By 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.