Making the choice to have children, as the novelist Elizabeth Stone once said, “is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” In my case, my husband and I can spend a harrowing day feeding, bathing, changing, playing with, and cajoling to sleep our 18-month-old and then collapse on our bed in exhaustion—at which point we start jabbering about how amazing her sturdy little legs are. Parenting is a fierce, irrational, giddy kind of love that only makes sense when you are inside it.
At least these books can give you a very important taste of what you might be in for.
THE PARENT’S PERSPECTIVE
Operating Instructions, by Anne Lamott
With the same genius for mining her own neuroses to discover universal truths that she displays in her writing memoir, Bird by Bird, Lamott journals the unexpected struggles and poignancy of conceiving accidentally as a single woman at 35, going ahead with the pregnancy, and then her son’s first year. Caution: This book will break your heart. But first it will make you laugh.
Life Among the Savages, by Shirley Jackson
The shrewd satirist behind “The Lottery” and other classics of American literature turns her gimlet eye on herself and her family, recording her misadventures in raising four children with an absentminded husband and very little money in small-town Vermont.
THE SCIENTIST’S PERSPECTIVE
Far From the Tree, by Andrew Solomon
As a parent, you can never predict what your child may ask of you—or the surprising ways in which you may rise to the challenge. Solomon’s book deals with the myriad ways that special needs, marginalized, and other non-mainstream children test their families and how they, as well as their communities, respond. An intense but fascinating and worthwhile read.
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and How to Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
Kids and parents often share habits, houses, and DNA, and yet can be hard pressed to understand each other. For over three decades, this straightforward communication manual has helped parents understand how best to reach and interact with the young people raiding their fridge.
THE CHILD’S PERSPECTIVE
Fun Home and Are You My Mother?, by Alison Bechdel
Cartoonist Bechdel produced these astonishing graphic novel memoirs back to back. The first tackles growing up queer with a closeted father, and the second is a philosophical examination of her relationship with her repressed and repressive mother.
The Color of Water, by James McBride
The captivating story of a rabbi’s daughter who married an African American minister, cofounded a Baptist church, and raised twelve children in often dire circumstances, from the perspective of one of her sons, who went on to win the National Book Award in 2013 for The Good Lord Bird.
Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi
Another graphic novel, this one presents a happy, functional family struggling to maintain its values and sanity against the background of Iran’s Islamic Revolution.
THE FICTION WRITER’S PERSPECTIVE
Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson
Two sisters, abandoned by their own parents and taken in by eccentric relatives, cope with their mother’s suicide and their own sense of alienation in this slim, gorgeous novel by the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Gilead.
Behind the Scenes at the Museum, by Kate Atkinson
A caustic, hilarious, sprawling take on several generations of a British family in the postwar years. Winner of the prestigious Whitbread Book of the Year award, this novel jumpstarted Atkinson’s wide-ranging literary career.
Room Temperature, by Nicholson Baker
Perhaps the best novel ever written about a stay-at-home dad rocking his infant daughter on a weekday afternoon, by the peerlessly inventive author of The Fermata and The Everlasting Story of Nory.
THE STRAIGHT UP CAUTIONARY TALE PERSPECTIVE
Presented without comment.
And then, to get the taste of those out of your mouth, finish up with Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, perhaps the coziest family story of all time.
What book would you recommend someone read before having kids?