Mothers & Others | Memoir

This month, just ahead of Mother’s Day, we have memoirs about mothers and mothering. Each of these writers sheds light on a different facet of female experience, of making courageous and unconventional choices on both small and large scales. It’s also time for me to say goodbye, because this will be my last memoir column. I can honestly say that it’s been a delight to read some truly wonderful memoirs, though now I am looking forward to catching up on my fiction reading lists!

Brockes, Emma. An Excellent Choice: Panic and Joy on My Solo Path to Motherhood. Penguin Pr. Jun. 2018. 304p. ISBN 9781594206634. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780698402621. MEMOIR
Brockes dives head first down the fertility rabbit hole and takes readers along, voicing her frustrations, hopes, and disappointments with humor and frankness. Many women experience fertility issues; many women who attempt to conceive are in same-sex relationships; many single women pursue pregnancy; many women use donor sperm. What sets Brockes apart is that she is all of these women—her account falls into a very specific Venn diagram of human experience. As a Brit, Brockes has great insights into the American health-care system, from fertility medicine to childbirth to postnatal care. Her narrative also incorporates her unconventional relationship, which is refreshing on many levels—she and her partner live apart, in separate apartments in the same building. Brockes answers the nosy question that busybodies tend to ask gay mothers: “How did you get pregnant?” VERDICT Informative, funny, and candid reading for anyone considering an unconventional approach to parenting. [See Prepub Alert, 1/8/18.]

Hanchett, Janelle. I’m Just Happy To Be Here: A Memoir of Renegade Mothering. Hachette. May 2018. 320p. ISBN 9780316503778. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780316549431. MEMOIR
So often, motherhood and parenthood are held up as the things that will change your life, elevate your experience, and help you become a better person. Renegade Mothering blogger Hanchett here demonstrates how the overidealization of modern family life makes it difficult to emerge from a damaging cycle of addiction. When she gets pregnant as a college student, she and her boyfriend decide to have the baby and form a family. Things go well for a while, but as Hanchett feels increasingly isolated and detached from her support networks, she begins to experiment with alcohol for self-medication. This quickly spirals into addiction and becomes the most reliable way of coping with relationship, work, and life stress. The author eventually commits to a process of recovery, after trying several times. Her story is about self-redemption—Hanchett successfully completes recovery not for or because of her children but for herself. VERDICT An inspiring message about recovery that resonates through its emphasis on the imperfect progress of life.

Levy, Deborah. The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography. Bloomsbury Pr. Jul. 2018. 144p. ISBN 9781635571912. $20; ebk. ISBN 9781635571929. MEMOIR
London-based author (Hot Milk; Swimming Home) Levy uses themes of voice, silence, space, and names to illustrate the many ways that women’s self-expression is interrupted and overruled by the demands of spouses and children and by male privilege in general. These broad motifs are set against the events in Levy’s own life. After her divorce, Levy and her ex-husband sell their home, which had enough space for them and their daughters, and Levy moves with her children to an apartment with temperamental plumbing and drafty windows. This new arrangement doesn’t provide Levy with the space to write, a serious drawback for an author. But Levy’s network of friends bolster her confidence during this difficult time; one of them offers her a shed to use for writing. VERDICT Levy demonstrates the intrinsic need for “a room of one’s own” in this beautiful yet damning indictment of how our culture effaces women’s creative voices, both directly and insidiously.

O’Connell, Meaghan. And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready. Little, Brown. Apr. 2018. 240p. ISBN 9780316393843. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780316393836. MEMOIR
Imagine the perfect New York City life: you have friends, a strong relationship, a job you enjoy, enough disposable income to dine at restaurants and bars, and you’re happy. Now imagine you find out that you’re unexpectedly pregnant. Over the course of your pregnancy and during the early days of parenthood, you come to realize that your life suddenly no longer seems perfect. In fact, parenthood and what you’ve come to relish about city living are at odds with each other. This is what happens to O’Connell, who discusses here the actions she takes to make the transition to parenthood easier and to feel like a whole human being again: yoga, day care, making friends who understand the challenges of parenthood, seeking out professional opportunities, and a drastic life change. Ultimately, O’Connell’s narrative is about the efforts required to ensure that one’s sense of self isn’t consumed by an infant’s constant needs. VERDICT O’Connell’s writing is sharp, funny, and insightful and holds wide appeal for all readers, parents or not.

redstar Painter, Nell. Old In Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over. Counterpoint. Jun. 2018. 352p. photos. ISBN 9781640090613. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781640090620. MEMOIR
Painter (Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita, Princeton Univ.) chronicles her experience of returning to art school as an older African American woman with honest and elegant prose. Her narrative weaves expertly among her art school experience, family upbringing, the loss of her mother, caring for her father at a distance, and art itself. Ever the professor, she educates readers on creative techniques, well- and lesser-known artists of note, as well as the potentially damaging subculture of art school. Painter brings her identity to bear on her story—this experience is formative, as are the generational differences between herself and her classmates. She also lasers in on the privilege of race that her fellow students and teachers enjoy. The author’s own works appear throughout, so readers see her develop as an artist. She explains the processes she employs, as well as her philosophical approach to themes and medium, providing glimpses of an artist’s internal workings. VERDICT Painter’s memoir presents her as an accessible artist, warm and inviting and keen to share her hard-won insights into her craft. [See “Editors’ Spring Picks,” LJ 2/1/18.]

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Rachael Dreyer About Rachael Dreyer

Rachael is currently the Head of Research Services for the Eberly Family Special Collections Library at the Pennsylvania State University. If she's not at work or reading, she's probably binge-watching bad TV, trying out some recipe with ingredients she can't pronounce, or getting lost on a new hiking trail. She's a fan of farmer's markets, strong coffee, and unconventionally attractive dogs.

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