7 Thrillers That Explore the Dark Side of Motherhood

Sleepless nights can be more terrifying than anything from the horror shelves

Photo by Shadi on Unsplash

Like so many, I never truly understood the dark side of motherhood until I went through it myself. After a complicated pregnancy and a traumatic birth, my daughter burst onto the scene just a few months ahead of a global pandemic. In those early weeks and months, like so many new mothers, I found myself struggling to adapt to sleepless nights and the trials of new motherhood, and was at a loss trying to feel all the feelings I knew I was “supposed” to have. A writer through and through, I was determined to turn these feelings into my next book. After all, I write thrillers, and any mother knows that some of those raw and tender sleepless nights can be more terrifying than nearly anything we grab from the horror shelves. 

You Should Have Told Me follows Janie, who is struggling to adapt to life with a six-week-old infant. Her baby won’t sleep, she’s not feeling any of the “right” feelings, and a secret she’s keeping from her partner, Max, threatens to tear her new family apart. So when warm, doting Max helpfully offers to do all the feedings for the night so Janie can catch up on some sleep, she jumps at the chance. But at three a.m., she wakes to the sound of her daughter screaming. She finds her alone in her crib, diaper unchanged, fussing and writhing—Max is gone. As Janie cares for her daughter alone and tries desperately to uncover the secrets of Max’s disappearance, a terrifying new development shakes her world even further: a woman in town has been murdered, and the police think Max may have had something to do with it. 

To celebrate You Should Have Told Me’s release, here are some of my favorite thrillers that explore the darker side of motherhood.

The Upstairs House by Julia Fine

A ghost story—or is it?—that cuts to the very heart of motherhood, The Upstairs House centers Megan, a postpartum woman who finds herself both psychologically unravelling and guilt-wracked over her unfinished thesis about children’s literature. Struggling to care for her newborn largely alone while her husband travels for work, one day, Megan discovers the ghost of beloved children’s book author, Margaret Wise Brown, and her lover, Michael, who move into a “house” upstairs that only Megan can see. Megan’s psychological break is peppered with nods to Goodnight Moon—her first vision is that of a single red balloon in her labor and delivery room—and as we delve deeper into Megan’s psyche, and those upstairs ghosts, Fine’s superb writing and characterization forces us to reckon with the pressures we put on mothers and a horrifying lack of societal support. 

More Than You’ll Ever Know by Katie Gutierrez

A rich thriller set both in modern-day Texas and 1980s Mexico City, More Than You’ll Ever Know follows Lore, a woman who creates a complex double life by marrying Andres in Mexico City after she’s already been married—and had children—with Fabian in Laredo, Texas. When Andres comes to Texas and exposes Lore’s secrets, he turns up dead in his hotel room—and decades later, a journalist, Cassie, begins attempting to uncover the long-buried secrets. While the murder and fallout rushes the plot ahead, Lore’s relationship with her own teenage twins, as well as Andres’ children, in addition to Cassie’s pseudo-maternal relationship with her much-younger brother create the real heart of the story. This page-turning thriller is a deft exploration of motherhood in all its forms.

The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan

A dystopian thriller about the pressures society—and in this case, the state—put on motherhood, The School for Good Mothers follows Frida, a Chinese American woman who is struggling to keep it together with her career languishing and her marriage falling apart. A single mistake—leaving her one-year-old daughter home alone for a few hours—turns into a Big Brother-esque nightmare when the government enrolls her in an assessment program to determine her worth as a mother—with Frida risking losing Harriet if she can’t prove her worth.

Just Like Mother by Anne Heltzel

A modern nod to Rosemary’s Baby with a decidedly feminist slant, Just Like Mother follows Maeve and her cousin, Andrea, two children raised in a bizarre cult who reunite in New York City and the Catskills as adults. Maeve is stressed-out and living in a cramped apartment, with a limited social life, a taxing job, and no family ties, and so she naturally she jumps at an invite from Andrea and her husband to spend some time in their sweeping upstate mansion. But the time Maeve spends with Andrea, who runs a fertility industry startup and is currently working on a creepy AI baby doll for prospective and grieving parents, the more she gets the sense that something is off with Andrea and her baby-obsessed friends. As we dive deeper into Maeve’s present—and cultish past—Heltzel brilliantly explores the intense pressure on women to become mothers.

Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder

Another story about a husband regularly travelling for work (a true horror with a young child!), Nightbitch follows a character only named as “mother,” an artist who gave up her career to be a stay-at-home mom and two years on is struggling to adapt as she cares for “the boy,” almost entirely on her own. When one day, she steps into the bathroom to find a dense patch of hair on the back of her nape—er, neck—she gradually comes to believe she is turning into a dog. This body-horror-cum-motherhood-thriller becomes even darker and more howlingly hysterical as we reckon with the fact that the protagonist is a better—and happier—mother as a dog, than she ever was as a human.

The Push by Ashley Audrain

The Push follows Blythe, a warm and doting woman who is set out to be the kind of mother to her own child, Violet, that she never had. But as time goes on, Blythe becomes convinced that something is very wrong with Violet. Is it all in her head, as her husband, Fox, keeps saying, or could Violet actually be growing into a dangerous and violent child? When Blythe has another child, Sam, she’s flooded with the maternal feelings she never had with Violet. But when a terrible tragedy strikes the family, Blythe is forced to confront everything she thought she knew about her own past, her daughter, and her tenuous path forward as a mother to Violet. 

Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

Yet another tome where a mother has an intuitive feeling about her child and is quickly dismissed by her husband, Baby Teeth is a modern nod to the horror classic, The Bad Seed. The novel follows Suzette and her seven-year-old daughter Hanna, and their strained and oftentimes scary relationship. Hanna has been expelled from nearly every school she’s attended, and while she’s sweet and largely silent around her father, during homeschooling with her mother, she engages in increasingly sadistic games, to the point that Suzette begins to question whether her child wants to actually get rid of her. Is Suzette dreaming this up, as her husband seems to think, or does her own child actually have it out for her? Baby Teeth forces us to confront pressures and challenges of motherhood when the mother-child dynamic is anything but beatific.

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