What was once considered the archetypical American household—a mom and dad of the same racial or ethnic background and in their first marriage, providing care and stability for their 2.2 offspring—is now far from the norm. Life choices that decades ago would have been scandalous or illegal, such as divorce, or interracial or same-sex marriage, are now more acceptable and also protected by law. Women, queer people, and others with marginalized identities, especially, have benefitted from these shifts. This is all to say: as family structures have changed, so too has parenting, and so have books for caregivers and about caregiving.
PW spoke with authors and editors about forthcoming titles that sit at the intersections of parenting, gender, and feminism.
In The Other Mothers (Sourcebooks, Feb.), Jennifer Berney, who teaches writing at South Puget Sound Community College in Washington, braids together the story of her efforts to have a child with her wife and the history of queer family making and sperm donation. She places the history of fertility, and a condemnation of what she calls the “patriarchal medical community,” at the center of her narrative, in one among several books that use memoir to confront still-dominant binaries of parenting.
Artist and cartoonist Shira Spector, a self-described “high-femme, low income, non-biological Jewish mom, dyke drama queen, and ectopic pregnancy survivor,” also tackles infertility in her debut graphic memoir, Red Rock Baby Candy (Fantagraphics, Mar.). Spanning a decade of her life, the book encompasses secondary infertility, pregnancy loss, and her father’s terminal cancer diagnosis.
“I was looking for support; I was looking for company,” Spector says. “And I only was finding highly sentimentalized, high-religious expressions of grief. There was a place where people could talk about ‘angel babies,’ but that wasn’t for me. I made the book to put into the world what I was so badly missing.”
Spector also addresses the taboos around infertility that she found in the queer communities she was operating in. “There was a lot of positive image stuff about families, understandably so, by people who have experienced so much discrimination, violence, and harassment, and haven’t been able to start families,” she says. Even so, she recalls thinking at the time: “My reproductive system isn’t working—why is there so much silence?” The book juxtaposes black-and-white and full-color spreads, and, she says, disrupts the traditional comics panel structure. “Sometimes the grid is there, sometimes it isn’t. It was fun to follow what the story demanded.”
Three Dads and a Baby by Ian Jenkins (Cleis, Mar.) relates the story of the author’s family, which set legal precedent in becoming the first polyamorous family in California to be named as the legal parents of a child. The book emphasizes how much the three fathers owed to women in the process. “Women did all the hard work,” says Jenkins, a physician in San Diego, referring to their egg donor and their gestational surrogate. He hopes the book offers some understanding of the lives of polyamorous families.
“We’re glad that other people will have such rights,” Jenkins says. “There are lots of people out there who live polyamorous lives and may not have had legal protection. We’re in the long line of families that are changing the definition of family.”
Krys Malcolm Belc considers his identity as a nonbinary, transmasculine gestational parent in the memoir The Natural Mother of the Child (Counterpoint, June). Though his physical experience—conceiving, birthing, and feeding—is atypical, other aspects are more universal. Citing titles including Motherhood by Sheila Heti and The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling, Belc says, “Those are books that are talking about the same things that I’m talking about, just with a slightly different lens.” (See our q&a with Belc, “Legitimate Experiences.”)
Boys to men
Gender features prominently in other forthcoming titles, including those that center on the feminist expectations of the modern-day father and the challenges and triumphs of raising boys right now.
In Father Figure (Little, Brown Spark, May), Jordan Shapiro, senior fellow for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and nonresident fellow in the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution, punctures outdated media narratives and uses sociology, economics, and gender studies research, as well as his experiences as a divorced father, to upend traditional assumptions about fathers and fatherhood. “I discovered so many of the things that we venerate as the identity markers of what it means to be a ‘good dad’ are also perpetuating horrible patriarchal and misogynistic practices and habits of mind,” he says. “The goal [of the book] is to help men navigate this moment when we’re renegotiating our attitudes around gender, but also giving men all this messaging that doesn’t fit. There’s a lot of unconscious tension there.”
Rob Sturrock leans on personal experience to shine light on similar territory in Man Raises Boy (Allen & Unwin, Apr.), which is part memoir, part manifesto for fathers hoping to raise feminist boys. Sturrock, who advocates for paid parental leave, universal childcare, and gender equality in his home country of Australia, draws on research and interviews to provide a portrait of present-day masculinity.
Women, too, are invested in the well-being of boys and men. In To Raise a Boy (Atria, Mar.), Emma Brown, an investigative reporter at the Washington Post, casts a wide net: shortly after the birth of her son, she interviewed hundreds of people across the country in an effort to understand the systems that shape American masculinity. Brown, best known as the reporter who broke the Christine Blasey Ford story, illuminates what she frames as an ongoing physical and mental health crisis and, PW’s starred review said, suggests concrete steps toward betterment: “Readers will leave this book inspired by Brown’s vision.”
Sonara Jha’s How to Raise a Feminist Son (Sasquach, Apr.) brings additional layers to conversations around this topic. A novelist and journalism professor, Jha is also an immigrant, South Asian, and a single mother, and her perspective as a woman of color informs her book. She questions what it means to mother a boy, and shares her story of trying, failing, and finally succeeding in raising a feminist son.
“The cross-cultural piece [is] really important,” Jha says. “What does it mean to raise a feminist son, to yank him out of India from a very deep-rooted, caste-based patriarchal culture, and then raise a brown-skinned boy in racist America? I wanted to unravel those intersections.”
Jha intends for the guide to serve as a workbook, with chapter takeaways and resource lists for further reading and viewing. It’s “also a love story,” she says. “If you embrace a feminist way of living, there’s more tenderness, love, and laughter, and I wanted to show that. Life is so much better for boys and men if we rescue them from toxic masculinity.”
Janice Johnson Dias is a professor of sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and cofounder of GrassRoots Community Foundation and its SuperCamp for girls; her daughter, 16-year-old Marley Dias, launched the #1000BlackGirlBooks book drive in 2017. In Parent Like It Matters (Ballantine, Mar.), Johnson Dias incorporates her research on Black girls’ and women’s mental, sexual, and physical health issues and her experience raising a Black daughter in predominantly white spaces. “If you want to raise joyful, change-making girls, you have to be a joyful, change-making parent,” she says. “Your investment has to start with yourself and modeling for your girls what you want to see.”
Johnson Dias offers research and proposes strategies, including curricula and exercises at the end of each chapter. “Folks can pick it up and try a thing, and decide that’s not for them and try another thing,” she says. “It’s about trying to do your part to contribute to a socially just world through the way you’re living daily.”
Other books, too, focus on educating and empowering caregivers, and provide additional social justice frameworks.
In March, Green Writers Press, an independent publisher in Vermont, is releasing Parenting for Social Justice, which grew out of coauthor Angela Berkfield’s workshop of the same name. She and her co-contributors—Chrissy Colón Bradt, Abigail Healey, Jaimie Lynn Kessell, Rowan Parker, and Leila Raven—use their combined experience as educators, activists, and parents to propose conversation starters and activities intended to address issues of race, class, gender, and more with children up to age 10. The text incorporates illustrative stories from a diverse selection of families across the United States.
Woke Parenting, which Microcosm will release in April, collects previously published zines plus new materials by therapists Faith Harper and Bonnie Scott. The book addresses weighty topics, such as economic inequality, police brutality, white nationalism, and the climate crisis. “The book doesn’t assume that parents had a ‘woke’ upbringing,” says Lydia Rogue, editorial associate at Microcosm. “It’s not about teaching your kids to say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ but more about giving parents the tools to learn more about these things, such as how the police state functions, and how to have these conversations with their children.”
Creating Cultures of Consent (Rowman & Littlefield, Apr.) by sexologist Laura McGuire aims to challenge how parents and educators understand sexuality and, ultimately, to prevent sexual violence. She envisions a culture in which consent is the norm for sexual expression; she provides tools to help adults unlearn popular cultural narratives, then offers action-oriented guidelines for teaching consent via conversations, curricula, and community activism.
Chris Tompkins, a life coach, initially wrote Raising LGBTQ Allies (Rowman & Littlefield, May) as a guidebook for his family: he found they were unintentionally relaying subtle homophobic or transphobic messages to younger members. “I was seeing these patterns,” he says. “What started out as a letter to my family became a TEDx talk, and now a book.”
Tompkins urges caregivers to head off homophobia, transphobia, and bullying around issues of identity before they begin, providing scripts for discomforting conversations and suggesting that parents lead with empathy and self-awareness. “My hope is for readers to incorporate the concepts from the book in their own life before they pass them along,” he says. “It encourages them to have open and honest conversations not only with their children, but with themselves. We can only take others as far as we’ve gone ourselves.”
Pooja Makhijani is a writer and editor in New Jersey.
Below, more on parenting books.
Legitimate Experiences: PW Talks with Krys Malcolm Belc
The author of ‘The Natural Mother of the Child’ (Counterpoint, June) describes what it means to be “not a mom, and not in the fatherhood realm.”
Mom’s the Word: New Parenting Books 2021
These books send out a lifeline to women caregivers.