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In Praise of Imperfect Mothers: A Reading List

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

By Molly Aitken

Novelist Molly Aitken provides some exemplary books concerning the flawed, fractious, and ultimately more authentic side of motherhood

I sit to write this list, I am on the cusp of giving birth to my first child. When friends and family read my novel, The Island Child, many of them were surprised that I’d written about motherhood. I’d never shown much interest in children or that role before. Yet motherhood was a subject that had fascinated me privately for years and one that filled my bookshelves.

My interest stemmed from a kind of dread. It seemed to me, particularly in my home country of Ireland, that mothers were expected to be selfless, loving beings that gave up their own identities in service of their children. They were portrayed as saints, perfect in every way. Despite wanting children, this seemed totally unattainable for me, so I turned to books.

I found women who were mothers yet also flawed, complex, messy humans like me. Small wonder that The Island Child is a story of imperfect women, mothering imperfectly. I wrote it as a reminder to myself that imperfection is exactly what I’m striving for and actually those mothers who fit the ideal mother mold don’t really exist so we should stop using them as our metric.

The Testament of Mary

by Colm Tóibín

It is only right to start with a figure who is held up as the ideal mother, particularly in Ireland. The Testament of Mary is a short book but is as rich as the character at its heart. Colm Tóibín has created a new Mary, without subscribing to the myths that have surrounded her. She is full of a quiet rage. She judges her son as she loves and later grieves for him. It shows the frustrations of having a child grow up and distance themselves from you. And through all this layered emotion, she is realized as fully human. For me, this novel was like a breath of fresh air, reforming this saintly mother into a flesh and blood woman.

Harmless Like You

by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

This novel follows the dual timelines of a mother and son: Yuki, a struggling Connecticut housewife who finds resilience in art; and her son Jay who’s doubting whether he loves his wife and new child, and wondering if this need to leave is genetic. When I first read it, Harmless Like You swept me up in its poetry but the central question of this novel still haunts me: do you choose art or parenthood? Or can you have both?

Black Milk: On Motherhood and Writing

by Elif Shafak

Like Harmless Like You, Shafak’s Black Milk: On Motherhood and Writing seeks to answer if it’s possible to have a career and be a mother. She experiments with inner ‘Thumbelinas’: Miss High-Browed Cynic who wants to read all day; Dame Dervish who represents her spiritual side; and most troublesome of all, Mama Rice Pudding, who just wants to settle down and have babies. Their arguments tease out the question in humorous and moving ways.

Red at the Bone

by Jacqueline Woodson

Teenage pregnancy is easily western culture’s billboard for the imperfect mother, and Jacqueline Wilson confronts this with poetry and brevity that took my breath away. It splinters outwards, encompassing the entire family and the effects of a girl becoming a mother “before she’s meant to.”

And Now We Have Everything

by Meaghan O’Connell

This was a blazing truth bomb. It struck me as I read that there are so many myths wrapped up in our ideas of motherhood and few of them have anything to do with what it’s actually like. This memoir, with its visceral language and no-holds-barred approach, was the refreshing realism I had been longing for. O’Connell struggles, she questions whether she’s made a mistake, despite wanting children, and she rails against the fact that she was never told what motherhood was actually like.

Hot Milk

by Deborah Levy

Told through the eyes of a daughter, Hot Milk dives into the putrid co-dependency of a mother and adult child. Sofia’s mother Rose is sick…or at least seems to be, and Sofia has become a kind of mother/caretaker for her. It is a brilliant exploration of role reversal. Every page is weighted with their tangled hatred and love for each other.


by Yvonne Battle-Felton

What struck me first about Remembered was the power of the women’s voices. But the novel is much more than just complex women. It interrogates how women are often not given a choice about becoming mothers, portrayed through the character of Walker, who uses his slave Ella to break the curse of sterility on his farm. Battle-Felton highlights how sometimes the trauma a woman has gone through, and the potential trauma that may be inflicted on her child, means that she shouldn’t have to be a mother, and that’s a choice she should be able to make for herself.


by Sheila Heti

No book list about motherhood would be complete without Heti’s Motherhood. This novel is formed of questions asked with open curiosity. “What kind of creature is gestating in me, that is half me and half him?” It feels new, revelatory even in its exploration of the chance and randomness of motherhood. I also loved how children barely feature in it despite its focus.

The Hand That First Held Mine

by Maggie O’Farrell

I have loved O’Farrell’s work for years and although she is probably best known for her latest novel, Hamnet, about the death of Shakespeare’s son, an exquisite novel, it was her book The Hand That First Held Mine that made me focus my early draft of The Island Child on motherhood. Both the mothers in this novel are very different, one struggling to regain herself with the sleeplessness of caring for a baby and the other wholly independent, the usual stressors of motherhood never touching her. The contrast fascinated and enthralled me.


Molly Aitken was born in Scotland in 1991 and brought up in Ireland. She studied Literature and Classics at Galway University and has an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa. She was shortlisted for Writing Magazine’s fairy tale retelling prize 2016 and has a story in the Irish Imbas 2017 Short Story Collection. Currently, she works as an editor and ghostwriter and lives in Sheffield. The Island Child is her debut novel.