With Mother’s Day coming up, I thought I’d share with you ten books that have helped me to be a better mother and encouraged me along this journey of motherhood. You might be surprised by some on this list, but I’ll list the books first (in no particular order) and then offer some explanation.
1. Little Britches and two of its sequels—really one long story—Man of the Family and Mary Emma and Company (in paperback here) by Ralph Moody
2. Little House in the Big Woods, Little House On the Prairie, On the Banks of Plum Creek, etc. (the whole series that I’m counting as one narrative) by Laura Ingalls Wilder
3. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
4. Anne of Ingleside and its sequel Rainbow Valley by L. M. Montgomery
5. All-of-A-Kind Family and the rest of the series by Sydney Taylor
6. Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry
7. Stepping Heavenward by Elizabeth Prentiss
8. A Lantern in Her Hand by Bess Streeter Aldrich
9. Mere Motherhood by Cindy Rollins
10. Marriage To A Difficult Man by Elizabeth Dodd
Are you surprised or confused by these titles? You might’ve noticed that I don’t have any parenting/mothering “how-to” books on this list. Granted, I do have a few of those that I like (and I’ll share those with you next time), but the above books all allow me (and you) to walk alongside a mother in the story of her life, doing some of the same things I’m doing (I’m not churning butter, but I am disciplining children, averting everyday crises, etc.) and encountering many of the same difficulties (misbehaving children, coming-of-age, etc.). Instead of someone giving me a 7-step program to better motherhood, in these books I’m given the example of a mother, and my heart is gripped to want to be like her–or even to learn from her mistakes. I’m compelled to be a better mother by “watching” her interact with her children. These are living books!
But, you might say, some of these titles aren’t even true stories! Four of these mothers are completely fictional—Marmee from Little Women, Anne, Hannah, and Abbie from A Lantern in Her Hand—and four are somewhat fictionalized characters based on real-life people—Mary Emma from Little Britches, Caroline from Little House, Mama from All-of-A-Kind Family, and Katherine from Stepping Heavenward (Katherine is largely a combination of Prentiss’ own life and that of her father, who suffered throughout his short life with physical illness). Only two are completely nonfiction—Cindy in her memoir, Mere Motherhood, and Sarah in the biography that spans the Edwards’s married life, Marriage To A Difficult Man.
So, can we learn from mere characters in a fictional story? Of course we can! Fiction shows us what happens when we do certain things or make certain decisions. It shows us what to do (or not do) in various circumstances. Fiction gives us universal human experiences and allows us to imagine, or vicariously “live,” though different events without us actually having done it. And furthermore, fiction—or any story (memoir and biography included)—grips our hearts and makes us care about the outcome. We feel Marmee’s calming presence and want to be like her, rather than memorizing “five ways to maintain self-control and have a stress-free home.” We admire Caroline’s quiet submission and consistent discipline. We’re touched by the way Anne speaks kindly to her children and respects their personhood, never shaming them. We cry with these characters; we cheer them on; we notice how their children respond to them—and it teaches us because we want to be more like them. They make mistakes, but they also model things that accord with how we want to be, and how the Bible says we should be.
There are other books in this vein that I could mention, and several more on my list to read, but these are the ones I’ve thought about many times over my sixteen years as a mother and have impacted many of my mothering choices and practices. I’d encourage you to pick up any of these titles and enjoy walking with these wise, courageous, calm, and inspiring mothers through the ups and downs of this motherhood journey.