Stories About Mother-Son Relationships
Keisha Bush, author of "No Heaven For Good Boys," recommends books, movies, and albums on the bond between boys and their moms
The mother and son relationship is complex—fraught with pain, hurt, love and triumph.
In my debut novel, No Heaven For Good Boys, the protagonist’s mother, Maimouna, loves all of her children—but when her only son, Ibrahimah, is taken from her, she spirals into a sea of hopelessness and depression. Maimouna and Ibrahimah’s journey is hard and painful, and the entire family struggles to weather the storm, but with love and perseverance, they are both able to find their way back to the path of hope and faith. Love, not hate, saves both mother and son, and offers a lesson for us all in these stricken times.
In the stories below, mothers and sons do not always prevail over the obstacles, but for most, it is love that illuminates the path to redemption. Maternal love is the elixir, of sorts, for the grief that can too often define the stories of our lives.
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
In this narrative, a son is trying to grow into a man, and his mother, forced to carry the burden of the strong Black woman, struggles to release the reins for fear that her son is not ready to face the harsh repercussions of an unjust world. When his mother finally loosens her tight grip, the son learns that being a Black man in America requires more pain than he anticipated.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
This novel, structured as a son’s letter to his mother, pulls the reader headfirst into the complicated experience of coming of age with a broken parent. Vuong explores how generational trauma and pain—in this case, the Vietnam War—are handed down from parent to child. The experiences of his mother become his own, so much so that he cannot say where the wounds of his mother’s body end and the wounds of his own begin.
Maps by John Freeman
Freeman’s poems weave through time and space, heart and emotion, in a constant flow of dualities and multitudes. To cause pain and receive pain. To lose what we hold dear, only to one day be the one someone else loses. Is it one’s duty to participate in the acquisition and loss of things and people we hold most dear? Freeman grapples with this question throughout this epic journey that centers around the life and loss of his mother, reinforcing that the love of a son for his mother is boundless and complicated.
Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
This time-travel story traces the complicated shared history of mother, son, and great-great-great-granddaughter and the tragedy that lies in wait for them all when love and possession cross boundaries into obsession.
Mama Phife Represents: A Verse Memoir by Cheryl Boyce-Taylor
A mother grapples with the loss of her son, and reflects on motherhood. In the way Maps is an ode to Freeman’s mother, Mama Phife writes to the son she has lost. “Grief is a dangerous widow,” she states and at one point poses the question, “honey when will the sun return?” In the scarce pages of this epic poem, we come to understand and see the writer’s grief in a way that anyone who has lost a loved one can recognize but may have struggled to put into words, and allows the reader to acknowledge that grief is universal and does not play favorites.
The Leaver by Lisa Ko
After his mother disappears, a son searches for understanding of the life he’s supposed to make without her. Raised by a white family, he struggles to make peace with his love for his birth mother, whom he hasn’t seen in ten years, and the ideals and wants of his adoptive mother and father.
American Son, directed by Kenny Leon, screenplay written by Christopher Demos-Brown
The experience of Black motherhood in America is a very specific and solitary terror. In this visceral portrayal of a mother’s love for her Black son, we never need to meet Jamal to know how desperately his mother loves him, how complicated their love is, and the tragedy of that love in an unequal world where not all boys can be boys. Everyone is implicated in this story, as we all should be.
Mother, directed by Tatsushi Ohmorir, screenplay written by Takehiko Minato, Tatsushi Ohmori
Mothers are never without their faults and shortcomings, yet in this story Akiko’s abuse of her son Shuhei is irredeemable. There are no moments of joy or relief in this mother and son story, but their relationship does pose the question of whether or not people who are unfit to care for themselves should be allowed to have children. Akiko is not just irresponsible or erratic—she seems to be suffering from mental illness, needs to be in the care of others, with a long-term treatment plan. The tragic end of this story only solidifies how costly abusive parents are to the greater society, and why the right to procreate needs to be earned.
Ready To Die by The Notorious B.I.G.
The Notorious B.I.G. weaves a tale of growing up poor, Black, and male in America, but throughout so many of these tracks is his relationship with his mother, who raised him on her own. Through the days of thugging, feelings of depression and hopefulness, and the shine of celebrity, the listener cannot deny that Biggie’s mother was a rock in his life and that he loved her dearly. His premature death felt by so many fans across the world can never compare to what his mother felt losing her child.