In this article I share my favourite parenting books so far. My son is four months old. I wrote this article after receiving many requests for a Reading List for new parents.
My hope is to give curious parents a place from which to start their reading adventure.
My favourite books share the theme of being entertaining stories that locate parenting knowledge within the reader themselves rather than any external “expert.”
I like to be entertained and I like a good story. This is reflected in my book list. Many of my midwifery clients and my own mom love parenting books by anthropologists like Meredith Small or Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. These just did not resonate with me but they might with you!
In addition to sharing my list I grapple with the fact that most all the parenting books right now are authored by nice white ladies and how this shapes what it means to be a parent today.
I suggest that this demographic is predominant partly because today’s parenting literature is rooted in the Victorian tradition of the “cult of domesticity,” where white women achieved virtue through tending to hearth and home. Part of the cult of domesticity was, and continues to be, consuming and producing books, journals, and other media on motherhood.
I finish with a vision of what parenting books might look when other voices speak!
To skip ahead to the list, scroll down until you hit *~* The List*~*
For the preamble on parenting literature as a genre, read on
The premise of the parenting book genre is brilliant.
Parenthood is full of millions of everyday decisions that may or may not alter the direction your child’s life. You could really blow it. Or, in exchange for $10, you can read a book that will help you make better decisions and raise a well-adjusted, happy child free from neuroses. How could you say no?
The alternate to paying $10 for every parenting pearl is to get your books at the library, which kind of works but in my town there’s a ten-week wait for the good books and by then your kid has passed the window you were wondering about in the first place – as far as I can tell I’ll get a hold of Baby-Led Weaning by the time my kid is drinking alcohol. (I found it at Value Village for $2 after writing this article! Seek and ye shall find!)
The irony is that the parenting style du jour is instinctive parenting. Everything you need to know to be a parent is in you already… you just need to unlock it all with books!
TYPES OF PARENTING BOOKS: DESCRIPTIVE AND PRESCRIPTIVE
The parenting book genre appears to be divided into two camps: prescriptive and descriptive books.
Descriptive parenting books share stories that you can wander into and use to make sense of your own experience. These books capitalize on the healing power of narrative to demystify parenthood.
Reading a couple of descriptive books can make the strange and magical world of parenting feel as familiar as the halls of Hogwarts. Examples include the dreary, do-not-recommend A Life’s Work by Rachel Cusk and the delicious, dreamy What Mothers Do by Naomi Stadlen.
Conversely prescriptive parenting books tell you what to do and why. Start solids at x months. Use y breathing techniques to calm down when your toddler hits you. Breastfeed every z hours.
Prescriptive books are often authored by scientific folks who use their credentials to back up their parenting instructions. I usually find these books to be condescending, boring, and impossible to read.
If you feel inadequate or bored while reading a parenting book, or if the title contains phrases like What to Expect… or The REAL TRUTH About…, you are likely reading a prescriptive book.
Historically prescriptive parenting has been a load of crap that reflects the ideals of its time rather than the needs of babies and families. Every baby-rearing manual written by a male pediatrician in the 20th century falls into this category.
Prescriptive parenting literature has improved a little since the 80s when actual moms with actual children started working in STEM and creating the relevant research. However, a prescriptive parenting book still has to come from behind and disarm my skepticism to sell itself to me. The Lost Art of Natural Parenting, written by a mompreneur veterinarian, is one exception that enchanted me.
“AIN’T I A MOMMY TOO”: A NOTE ON BIAS
Every book I have read about parenting has been written by a nice, straight, middle-class white lady. The market is dominated by this demographic!
It is useful to pause and consider why nice straight white ladies have a foothold on the parenting literature market and how this echo chamber shapes what it means to be a parent today.
I think that the demographic hegemony in parenting literature is partly due to racism in the publishing industry but also can be traced back to the cult of domesticity that gained popularity in the 19th Century.
In the cult of domesticity white women achieve virtue by becoming specialists in homemaking. Part of their work as domestic experts includes consuming and producing homemaking literature.
By contrast women of colour do not have this cultish literary domestic history.
In her lovely, perfect, well-researched, very good article about the absence of the perspectives of black mothers from parenting literature Deesha Philyaw explores the historical contexts of white and black motherhood:
The genesis… can be traced back to the “cult of true womanhood” (also known as the “cult of domesticity”), the 19th-century view that delicate white women bore the sole responsibility for housekeeping and childcare, and were to be placed on pedestals at home and kept out of the public sphere. By contrast, since 1619 when the first slaves arrived on the shores of what is now the United States, most Black mothers have had no choice but to work. Instead of being placed on pedestals, Black women watched as our babies were placed on auction blocks. And yet, we pressed on through the most dehumanizing conditions, working on the plantations, and caring for the children who remained.Deesha Philyaw “Ain’t I A Mommy Too”
When I stoop to read a parenting book I assume the posture of my mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and so on.
A black woman parenting today comes from a different historical context. Her family history likely involves more work outside of the home, “less guilt” (Hallelujah!), less reading, more singing.
Philyaw interviews Jennifer, a black married mother of two with an undergraduate from Harvard and a law degree from Columbia. Jennifer reflects on the legacy of black mothers in her family:
I struggle with the daily demands of mothering. But I also remember that I’m standing on the shoulders of my great-great-grandmothers who were enslaved, beaten, raped, and they pulled through and made it. My existence is proof of their survival, their victory and perseverance. So how can I have a meltdown because my kid is having a tantrum when I’m trying to cook? Of course our grown-up needs have to be met, too, but still. We do what we have to do.Jennifer, interviewed by Deesha Philyaw
The experiences of Asian parents is also rare in mainstream parenting literature. When an Asian mother dares to write about her experience she comes armed with credentials to back herself up: Amy Chua, who wrote Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, is a law professor at Yale; Dr. Christine Gross-Loh is a journalist with a PhD from Harvard in East Asian studies; and Dr. Shefali Tsabary is an Indian-American child psychologist with a PhD from Columbia.
I wonder if the high level of education of Asian mom-authors reflects the additional credentials an Asian women must attain to be taken seriously enough as a mother to author a book in North America.
The white women who authored my favourite books seemed to spit a couple kids out on a farm and then write about it between gardening and sewing. I sense that the cultural concept of white moms as angels of the house destined for motherhood permits them a maternal authority not granted to their counterparts of colour.
I could find no popular books on parenting by First Nations or Inuit people – this is frustrating but unsurprising as these folks have had the basic human right of raising your own kid taken away from them time and time again.
Notably, the best children’s books coming out today are written by First Nations and Inuit women, which gives me hope. I should write a blog post on this exploding genre of children’s books.
There isn’t much in the parenting literature market for men or for the queer community either.
When I taught prenatal classes few a few years at the Toronto Birth Centre I always asked dads what they were reading. They were universally offended by the condescending Dude, You’re Having a Baby but other than that we were all empty-handed.
The best anyone could come up with for a parenting book for dads was Penny Simkin’s The Birth Partner.
The Birth Partner is a wonderful prescriptive resource for partners wondering what to pack in the Birth Centre bag and how to recognize the stages of labour but it simply does not contain the juicy, soul-soothing narrative that makes parenting as fun and familiar as the halls of Hogwarts.
My plan moving forward is to break up my echo chamber of nice white ladies. I’m going to start with Philyaw’s reading list of parenting books by black mothers:
- O’Neill Parker, Lonnae. I’m Every Woman: Remixed Stories of Marriage, Motherhood and Work.
- Rise Up Singing: Black Women Writers on Motherhood. Ed. Cecelie Berry.
- McLarin, Kim. Jump at the Sun.
- Walker, Rebecca. Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence.
- The Twitter account @HonestToddler by Bunmi Laditan
I’ll keep ya posted as I do! And please tell me any titles I’m missing!
OTHER MEDIUMS OF PARENTING WISDOM
Books are one of the many of mediums folks use to learn about parenting.
I like learning from books because I trust certain publishers to give me well-researched and entertaining work.
I love social media for seeing how other moms do things like how big they chop their kid’s food.
*~* THE LIST *~*
The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding 8th Edition
La Leche League International
Obstetrician superstar Murray Enkin MD FRCS(C) FACOG LLD DSC OC (that last one is Order of Canada) once said, “one good anecdote is worth a thousand irrelevant RCTs [randomized controlled trials].” He might as well have been describing The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding.
The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding is the most perfect parenting book. It is the story of “parenting through breastfeeding,” an approach which is successful because it locates parenting wisdom within the parent who is doing the day-to-day, hour-by-hour work of feeding the baby rather than any external parenting “expert.”
In addition to arming you with a staggering, intoxicating amount of new-parent-confidence from the get-go, Then Womanly Art is awesome because it just goes there. Don’t let the hilarious title or nice lady on the cover fool you – it contains the boldest stuff I’ve read in a parenting book ever.
Screw the recommendations of the academy of pediatrics, go ahead and share your bed with your baby like the rest of the world. Here are the stories of ten other families that did just that, a ton of research to back it up, and the story behind why it isn’t more widely recommended.
Can’t find time to have sex? Do it while breastfeeding!
Breastfeed until your kid is five. Or seven. Or two. Whatever! Who cares? You have one life! Ignore shitty parenting advice and make life easy and fun!
This book fell into my life. A few days before giving birth I wandered into my town’s independent bookstore, The Bookkeeper. I blanked and next thing I knew I had purchased this book, which was bizarre because I had just started mat leave and bought a car and a house and had no money.
I immediately felt so stupid for buying it. It stared at me on my desk mockingly, bright green, smug-looking, and too expensive. I taught people how to breastfeed for a living, what did I need this book for?
Our first night with our baby my husband and I couldn’t figure out where to put our sleeping baby (so much conflicting advice from so many “experts”). We were going a little batty. I ask him to do a literature search while I breastfed and to come back to me in half an hour with his findings (delegating is an essential skill for parents).
He returned bright-eyed and excited about the chapter on safe bedsharing in The Womanly Art. We nestled into the family bed and had a lovely sleep, secure in the knowledge of a dozen co-sleeping anecdotes and visions of Dr. James McKenna’s research dancing in our heads.
To this day we agree that bedsharing is one of the sweetest parts of being a parent. I can hear you smirking at me – it’s true! Don’t knock it til ya try it.
The next day The Womanly Art came to the rescue again! I could not figure out how to breastfeed my 24-hour old on my inverted nipple to save my life. There was just nothing to latch onto, and with each passing hour my breast got more engorged until it felt like a brick wall.
I tried to get the nipple to evert by vacuuming it out with a sawed-off syringe and by drawing it out with a hand pump to no avail.
“It’s not a matter of everting the nipple” The Womanly Art tells me, “but of reducing the engorgement around the nipple. Try cabbage leaves.”
One hot shower and couple of cool cabbage leaves the engorgement went down and the kid latched just fine.
This is the best book.
What Mothers Do, Especially When It Looks Like Nothing
Like The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, What Mothers Do, Especially When It Looks Like Nothing is bold precisely because it is so realistic.
Naomi Stadlen is a psychotherapist who has run a weekly discussion group for mothers in London, England for 25 years. She has collected hundreds of stories from new mothers, identified themes and organized them into chapters like “Nothing prepares you,” “I get nothing done all day,” and my favourite, “Being instantly interruptable”.
What Mothers Do is narrative medicine, bibliotherapy, whatever you call the healing power of stories. There is nothing idealistic or prescriptive in this book that tells you what to do with your baby or when to start exercising or whatever. There are just stories of hundreds of lived experiences told at a slow, lilting pace perfect for the sparkling, dreamy, slow-moving last weeks of pregnancy or the sweet stillness of napping with your baby. I love this book.
Diaper Free: The Gentle Wisdom of Natural Infant Hygiene
An English professor once told me to think of writing as hosting a dinner party: invite your audience in, tell them what you’ll be serving, lay out appetizing snacks, keep the good food coming, and then thank them for coming with a goodbye treat.
Having come from an industrial small town and never been to a dinner party this analogy seemed pretentious and urban at the time. Maybe I’ve become pretentious and urban. Maybe Ingrid Bauer just knows how to entertain… but Ingrid Bauer throws a perfect parenting dinner party in Diaper Free.
Reading this book feels like walking through the backwoods of Ingrid’s farm on a hazy summer day while she charms you with anecdotes of birthing and raising three children close to the land.
Ignore the goofy baby in the head scarf on the front! Each story she tells sits on your tongue pleasantly like a summer tomato she picks from the vine.
It would be easy for an earth goddess telling you about how she raised her children without diapers to make you want to roll your eyes into your skull until they disappear but I just didn’t feel that way with Ingrid! The diaper issue is a starting point from which she weaves her philosophy of parenting, the central tenants of which are tuning in, getting messy, and having realistic expectations.
Whenever I need a pick me up I reread her final chapter on the joy of making mistakes as a parent – it takes a little longer for each page to load on my Kobo because I’ve highlighted them so much.
The Lost Art of Natural Parenting
Tracy Gillett of RaisedGood.com
I know I said I didn’t like prescriptive parenting books but this book is special to me!
For those interested in learning more about attachment parenting I recommend starting with The Lost Art of Natural Parenting. It is well-researched, only moderately preachy, and not as condescending as other popular attachment parenting books. (I appreciate all he’s done but I just couldn’t get past Dr. Sears saying “I leave sticky notes around the house reminding my wife to take time for herself.” Barf!)
There was a point a few minutes after my kid was born where I felt my world shift to him. It felt like pooling warmth in my chest that magnetized every cell in my body. The first night home in bed with our baby my husband felt something similar. Hormones are a trip, man.
We followed this strong feeling and let it guide our parenting style. Our life became unexpectedly baby-led, which looked like: breastfeeding on demand (every hour or two for the first six weeks, yes even at night), carrying our baby 24/7, going to bed at 7 pm with him nestled between us, helping him go to the bathroom not in a diaper. Our kid was so content and relaxed that it was easy to keep going.
I started Googling around looking for resources on our style of parenting and found Tracy’s e-book The Lost Art of Natural Parenting.
Tracy is a veterinarian by training and a mompreneur by trade. She writes about parenting and baby development through the lens of clinician with the heart of a mom. She makes the argument for instinctive, intuitive parenting.
This book expanded my world by giving me words and resources for things I had been thinking about but hadn’t put a name to yet. Nighttime parenting, positive discipline, baby-led weaning, elimination communication. She gave me a ready-made reading list on each subject in her detailed references section. I appreciate this book!
Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting
This is the most entertaining parenting book on the market because Pamela Druckerman is a hilarious, diamond-sharp writer with a dazzling and international resume.
This book is also mortifying because French parenting is “the reason all French people are depressed” to quote an interviewee from Pamela’s book.
Though I don’t use any parenting philosophies she discusses in this book (including feeding on a schedule and nighttime neglect) I am glad I read this book because it gave me a sense of how others folks parent and the rationale behind it. Mostly it was fun to spend a couple of naptimes in Pamela’s delightful company.
I have shared my favourite parenting books so far and reviewed the state of the genre including its merits and limitations.
My favourite books use narrative to make the strange and magical world of parenting feel as familiar as the halls of Hogwarts. The effect of a good parenting book like The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding is an intoxicatingly big boost to your self-confidence as a parent.
Many parenting books are boring and/or make folks feel inadequate. These books are usually prescriptive and locate parental wisdom in some external parenting “expert” rather than in the parent doing the minute-to-minute work of caring for the baby.
It is useful to consider that parenting literature emerges out of a history of seven generations or so of a culture which ascribes white women’s worth to the minutiae of their every domestic task including mothering.
One legacy of this tradition is that parenting style is tied up in morality and goodness. Parents of colour, queers, and fathers — folks who don’t fit the mold of angel in the house — are made out to be less moral or worth the job of parenting. The resulting image of parenthood that emerges out of popular literature today is female, white, straight, middle-class, tidy, and at home.
I hope that when parenting literature diversifies it can blow up this boring story about parenting your way to a virtuous life!
Please tell me your favourite parenting books in the comments. Thank you!
Notes on The Cult of Domesticity and True Womanhood,ʺ Professor Catherine Lavender, Prepared for Students in HST 386: Women in the City, 1998. https://csivc.csi.cuny.edu/history/files/lavender/386/truewoman.pdf
Philyaw, Deesha. Aim’t I A Mommy? Why Are So Few Motherhood Memoirs Penned By Women of Color? Bitch Magazing. 23 Feb 2016. https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/aint-i-a-mommy-0