8 Books About the Lives of Single Mothers

Kelly McMasters, author of "The Leaving Season," recommends stories about both the joys and the struggles of single parenthood

A mother wearing a pink jacket walks with her daughter down a nature trail.
Photo by James Wheeler via Unsplash

When I first became a single mother, I hid it from everyone, including myself. In my new book, The Leaving Season: A Memoir in Essays, I track the evolution of my relationship with motherhood, starting as a reluctant mother of two in a married household and ultimately ending as a single mother in suburbia (I openly considered this my personal nightmare for most of my youth, but I’m slowly coming around). Throughout the book, everything I thought I knew gets blown apart, including my belief that I am not a natural mother, or that there even is such a thing.

The stereotype of single mothers is one that reeks of shame and desperation. I knew there was more to that story, but it took me a long time to realize that I was a part of that cliché. I’ve since worked to search out stories of single motherhood that feel more nuanced, intellectual, and, even, joyful. There is plenty of complication and darkness—although single motherhood was a revelation for me personally, there is nothing about any kind of motherhood that is easy or uncomplicated. 

Here are a few books that delve into the life of single mothers, both fictional and real:

How to Raise a Feminist Son: Motherhood, Masculinity, and the Making of My Family by Sonora Jha

Sonora Jha is a single, immigrant mother who uses her own hopes and fears surrounding the possibility of raising a feminist son in America to reflect on the stories we tell each other about gender, violence, and love. Jha takes a hard look and offers clear-eyed and realistic blueprints for including social justice and feminist practices into everyday parenting in an effort to help build the next generation of men. She has a ferocious intellect, unstoppable warmth and generosity, and an uncompromising vision. The gorgeous mix of personal story and reporting makes the stakes of this narrative so intense that it becomes about so much more than mothers and sons.

Operating Instructions: A Journal of my Son’s First Year by Anne Lamott

In her mid-30s, Lamott has a child on her own, and the book is a chronicle of the very real mix of dark and light that is life with a newborn, from unending colic nights to the crack of your chest expanding from the overwhelming amount of sheer love. Even in the midst of chaos, she manages to find warmth and humor.  Lamott’s vulnerability with her struggles with sobriety, her brand of honesty and self-deprecation, and playfulness are what makes her book such a compelling read.

Animal: A Novel by Lisa Taddeo

A thriller and wild romp, we follow the protagonist, Joan, as she at once self-destructs and resurrects in the Los Angeles hills, where she has escaped to after a long history of being used and abused following a tony but tragic youth. While predatory men and a culture of sexualizing women are the focus, Joan is ultimately complicit in unexpected and difficult ways. I cannot give the full reason why I’m including this book in the roundup without giving away too much of the plot, but suffice to say that ultimately the heady mix of female rage, burning love, and cracked open desire is deeply redolent of the most animal parts of motherhood.  

Galatea: A Short Story by Madeline Miller

As with Miller’s other masterful stories, Galatea is a feminist retelling of an accepted Greek myth, in this case tracing the story of the sculptor Pygmalion who creates his perfect woman in marble. After a blessing from a goddess, the sculpture comes to life, but Pygmalion soon boils over with rage when he realizes that by breathing life into her stone beauty, his creation now also has a mind of her own with desires and independent thought. After giving birth to their child, Galatea can no longer pretend to be submissive and obedient, understanding that unless she leaves, she is locking her own daughter into a cycle of thwarted independence. Galatea breaks free, working to build a beautiful life alone with her child, for a period. This tiny book (all of 64 pages) feels giant, with characters who dig their talons into you and refuse to let go.

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw

When this collection blazed onto the scene in 2020, it won every award possible, putting West Virginia University Press on the map. The nine stories in this shatteringly beautiful collection are all part of a loosely interconnected galaxy in which Black women and girls move through kitchens, bedrooms, and back parking lots, searching for, and often finding, desire, agency, religion, and care. In the“Peach Cobbler,” a single mother is observed through her teenage daughter’s eyes, handing down her family recipe for the dessert, as well as much more than she intends. 

The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan

Chan’s inspiration for this novel came from a real-life news story about a mother who left her child home alone to go to work and lost custody as a result. Frida Liu, the main character in this hauntingly incredible novel, also risks losing custody of her child to her ex-husband and his hyper-perfect younger mistress after a similar incident. She enters into a dystopian government reform program in an attempt to prove that she can become a “good mother” in the eyes of the state. It’s a kind of Margaret Atwood meets Octavia Butler-esque twist, but unfortunately, this commentary on the sacrifices and hard choices mothers are forced to make every day between providing for and caring for their children feels disturbingly realistic.

The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

After 15 years of marriage, Olga’s husband abandons her and their young children one summer during a stifling heat wave in Italy. Throughout their marriage, her husband shaped Olga’s personality and choices, so much so that when he leaves she no longer knows who she is anymore in his absence. As the story unfolds, and she struggles to continue to care for the children while moving through the black hole of devastation that threatens to engulf her, Ferrante allows the reader such an intense and intimate look into Olga’s mind as she comes to terms with her new reality, and the claustrophobia of caring for children is heightened when the three of them become stuck in their high rise as Olga begins to unravel. Ultimately, Olga comes to understand it is not she who has been abandoned, but is the one who did the abandoning long ago, and Ferrante allows us to view a woman returning to herself: “He wasn’t even a fragment of the past, he was only a stain, like the print of a hand left years ago on a wall.”

Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City by Jane Wong

Poet Jane Wong’s gorgeous memoir functions as a love song to her mother. This bi-coastal story flips between Wong’s childhood in New Jersey lived primarily in the family’s Chinese American restaurant and her adulthood as an academic in the Pacific Northwest. Wong’s portrait of her postal worker mother is blazingly beautiful, even and especially after her father abandons the family, disappearing into a gambling addiction. Although there is despair and heartbreak, the resounding note here is one of joy, resilience, and beauty.

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