Rachel Cusk, Joan Didion, Louise Erdrich, Anne Lamott: some of the most recognizable names in contemporary Western literature have written about their experiences of parenthood. As a form, the parenting memoir remains popular and continues to evolve; PW spoke with authors and editors about how their forthcoming books fit into and expand the genre.
Enduring topics in memoir—illness, grief, disability—recur in parenting accounts, too. In Little Earthquakes (Harper, Apr.), clinical psychologist Sarah Mandel excavates her feelings around concurrent events: the birth of her second child and a stage IV breast cancer diagnosis. As a therapist, Mandel specializes in trauma work and using narrative therapy, a form of psychotherapy that helps patients externalize their issues; the book models how Mandel applied those treatments to ease her own pain.
Other books detail how parents cope with their children’s health challenges. Megan Nix describes her forthcoming debut, Remedies for Sorrow (Doubleday, Apr.), as both memoir and advocacy. When Nix was pregnant with her second child, she sensed that something was different. Then, “when Anna was born, she was completely silent and noticeably small,” she says. “The hospital sent me home with a four-pound child with no diagnosis whatsoever.” Nix finally received clarity 10 days later, when the child’s pediatrician identified a little-known virus called cytomegalovirus, or CMV, as the source of Anna’s disabilities—she was born deaf and could face lifelong delays. Nix’s daughter’s diagnosis led her down a research rabbit hole; what she uncovered is, in essence, this book.
“There was no narrative of what it was like to have a silent child born into the silence of the obstetrical industry and how that played out in motherhood,” Nix says. “The real question is, how can we improve medicine? How can we prevent a life-threatening disease through humane treatment of people before and while they’re pregnant?”
Zig-Zag Boy by Tanya Frank (Norton, Feb.) began as an essay in the New York Times, titled “Unmoored by a Psychotic Break,” in which the author finds her 19-year-old son rewiring a landline phone because he believes it’s bugged. Her book is about what followed: how she navigated the medical industrial complex in the U.S. and U.K. and dealt with societal prejudices around mental illness.
Wings to fly
Parenting memoirs typically cover the early stages—pregnancy, birth, early childhood—but a few this season focus on the author’s experiences with a child nearing adulthood. Zig-Zag Boy is one; It. Goes. So. Fast. by Mary Louise Kelly (Holt, Apr.) is another. A cohost of NPR’s All Things Considered, Kelly reflects on the year before her older son, James, left for college—that same year, she turned 50 and lost her father. There are “a million well-meaning books about the juggle and work-life balance and leaning in and leaning out and how you can have it all but maybe not all at once,” Kelly writes in the book’s introduction. “The tug is just as strong when your baby is seventeen as when he is seven weeks or seven months.” With It. Goes. So. Fast., she aspires to make visible parenting’s third act—often a time of both loss and celebration.
Andrew McCarthy, whose previous memoir, Brat, covered his life as a young actor in 1980s Hollywood, treks 500 miles across Spain’s Camino de Santiago with his adult son in Walking with Sam (May). “Sam is 19, on the cusp of adulthood and about to leave the nest, and Andrew’s realizing there may not be many more times in his life that he can do something like this,” says McCarthy’s editor Suzanne O’Neill, v-p and executive editor at Grand Central. The book chronicles their conversations about fame, divorce, and McCarthy’s relationship with his own father. “Andrew’s perspective as a father of an adult child makes for a rich experience,” O’Neill says. “You don’t see that a lot.”
These recollections don’t always stick to straightforward narration. Isabel Zapata, for instance, incorporates flash prose, illustration, and poetry into the diary entries in In Vitro (Coffee House, May), first published in Spanish in her native Mexico in 2021 and translated by Robin Myers. Zapata describes her fertility struggles, as well as the misogyny she faced from the medical establishment, and addresses societal expectations around maternity and motherhood.
In The Leaving Season (Norton, May), a memoir in essays, Kelly McMasters details her move away from New York City, the dissolution of her marriage, and the complexities of reluctant motherhood. “My editor took a chance on what a book like this could be,” she says. In addition to 16 narrative essays, three flash nonfiction essays, which are almost prose poetry, provide “sensory, setting, and section breaks.” McMasters has published work in the Paris Review and the American Scholar, and an earlier version of an essay in the book appeared in the New York Times’ “Modern Love” column. “With memoir, the authority is in the experience,” she says. “It’s a fantastically flexible genre in which to upend what is the typical power structure. It’s a way to reclaim space.”
Though strides have been made in recent years, parenting memoirs, collectively, have been criticized for being too white, too middle-class, too heteronormative. “It was hard to find a story around parenting that brought together adoption, raising Black girls in this historic moment, and being a Black, queer feminist,” says Francesca T. Royster, an English professor at Chicago’s DePaul University and author of Choosing Family (Abrams, Feb.). “That old adage of ‘writing the thing you want to read’ drove me.”
She considers her book in conversation with the work of Audre Lorde and Cherríe Moraga, in which the “most immediate theoretical problems were being talked about through memoir,” she explains. “I give a vulnerable internal voice and connect it to things that are happening during this time of great cultural change. I want readers to connect with the emotional issues, even if they don’t connect with the cultural or historic ones.” Royster hopes her story will prompt readers to think critically about societal definitions of love and home. PW’s review called the book “insightful and reflective,” and “a moving tribute to the power of chosen family.”
So We Can Know (Haymarket, Feb.), edited by poet Aracelis Girmay, collects stories about pregnancy, loss, abortion, and birth from writers of color. “It’s the work of bearing witness to each other, the work of thinking through the truths of our lives in order to sharpen our sense of what is possible,” Girmay says. “There is dreaming in this. There is pain, strength, perseverance, and preparation in this.” The book includes works by Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, Jennifer S. Cheng, Laurie Ann Guerrero, and Emma L. Morgan-Bennett and Jennifer L. Morgan, among others; it’s a “striking anthology,” per PW’s starred review: “The work as a whole is thick with grief and trauma, but the graceful reflections and breadth of experiences make sticking with it more than worthwhile.”
Grimay says the book’s diversity is “an entangled record of varied and intricate thinking at the intersections of research, history, and the intimacies of personal, lived experiences and choices around pregnancy.” She emphasizes the power of these and other parenting narratives. “Such histories help us to understand some of where we are, and in this way they help us to articulate what we face.”
Pooja Makhijani is a writer and editor in New Jersey.
Read more from the parenting feature.
Body Language: PW Talks with Virginia Sole-Smith
In Fat Talk (Holt, Apr.), the journalist and 'Burnt Toast' podcaster encourages parents to name and navigate anti-fat bias.
Hashtag Blessed: PW Talks with Sara Petersen
The author of Momfluenced (Beacon, Apr.) delves into the public performance of motherhood on Instagram.
Bringing Up Baby: New Parenting Books
Negotiating an infant's first year can be overwhelming; these titles offer a lifeline.