Books to help you deal with unrequited love

How does pregnancy feel? Like the worst hangover of your life, wearing too-tight trousers, permanently haunted by the mouth-ghost of cheese and onion crisps, with PMT and during a heatwave.

How does pregnancy feel? Like your body is an island, the shore lapping against your ribs, your pelvis, your bladder, your belly; a volcano gathering beneath your skin and the unpregnant mainland just a speck on your horizon.

How does pregnancy feel? Like being ushered into a private party, surrounded by the soft, whispering excitement of a backstage knees up, like being a ship in full sail, like being in a timeshare with the blood and bones your mother gave you, like the morning after an all-nighter, like a bloated and fly-blown fish washed up on the shore, like temporary entry into the pantheon of milk and honey, like a rubber band stretched across the flies of your old jeans.

Every pregnancy for every parent is unique, impossible to predict, hard to describe and utterly their own. And yet, pregnancy and parenthood is also the great shared portal that transports you instantly and significantly to millions of people all over the world. As a pregnant person you have a shortcut into the very bodies, brains and behaviour of people in Nicaragua, California, Nigeria, Bolivia, Coventry and Bangor.

No wonder, then, that pregnancy has provided literary inspiration for writers for centuries. When I was five months pregnant and struggling to zip up my work trousers, I used to think longingly of the soft, comfortable, practical uni-garment full of folds and pockets described over a century ago by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in her 1915 utopian novella Herland. When all around you are discussing trainers, beer, films and football with an almost religious gravitas, being pregnant can often feel like being part of a remote Victorian tribe, found days up a slow river in the middle of verdant green secrecy.

And yet, on other days, it will appear that everyone in the world is pregnant. In Sheila Heti’s 2018 novel Motherhood, the protagonist spends three years grappling with the very ubiquity of motherhood as a life choice. She questions this "sentimental gesture", wonders if it is ever possible to achieve your creative ambitions and raise a child and asks if that is really a woman’s lot while nevertheless being drawn to the strange magic of pregnancy and childbirth.

In fact, over the past five years, a fantastic number of books have been written about the maddening stage before pregnancy – about the decision to have a baby, the difficult attempts to have a baby, the responsibility of having a baby, the role of luck in having a baby. Adrift: Field Notes from Almost-Motherhood by Miranda Ward, which will be released in January, is a poignant, honest and detailed account of the five years the author spent trying to get pregnant, through miscarriage, expectation, ectopic pregnancy, hope and grief. It brings into the light an experience too-often spoken of in quiet corners or not at all.

In her memoir The Hungover Games, Sophie Heawood has rather the opposite problem, with motherhood landing unexpectedly in her lap. This funny and revealing memoir about becoming a single parent takes in Heawood's adventures in LA, the power of love and how it feels to step off the narrow path described by most parenting manuals is a brilliant reminder for any expectant parents of what matters and what simply does not.

Meanwhile, Candice Brathwaite’s I Am Not Your Baby Mother is a clarion call to all parents, but particularly parents of colour, to challenge the pale, stale and rather frail version of parenthood we are sold, taught and pushed towards.

Of course, women are not the only people who prepare for parenthood by reading. In his wonderful memoir Brown Baby, the author and editor Nikesh Shukla creates a sometimes beautiful, sometimes painful picture of how he became a father after losing his own mother.

Through long walks through his new hometown of Bristol with his tiny daughter strapped to his chest in a sling, through the endless nights of gritty-eyed sleeplessness, through the social dislocation and multicoloured wonder of early parenting, we watch Shulka metamorphose into a father on the page. The book is also an important manifesto for how to raise a brown child in racist world; to be read by parents of every race.

If you want an unfettered, Lego-scattered, pasta-pocked, laundry-addled view of parenthood, Clover Stroud’s My Wild and Sleepless Nights gives a rich and detailed insight into the sheer prosaic work of raising children. Written after the birth of her fifth child, and as her eldest son turned 18, it is gloriously direct on everything from breastfeeding, sleepless nights, mess, the hard-edged lust of a post-natal woman, short-term memory loss and the pull of the wild, outside world.

Talking of the wild and womanly world outside, Salt On Your Tongue by Charlotte Runcie takes a lyrical look at the mythology, mystery and magic of women and the sea. Largely written with Runcie’s daughter strapped to her chest in a sling in those heady early months of motherhood, the book is full of rich and detailed research as well as tiny slivers of autobiography and her native Scotland.

With her background as a poet, Runcie’s book would find a perfect partner in Hollie McNish’s Nobody Told Me; a collection of poems and stories about the journey into modern parenthood that is as digestible as it is beguiling.

And if you prefer your creation tales a little more dystopian, there are plenty of depictions of parenthood that will, at the very least, make you appreciate where you got off lightly. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein spring to mind...

What did you think of this article? Let us know by emailing editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk.

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