11 Novels That Expectant Parents Should Read Instead of Parenting Books

I read two books explicitly written for expectant parents when I was pregnant. The first was a worn paperback lent to me by my doula, which, through unflinching detail, prepared me for the natural childbirth experience I did not end up having. The second was a dense guide to caring for children from infancy through toddlerhood and featured concepts that were as abstract to me as quantum physics at a time when I couldn’t even imagine how my first hour as a mother was supposed to play out. Nearly two years into parenthood, I can see that these books were both too specific to prepare me for what I ended up encountering and too generalized to grasp before I even had a look at my own son’s face.

If Marilynne Robinson says that “fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification,” then maybe reading about fictional families is a more effective (and certainly more entertaining) way to identify and work through an expectant parent’s anxieties. So, save the official handbooks for after the baby arrives and seek out the kind of book that, if you’re like me, has always helped you to make sense of life. Here are some novels that can illuminate common truths about parenthood by exploring the joys, challenges and, often, spectacularly flawed dynamics of the family experience.

we the animals

We the Animals by Justin Torres

If Justin Torres’s We the Animals can teach us anything about parenthood, it is to relish the bright moments of outright joy that, depending on your own circumstances, either outshine the dark ones or, as with the family at the center of this story, flash only occasionally, like a set of eyes in the dark wilderness. In a story dominated by domestic violence and the endless tussling of three rowdy brothers, We the Animals offers a few of these shining moments. I still find myself thinking about their impromptu kitchen dance parties and raucous evening bath routines as I live out my own domestic life.

When the three boys, ages seven to ten, pin down their 24-year-old mother and each one takes his turn blowing raspberries onto her belly, the scene exquisitely captures the intimacy that exists between bodies that were once connected as one. And yet, there is also the knowledge that they are now most definitely disconnected — and that, at least in this home, there is a fine line in every moment between delicacy and danger.

bad marie

Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky

It might seem insensitive to recommend that an expectant mother read a book about a seductive nanny running off to Paris with both the little girl in her charge and the toddler’s father. However, throughout the dark and deceptively slim novel Bad Marie, Marcy Dermansky manages to tease out so many of the more subtle challenges facing new parents and their relationships. It also features one of the most accurate depictions I’ve seen of the intense bond that a caregiver (mother or otherwise) can form with a small child.

white oleander

White Oleander by Janet Fitch

In her masterful and much-celebrated novel White Oleander, Janet Fitch confirms every parent’s dark suspicion that with the responsibility of caring for a child comes the capacity to do tremendous damage. The story of a brilliant imprisoned poet, whose daughter ends up navigating adolescence in the foster care system, explores what it means to be both an artist and a parent — and what, if anything, can redeem the irreparable damage a parent’s choices have caused.

where'd you go, bernadette

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is as funny as people say it is. But through the book’s humor, Maria Semple illustrates a moving portrait of friendship between the eccentric (and now MIA) Bernadette and her teenage daughter, Bee. In trying to solve the mystery of her mother’s disappearance by investigating emails, all manner of official documents and her own memories, Bee helps us to understand their unique bond — from quirky shared tastes and a fierce sense of loyalty, to moments of profound revelation upon discovering each other’s secrets.

more than it hurts you

More Than it Hurts You by Darin Strauss

Darin Strauss’s powerful novel More Than it Hurts You is the kind of book you’ll be glad you finished reading before the arrival of your child, mostly because it might be hard to get through this story after having experienced the fragility and innocence of a baby firsthand. Even Strauss has said (to me, on twitter!) that he doesn’t think he could have written it after having become a father. Told from multiple points of view, the story surrounds a Long Island family’s chronically sick baby boy and the doctor who cares for him. Facing these extreme circumstances, the child’s father, mother and doctor are forced to acknowledge their own best and worst natures and to question the motives of the people they trust the most.

the lowland

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Lahiri’s latest novel follows the vastly different trajectories of two Calcutta-born brothers. In telling their stories, from suspense and tragedy in India to seething domestic turmoil in seaside Rhode Island, The Lowland becomes a story about parental regret, responsibility and the way each character involved decides to reconcile the two.

arcadia

Arcadia by Lauren Groff

Set on a New York commune in the 1970s, Lauren Groff’s Arcadia tells us much about the way the environment we create for our children can affect who they become. Her use of the senses — for instance, the way a young child is intimately familiar with the sounds and scents surrounding his parents — brilliantly illustrates the intense closeness a family can experience. But, in this story, that deep knowledge and dependence can lead to trouble, as the child protagonist discovers when the utopia he has been raised in falls apart and he is confronted with the outside world.

everything i never told you

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

From the start, Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You reveals the unease of a parent discovering her child’s secrets. Not only her secrets, but her capacity to hide anything from her parents in the first place. When her teenage daughter Lydia goes missing, Marilyn Lee remembers having missed seeing Lydia’s first steps as a baby: “The thought that flashed through her mind wasn’t How did I miss it? but What else have you been hiding?” So begins the entire Lee family’s struggle to confront and reveal their own lies as they work toward discovering the truth about Lydia’s disappearance. Ng’s quiet and precise storytelling tugs at the loose threads of a seemingly close-knit suburban family and shows us that even the family next door has its own dark secrets.

california

California by Edan Lepucki

Edan Lepucki’s debut novel California has been lauded as a fierce and original take on the post-apocalypse, but a lesser discussed quality of the book is Lepucki’s capacity for honestly rendering the uncertainty that an expectant mother feels, whether she’s confronting imminent threat in the face of post-apocalyptic disorder or just feeling general unease about raising a person in contemporary, not-burned-to-the-ground Los Angeles (see also: Lepucki’s novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me). Set in a dangerous and uncertain world, California looks at the role that community plays in the lives of individual families, and at the choices parents must make, even at the risk of isolating themselves from that community.

sula

Sula by Toni Morrison

I will never forget the moment in Toni Morrison’s Sula when a young mother attempts to relieve her constipated baby by sticking her finger up the baby’s butt to release the buildup of nuggets that has been blocking him. If that description made you uncomfortable, well, it won’t be long before you’re as well versed in baby bowel movements as your most obnoxious parent-friend on Facebook. And you’ll learn soon enough that, as that scene proves, you do what you have to do to take care of your kids.

Morrison’s slim, powerful and often overlooked novel traces the lives of two black girls in small town Ohio. Though the main thread of the story is not specific to parenting, in reading about the struggles and choices that these characters face, we come away with a better understanding of what it means to be human. Which can’t help but make us more thoughtful partners and parents.

panorama city

Panorama City by Antoine Wilson

Antoine Wilson’s Panorama City, told by the impossibly loveable Oppen Porter through tape recordings made for his unborn son, is a study in parental love and sacrifice. A self-described “slow absorber,” 28-year-old Oppen has always been an easy target, but when he discovers that he is going to be a father, he sets out on a quest of self-discovery that ends up revealing the complex intentions of the adults who’ve cared for him throughout his journey. His bumbling yet, often surprisingly wise, efforts to turn himself into a “man of the world” for the sake of his child display a wide-eyed hopefulness that can teach us a lot about the level of dedication it requires to take on the responsibility of parenthood.

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