Mother’s Day isn’t just about cards and flowers and booking brunch several months in advance. It’s a joyful day for those of us who have good relationships with Mom and can honestly call her our best friend (hi, Mom! I love you!). For others, it’s not a happy day at all: people who lost their mothers at an early age or recently, mothers or potential mothers who have lost or are unable to have children, people who never knew their mothers, or people who wish they didn’t know their mothers due to rocky or even abusive relationships. Even those who have the happy relationships know that motherhood isn’t an easy or simple process. Tolstoy may have written that “all unhappy families are alike,” but each of the families described in the three new books in this week’s book club is unique; both happy and unhappy, they are unconventional, extraordinary, and stronger for it.

1. My Ex-Life by Stephen McCauley ($26): Julie Fiske is a bit of an unusual mom. Sure, she seems to have a happy, normal life: a teacher art at a school for children with learning disabilities, wife to an investment adviser, mother to a teenaged daughter, owner of a large house. On the other hand, she’s a pot addict, her husband is leaving her for a younger woman, he’s trying to cash in on their large house (which she needs for Airbnb income)… and, oh yes, she was once briefly married to a man who subsequently realized he was gay after Julie miscarried, and she’s never mentioned that marriage to her daughter.

“Julie touched the pocket of her white shirt. Yes, the joint was still there, and no, she wasn’t going to smoke it. She’d given up pot, and thank god for that. Life was so much more clear and simple without it. Henry had told her he wanted to discuss something when he dropped off Mandy tonight, and since Henry rarely discussed anything-was, she finally saw, incapable of discussion in the ordinary sense of the word- she interpreted the comment as a threat and had spent the afternoon under a cloud of foreboding. She needed to be sharp for whatever was coming…The muffins were for Carol, the woman Henry had left her for. Naturally, Carol was younger. Julie knew only one man who’d betrayed his marriage for a woman older than his wife, and it was overstating it to say she knew Prince Charles.”

When Julie’s daughter Mandy finds out about Julie’s first husband, college admissions consultant David Hedges, she convinces Julie to reach out to him, telling him about their dire situation (she only has two months to come up with the money to buy the house). David’s not having a particularly great time either; in between the weight gain and his possible homelessness, his boyfriend also left. Not having much to tie him down, he decides to help, flying from west to east coast to deal with someone else’s problems. Together, this oddball group proves that a family can be a pot-smoking mom, a moody teen, and Mom’s gay ex-husband.

2. That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam ($27): “Rebecca looked at the corkboard: a pamphlet, folded in thirds but splayed open, amateurish line drawings of a placid mother and her indistinct newborn. Mom, then, soon enough, and forever. Rebecca was still standing too close, so the other woman, black, solid, but somehow vague, stepped back…Someone, maybe this same woman had stapled up a magazine clipping showing the princess of Wales, on the steps of St. Mary’s, resplendent in red with a demure bow at the neck, her hair in two perfect waves. You couldn’t see the infant (the spare) in her arms, but weren’t they just the Madonna and child? Behind them stood the prince in his double-breasted jacket, about as interested in the baby as God is in the rest of us. Rebecca didn’t know what the coming hours would hold but knew she wouldn’t come out looking like Diana.”

Rebecca Stone’s life also seems perfectly conventional at first. Rich, beautiful, and the wife of a British diplomat, she lives in an idyllic enclave of Washington D.C. in the late 1980s (when Princess Diana is the envy of all). Rebecca has just had a son, and feels isolated and panicked, when she meets her lactation and breastfeeding consultant, Priscilla. Priscilla develops a rapport with the desperate Rebecca, who attaches to her and asks her to become her son’s nanny. Again, it’s a potentially cliché dynamic; Rebecca is white, and Priscilla is black, but the relationship is a little more multifaceted than that.

In a sudden tragedy, Priscilla dies giving birth to her own child. Rebecca, devastated, does the unexpected and files to adopt. When she does, she begins to learn a lot more about the nature of disparity and privilege. How do you raise two children with equal love, knowing they will be treated anything but equally? That Kind Of Mother shows that a family can be made in unusual and diverse ways.

3. End of the Rope: Mountains, Marriage and Motherhood by Jan Redford ($26): Jan’s a mountain-climbing mother, and we don’t mean that figuratively; she’s spent many years loving the thrill of scaling actual mountains. Exciting, yes, but that excitement comes from real danger. Redford started climbing in her teens as a way to release her anger, and survived many near-disasters along the way; she describes many of these thrilling moments, including her rescue off El Capitan. This remained true until the man she believed was the love of her life, another climber, died in an avalanche while scaling mountains in Alaska.

Jan was devastated by the loss but eventually found love again, unsurprisingly with another climber. They were married and had a child. Suddenly, Jan was expected to be a traditional wife and mother, staying home while her husband chased adrenaline on the mountains. This was an echo of Jan’s life up until this point; mountain-climbing is very much a man’s game, and she always found she had to do bigger, more dangerous things to even be invited to have a seat at the table.

Soon, Jan found that traditional motherhood wasn’t working for her. She needed to continue to pursue the thing that she felt gave her life meaning. She didn’t want to just be defined by the fact she’d had a child. On the other hand, now that she was responsible for a life, she had to think very carefully about how much risk she wanted to take; the female climbers she befriended who had retired for motherhood were, at least, still alive. Jan mixes heart-pounding descriptions of her most exciting climbs with these essential reflections and shows that a family can be a child, a mother, a father, and a mountain.

What books make you think about Mom? Tag us in your next maternal read @BritandCo.

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