you, I mean YOUR KIDS, have to participate in the science fair. A good deal of the unscientific science deals with chaos theory, entropy, and random variables… Beautifully produced. Funny. This is hot off the presses and will make a perfect gift for mom friends.

  1. Queen Bees and Wannabes and Masterminds and Wingmen by Rosalind Wiseman (Harmony)

Wow, some of these kids in middle school are real creeps. Not *your* kid, of course, but the other ones. These two books will explain why they are horrible and provide you with the perspective that hellish middle school experiences may help produce successful adults. Because I have a daughter and a son, I read both of these books. An unexpected mental health challenge of reading these books is that they can plunge you back into that strange place. Wiseman’s books will remind you that you are a grownup now. Thank goodness, and it wasn’t just you, middle school is tough.

  1. The Angst of Adolescence by Sara Villanueva (Bibliomotion)

When you have to make the HOLYCRAP! trip to the bookstore when your child hits his or her teen years, his is the one you’ll need to buy when it turns out that your very own teenager, your precious baby who was never ever going to be a horrible teenager because you read all the right books and did all the right things, is in fact a horrible teenager. In addition to being a PhD professor of psychology, Villanueva’ is the parent of teenagers and at this point that’s pretty much a requirement for anyone doling out advice. She manages to interweave scientific insights (bizarro sleep schedules are developmentally appropriate!), gentle explanations (assholish behavior is developmentally appropriate), and confessions that even research scientists with a scholar’s understanding of teenage brain development sometimes lose their minds with their own kids.

  1. What Diamonds Can Do by Claire Keyes (WordTech Communications)

Just as the monsters who’ve taken over your previously adorable kids are beginning to show signs of civilization, your teens get ready to launch. Now you are ready to use the tiny bit of brain space that has been cleared out by your kids’ burgeoning maturity, but not yet destroyed by the shocking decrepitude that has snuck up on you for the past couple of decades while you were distracted by other concerns. Whatever ragged remains of mental stability you still possess may yet survive. Diamonds is the perfect combination of the kind of high art that soothes the soul and reflections on the trip of parenthood that you need in order to start getting your head around the looming empty nest. Her poems are not sentimental but will remind you here and there that these increasingly delightful adults were just a few short months ago the wonderful horribly frustrating, clever, complicated, and messy people that they really have been all along.

Spud Day

Spud Day

By Beth Eakman

Screen Shot 2015-03-01 at 1.50.54 PMIt took me about a year after my husband left to feel like I’d regained something resembling control of my life. I had managed to scrape together a couple of regular freelance writing gigs and a part-time teaching position at the local community college that would give me a small but regular pay-check—and the regular part was going to do wonders for my mental health.

It had been rough. My kids, ages three and five at the time he left, had been profoundly freaked out and honestly I had, too. I was single again, which was weird. A lot of the people I’d thought were my friends had ditched me, everything had broken, and I’d burned through almost all of the savings that my ex and I had split up in our settlement. But as the bad first year was coming to a close, things were beginning to look up.

In late July, I got a phone call from one of the top Montessori schools in the nation. I’d put my daughter, Annika, on their wait list as soon as we’d moved to Austin and had completely forgotten about it. They had a last-minute first grade slot for her. Did we want it? My mother offered to pay the tuition.

The fantasy of becoming the working-mom who “does it all” shimmered like a beacon on the distant horizons of my imagination. I had emerged from the smoking ruin of marriage, kept my kids clean and fed, secured gainful employment, landed a boyfriend, and, as far as anyone outside my closest friends and the school registrar knew, could afford private school for my kids. We might be eating lentils and scrubbing the stains out of thrift-shop clothes inside the house, but those clothes were clean and pressed when we walked outside. I might not actually have a traditional family anymore, but I was doing a pretty good job of faking middle class.

My first major setback was Spud Day.

The Montessori school we joined requires an almost cult-like level of parental involvement. At the very first parent meeting, we all sat in a large circle in the classroom chairs that our first through third graders used during the day. Because I came from work and thus was not one of the first parents to arrive, I got one of the really tiny ones. I was wearing a fullish, knee-length skirt, which I had to wrestle the entire time because my knees were higher than my seat. I learned from the introductions that I was one of two single parents in attendance. The other was a teacher at the school.

We discussed the school’s philosophy. I’d been a Montessori preschool teacher in the handful of years between my undergrad and grad school, so I knew and was in full support of the method, which allowed me to space out a bit and focus on keeping my skirt tucked tightly under my legs, think about wearing flat shoes next time, and glance furtively at my watch, calculating how much the childcare was going to cost. After an overview of the history of Maria Montessori and her method, the meeting agenda went on to recommendations for supporting the Montessori education at home—televised news: bad! Branded clothing: horrible!

I was selective about the quality and amount of television my kids watched, but, in the words of my first single-mom friend, there are going to be days when television and potato chips are going to be your best friends. I made a mental note to cut back, but a full prohibition was out of the question.

This was the mid-2000s, probably the apex of the social trend of what one journalist has called “aspirational parenting.” It was a kind of child-raising philosophy that I had been totally down with when my kids were babies. We were the cloth-diapering, baby-wearing, breastfeeding, co-sleeping people who took parenthood very seriously, probably in reaction to our own find-yourself/me-generation parents, many of whom had had a much more casual philosophy.

A certain percentage of this population crossed the line from aspirational to competitive. You might use cloth diapers, but they grew and hand loomed their own organic hemp for their cloth diapers. You might support gentle discipline, but they considered making a recalcitrant youngster brush his teeth against his will child abuse. And, because this was Austin, there was an additional level of Competitive Earthiness.

Even with our organic textiles, homeopathic remedies, and mail-order composting worms, we Montessori parents weren’t barking lunatics like those Waldorf nuts. Heavens, no. They were a contingent who rejected recorded music in favor of folk songs sung by the family and manufactured toys in favor of baskets of pine cones. We were still a pretty aspirational bunch, though, and the discussion at the parents’ meeting was increasingly lively.

I kept my mouth shut, aware that I was lucky to be here, able to give my daughter—and later, my son—a top-notch education.

“Spud Day,” was one of the last few agenda items. Good.

Spud Day, it turns out, was an exciting treat for the children. Every Friday, parents should send a potato along with the rest of the daily healthy brown-bag lunch—no chips, crackers, or cookies. This potato should be scrubbed and poked multiples times with a fork. Apparently there had been an insufficiently poked potato some years ago and the resulting explosion in the oven had reached legendary status. Furthermore, the potato skin should have the child’s initials or otherwise identifying symbols carved into it to reduce confusion.

“Oh,” the teacher rhapsodized, “when the potatoes are cooking the smell just fills the room and it is absolutely heavenly!”

“What kind of potato, exactly?” one parent asked.

“Just a plain baking potato,” the teacher said.

“Well, at our house we really like to bake sweet potatoes,” another parent offered, initiating an avalanche of potato-related discourse. What I’d thought had been passionate opinions about televised news programs and Disney characters on t-shirts paled in comparison to the freshly energized positions on potatoes.

“But sweet potatoes are so much bigger than regular potatoes. They would take longer to bake!”

“Not all of them. It depends on each individual potato.”

“I think Irish potatoes tend to be more uniform in size.”

“Irish potatoes? What are Irish potatoes?”

“They’re the same as baking potatoes; you know, just regular potatoes, the brown ones that you’d get at a restaurant if you ordered a baked potato?”

“At our house, we like to slice sweet potatoes into about one-inch thick disks and sprinkle them with olive oil and cinnamon and bake them on a cookie sheet,” the sweet potato aficionado interjected.

“Wow! That sounds great! About how long do you bake them?” A side conversation broke out among those excited to try this at home.

The teacher and her assistant were trying in vain to reign in the conversation.

“Should we send toppings, like butter or sour cream?”

More side conversations erupted. Emotions ran high regarding bacon bits.

I might have had my head in my lap at this point. I was pretty sure that there were dissertation defenses that were shorter than this conversation about Spud Day. Was I the only one who was finding this absurd and existentially exhausting?

The meeting went almost an hour past its originally scheduled closing before ratification of potato policy. I noted the critical action items as follows. Send potato in your child’s lunch on Fridays. Poke potato with fork and carve identifying mark in potato skin. No fancy potato varieties. Basic condiments would be provided. Additional condiments could be sent, with the exception of bacon bits, which had been determined to serve no good purpose. Maybe for next year’s meeting, I would volunteer to create an instructional brochure about Spud Day.

At 7:30 am, ten minutes before we were to leave for the first Spud Day, I discovered that the only potato in the vegetable drawer of my refrigerator was a red-skin potato, aka, a “new potato.” Curses. I checked my watch: no time for a grocery store run. Surely this would work, though, right? It was approximately potato-sized. I poked it with a fork, carved an A in it, and sent it in Annika’s lunch box.

At 1:00 that afternoon, I received a phone call from the school. The Montessori method emphasizes classroom leadership and self-reliance by the children, so I was only slightly surprised to hear a child’s voice.

“Hello, this is Waleed calling from Annika’s class. Is this Annika’s mother?”

“Yes?” I responded in the slightly sweeter voice that one reserves for children.

“The potato that you sent for Spud Day was the wrong kind.”

I explained as gently as possible that I was aware of this, but that it had been all I had and that, speaking as a person who’d baked red-skin potatoes before, I knew that they would behave approximately the same way as Irish potatoes when subjected to heat.

The world would never know. Non-conforming potatoes were not added to the baking sheet. My claim was entirely theoretical and therefore invalid.

When I picked her up from school, Annika displayed great self-discipline and forbearance when she told me, concisely, how disappointing it had been.

I had exposed both of us as outsiders and frauds. I might be able to pass my- self off as a normal, competent, middle-class mom, but I could not pass off a red-skinned potato as a baking potato.

I would not, however, accept defeat so easily. Not over a potato.

The next week I sent an enormous, brown, Irish, baking potato.

Waleed called, again.

“Hello, this is Waleed calling from Annika’s class. Is this Annika’s mother?”


“The potato that you sent for Spud Day was too big. You need to send a smaller one next time.” It was becoming increasingly clear that Waleed, one of the older children in the mixed-age classroom, had the job of compliance officer. This was likely a merit-based assignment and he was clearly proud of it.

Annika preferred not to discuss the topic on the ride home from school, but confirmed that, while this potato had actually made it onto the baking sheet, it had emerged with a hard, impenetrable center. She had not eaten it.

My boyfriend, Mike, whom I would later marry for being just the sort of guy who’d do this sort of thing, offered to go to the grocery store and find me a potato that would not subject my child to further ostracism and disappointment. He was the father of teenaged twin girls and thus a true veteran of conformity and compliance problems. He bought me a plastic-wrapped four-pack of “Baking Potatoes” so very medium sized and uniform in physical presence that they were surely genetically modified and probably irradiated. I sent one to school.

“Hello, this is Waleed calling from Annika’s class…”

“Yeah, right, Waleed. I know who you are. Now what?”

“The potato that you sent to school didn’t have holes poked in it.”

“What?! Yes, it did! I poked the whole skin all over with a fork! That potato absolutely had holes in it.”

“Well,” he paused thoughtfully, “I guess the holes weren’t deep enough because the potato didn’t cook all the way through. Maybe you need to poke it harder next time.”

I stabbed the next potato from the genetically modified pack, which, incidentally, did not seem to have aged at all in the intervening week, with a sharp, pointy, paring knife, perhaps more violently than was strictly necessary. It went to school covered with little black dash marks.

“Hello, this is Wal….”

“What. Just. What, WaLEED?” I was aware of placing unnecessary emphasis on the final syllable in a way that made me sound less adult than might have been appropriate.

“The potato that you sent to school today for Spud Day didn’t have initials carved into it.”


“But it’s okay, because we carved an A into it ourselves. There are 30 children in the classroom so you are really supposed to carve initials into it your- self so that we can tell which potato belongs to which person.”

When I picked Annika up from school that day she said, “Mom, you don’t need to send a potato to school for Spud Day, anymore.”

What were the odds that I was the only parent failing at Spud Day? I might be making Waleed’s day with the regularity of my failures, but with the seriousness with which he undertook potato audits, surely I wasn’t the only one getting the calls.

I didn’t dare ask other parents.

I made a decision. I would no longer try to pretend that I was the kind of mom who could do the whole parenting gig solo and conform to the exacting standards of Spud Day. I didn’t know why this particular operation exposed my Achilles heel, but frankly I didn’t need the aggravation. It was affecting my self-esteem.

The truth was that I was keeping my head above water, but just barely. I was barely getting the garbage cans out on a regular basis. I was probably at about a 50 percent success rate if you counted the mornings that I heard the truck and came flying out of the house in my pajamas, barely controlling the wheeled can down my steep driveway toward the curb. Spud Day was clearly one potato over the line of what I could manage.

I sat my daughter down to ask her how she’d feel about just skipping the whole thing.

“You know, Mom,” she said, “I don’t really like potatoes much anyway.”

Author’s Note: I am pleased to report that Annika, now headed into her sophomore year of (public) high school, shows no permanent signs of trauma from her mother’s Spud Day shortcomings. When asked if she’d like to contribute to this postscript, she said “I think we all know that there were plenty of holes poked in those spuds. Waleed was kind of a tyrant.”

Beth Eakman teaches writing at St. Edward’s University and lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two teenagers who provide her simultaneously with inspiration and interruptions. Visit Beth at, or on Twitter @BethEakman.

Illustration by Casey Arden

Book Review: Instant Winner

Book Review: Instant Winner

By Beth Eakman

Carrie Fountain, Instant Winners coverI teach college writing. A little-known associated liability is that a lot of people feel compelled to show you their work. A significant number have performed poetry aloud on the spot. As a consequence of the last two decades in this profession, my default setting is to brace myself for some serious discomfort. This is especially trying when the writer is a colleague.

So, imagine my relief, when several years ago, I went to hear my colleague Carrie Fountain read poetry from her first collection Burn Lake the 2009 National Poetry Series winner. Clearly, Fountain’s work had been pretty thoroughly vetted and had received the stamp of approval from luminaries of the American poetry world. In the past year, in fact, Garrison Keillor has discovered her poems and has read three on his NPR program The Writer’s Almanac. Still, as the result of many years of reading and hearing less-than-lovely writing, the good stuff surprises and delights me every time. This time I felt physically moved, swept away.

And with her new poetry collection, Instant Winner, Fountain has surprised me, again. In the years since Burn Lake, Fountain has become a mother. Like Burn Lake, which critics often lauded for its strong sense of place (Fountain’s home state of New Mexico), Instant Winner gives readers a strong sense of a very different place: motherhood.

In his review for The New Yorker, June 2, 2014 Dan Chiasson, reviewing Rachel Zucker’s latest poetry collection, wrote: “Motherhood isn’t war, madness, or addiction, but for a writer it can be an adverse condition, undermining the very work it inspires.” Chiasson notes that Zucker, like other contemporary poets writing about motherhood (Louise Gluck, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich), grapples with the fragmentation of time caused by constant interruption.

With Instant Winner, Carrie Fountain’s poems join this conversation. But her poems are less fragments than fever dreams, prayers murmured through the din of chaos. Take: “Giant dumpsters” make “insane thuds… tossed back to the pavement by the trash truck” and wake the baby.

In “Poem without Sleep,” a poem that feels deeply personal to me as a mother and writer, she inhabits the space between the hyper-attentiveness of new motherhood and the inability to focus. If other poets present the unquiet mind of motherhood as collage, Fountain offers a roiling kaleidoscope. “All the things that could happen to the baby came to me last night as I was falling asleep,” it begins. More and more “children of mine….push through” the space between wakefulness and sleep, ending only with the arrival of daylight.

And now, here’s the morning.

Here’s the tree flickering
behind the shade, dumb tree

with its one arm raised to the sky.
Here’s the silent tipping into another day.

And now, finally, finally, the baby, blowing
her famous raspberries down the dark

static hallway of the baby monitor. And now
she begins to whimper. And now she cries out.

And here I go to her, thank God.
Here I go to help her little life.

Fountain’s poems reach through the mundane experience of the physical world in search of the sense of transcendent divinity that comes with motherhood. “I want to describe/ the baby for many hours to anyone/ who wishes to hear me. My feelings for her/take me so far inside myself I can see the pure/ holiness in motherhood….”

While taking the time to read poetry might seem like an extravagance for exhausted mothers, I would argue that its ability to capture the transcendent in the sensory experience of the physical world is in fact economical. Some poems are playful and downright funny (“All I want to do is go home and take off these pants….),” others solemn and profound, prayers and chaos and beauty. (The ominous whine of dying batteries in a child’s toy invokes “…the sound/ of a planet falling/ through one universe/ and into the next….”) Each poem can be read in a few stolen minutes alone, but digested and savored for a long time after even while among offspring.

Whether she’s writing about the desert southwest of Mesilla, New Mexico, or the strange new landscape of motherhood, Fountain’s celebrated sense of place challenges us as readers to truly experience where we are right now as home, to stop the clock and appreciate the only reality that we have, with our eyes and hearts open and our senses engaged. The poems of Instant Winner capture the complexities of motherhood and life and present them with reverence, as gifts.

Beth Eakman teaches writing at St. Edward’s University and lives in Austin Texas with her husband and two teenagers who provide her simultaneously with inspiration and interruptions. Visit Beth at, or on Twitter @BethEakman.