Feature Image Credit: @gi_books

The year 2020 kicked all our butts, and in 2021, things are still incredibly tough. Adjusting to motherhood is one thing, but it’s another doing it during one of the most tumultuous times the world has seen—and knowing that things will be forever different raising children.

I learned I was pregnant in January 2020; about a month before COVID hit our side of the country. There was no way to predict the mental, physical, financial and spiritual unraveling that would overwhelm everyone­. Not only were we anxious about lack of health insurance, and the tumultuous environment of the pandemic, politics, and BLM movement (to name a few)—we grappled with the normal, “coming-to-terms-with-being-new-parents.”

When I was 8 months pregnant (July 2020), my husband and I both tested positive for COVID. A month later I was diagnosed with Valley Fever (a serious fungal infection in soil spores—damn you, hormonal desire to garden). I was sick, couldn’t walk, uncomfortable, and scared as hell. Doctors had no idea what to make of me or what would happen at the hospital; it was just constant blood tests and chest xrays. But we were also very lucky. We didn’t lose any family members to the illness, and while work furloughs happened, our companies bounced back. The hospital that didn’t turn us away, and my son was born September 2020, healthy and safe.

This list is by no means all inclusive, but the 20 books below, fiction and nonfiction, helped me (and other new moms I know) through pregnancy, birth and adjusting to motherhood in 2021.

Things My Son Needs to Know About the World by Fredrik Backman

I love the #1 New York Times bestseller A Man Called Ove, so when author Fredrik Backman published this hilarious, introspective collection of essays, I couldn’t wait to check it out. While it’s about fatherhood, this book is all about advising a newborn son with the open perspective and tools he needs to make his way in the world—as well as facing the fears of your parental flaws, grappling with your individuality, and looking on in wonder (and horror) at all the “firsts.” As he eloquently reminds us, “You can be whatever you want to be, but that’s nowhere near as important as knowing that you can be exactly who you are.”

The Wonder Weeks by Xaviera Plooij, Frans X. Plooji PhD, and Hetty van de Rijt PhD

At least 4 other new-ish mothers exclaimed how amazing the Wonder Weeks app is, and I downloaded it way before I read the book. But both have been integral in explaining the signs of a baby’s 10 magical “leaps”—brain development leaps in an infant, when new skills are mastered and perceptions evolve. It details how to prepare for and make the most of these regressions/growth spurts. Seriously: there have been several times when I couldn’t figure out why my baby wasn’t sleeping well, or cranky—and I opened this app and book to discover it’s a Wonder Week (ie stormy weeks and sunny weeks). The anchor moments keep me sane when discouraged, and the fun games to support brain development help motivate.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting AND What To Expect in the First Year by Heidi Murkoff

I receive LOTS of books about raising babies (I do work in book publishing, after all), and these are by far the one I referred to the most, and still do. The simple structure is packed with logical, no-frills information, and navigation of those overwhelming baby aisles, sleeping, eating, and growing questions. It’s easy to flip through within a half hour for month-by-month milestones and tips, and reassuring as hell. This is one of the world’s best-selling, most-loved guide to the instructions that babies don’t come with.

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Inspired by a friend’s question about how to raise a baby girl to be a feminist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie created this: Fifteen sharp, frank, funny and poignant mini essays for empowering a daughter to be strong and independent, all written as a letter to a friend. Filled with compassionate guidance and advice, it gets right to the heart of sexual politics in the twenty-first century—and whether you’re raising a daughter OR a son—starts a new and urgently needed conversation about what it really means to be a woman today, and helps raise a son can be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem.

The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

This novel, the spell-binding prequel to Practical Magic, was a great escape during COVID quarantine, spanning centuries of generational legacy. For the Owens family, love is a curse that began in 1620, when Maria Owens was charged with witchery for loving the wrong man. Fast-forward to New York City at the cusp of the sixties and Susanna Owens, who knows that her three children are dangerously unique, so she sets down rules for her children: No walking in the moonlight, no red shoes, no wearing black, no cats, no crows, no candles, no books about magic. And most importantly, never, ever, fall in love. Yet, the children cannot escape love even if they try, just as they cannot escape the pains of the human heart. The two sisters will grow up to be the memorable aunts in Practical Magic, while Vincent, their beloved brother, leaves an unexpected legacy. Alice Hoffman delivers “fairy-tale promise with real-life struggle” (The New York Times Book Review) in a story how the only remedy for being human is to be true to yourself.

Taking Cara Babies by Cara Dumaplin

So this isn’t a book perse—but the website and eBooks continue to be immensely helpful. Cara Dumaplin, mom of four, neonatal nurse, wife of a pediatrician, and a certified pediatric sleep consultant (with 1.5 million Insta followers), founded Taking Cara Babies in 2013, all on the premise of teaching parents how to help their babies sleep with the science of a nurse and the heart of a mama. Endorsed by People, Parents, Huffpost and Good Morning America, these 50-page eBooks are tailored to age groups—0-12 weeks, 3-4 months, 5-24 months—with instructional videos and real-life steps in action, ie, she goes through her 5 steps of calming babies to sleep with a real baby, and you see it work. It was a lifesaver in understanding my baby’s hungry and sleepy “cues,” before the crying begins. And I visit her blog monthly for tips and education on sleep regressions, schedules, feeding and naps along with her recommended sleep products.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

This book is a brilliantly written, brutal truth. It’s not an easy book to read—truly the ultimate of how horrific slavery was—but a book to read slowly, appreciate every word, filled with suspenseful poetry about the lengths a woman would go to protect her baby from slavery. Sethe, its protagonist, was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. And Sethe’s new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

As a Business Insider Defining Book of the Decade, this painfully beautiful book combines two things that spoke to me while I prepared for motherhood: a love of nature and preserving our world, and coming-of-age, showing that we are forever shaped by the children we once were. Protagonist Kya Clark is a heart-breaking, brilliant, relatable character, and for years, rumors of the her as the “Marsh Girl” have haunted a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya—but she is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life–until the unthinkable happens.

Funny Little Pregnant Things by Emily Doherty

This easy-to-read, short handbook by a mom of two is a brutally honest, laugh-out-loud addition to any mom’s bookshelf. One thing everyone said when I got pregnant was, “everyone is going to share their opinion and horror story with you—and take it with a grain of salt.” Funny Little Pregnant Things is all about how every pregnancy and baby is unique—and the rules “they” make seem to change every year, anyway—and why should we care if our baby resembles a lemon? And you do NOT need all that baby registry crap. All the good, the bad, and the gross stuff.

The Happiest Baby on the Block by Harvey Karp

This was another baby book I read and actually kept at, dogearing pages and taking notes. Thousands of parents, from regular moms and dads to Hollywood superstars, have come to baby expert Dr. Harvey Karp to learn his remarkable techniques for soothing babies and increasing sleep. It helped a lot with easing a baby into a sleep routine, and finding the calmest way to do just about everything with a newborn—along with teaching me The 5 S’s to calm a baby, and what the Fourth Trimester truly means.

Untamed by Glennon Doyle

Activist, speaker, best-selling author, and “patron saint of female empowerment” (People) Glennon Doyle explores the joy and peace discovered when we stop striving to meet others’ expectations and start trusting the voice deep within us. And for mothers, new, young and old, there is nothing more important. We strive so mightily to be good: good partners, daughters, mothers, employees, and friends—but all this striving leaves us feeling weary, stuck, overwhelmed, and underwhelmed. Untamed is the story of how one woman learned that a responsible mother is not one who slowly dies for her children, but one who shows them how to fully live. And it is the story of how each of us can begin to trust ourselves enough to set boundaries, make peace with our bodies, honor our anger and heartbreak, and unleash our truest, wildest instincts. Just remember: you’re a f***ing cheetah.

The Brown Mama Mindset by Muffy Mendoza

One of my colleagues with a new baby said over and over how much this book helped guide her through. The different experiences of motherhood—whether that’s straight, BIPOC, gay, single, adoptive—are so important to represent, and author Muffy Mendoza is the founder of a support group of over 5,000 black moms. The Brown Mama Mindset has been featured at the Essence Festival and hailed by many moms as an “easy to read, practical guide to learning to love myself.” It is a Black parenting book, relationship book and self-care guide all-in-one; broken down into short, power-packed chapters and activities.  Plus, it is one of the few parenting books written for Black moms, by a Black mom.

Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou is no stranger to sharing her life story across her multiple best-selling memoirs—but Mom & Me & Mom is her deepest story exploration yet, a thorny love letter to her mother — the larger-than-life woman who abandoned Angelou in many ways, at many times, but also the woman Angelou credits as the reason she was able to become who she is. It explores the healing and love that evolved between the two women over the course of their lives, the love that fostered Maya Angelou’s rise from immeasurable depths to reach impossible heights. Any child can relate on some level to the complicated and profound emotions with a parent, and it takes a lot to examine those emotions first hand.

Letters to My Baby: Write Now. Read Later. Treasure Forever

With all the options for baby books out there (not to mention the endless photos on your phone’s camera roll) it’s difficult deciding on the best way to record your thoughts and memories to revisit in the future. Enter Letters to My Baby. Just fill these twelve envelopes with memories—prompted with questions like “my wishes for you are”, “your first home was like this”— and hopes for your bundle of joy. Then postdate, seal, and save the letters to gift to your child at a later date.

Confessions of a Domestic Failure by Bunmi Laditan

Written by the creator of Honest Toddler, this chick-lit for moms is a great escape to devour in a few hours. The refreshingly honest and freaking hilarious story chronicles the hot-mess that is mom Ashley Keller, a rising star in the marketing world who’s trying to navigate the world of Pinterest-perfect, Facebook-fantastic and Instagram-impressive mommies—but failing miserably. When Ashley gets the opportunity to participate in the Motherhood Better boot camp run by the mommy-blog-empire maven she idolizes, she jumps at the chance to become the perfect stay-at-home mom. With her razor-sharp wit and knack for finding the funny in everything, Bunmi Laditan creates a character as flawed and lovable as Bridget Jones or Becky Bloomwood while hilariously lambasting the societal pressures placed upon every new mother. At its heart, Ashley’s story reminds moms that there’s no way to be perfect, but many ways to be great.

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Creative person regularly need to reconnect with the artist and free spirit within them, especially when feeling off kilter—which is the epitome of motherhood. And Big Magic is one of those books that revitalizes and inspires to take chances—but in responsible ways. It totally reinvigorates that curiosity and bravery that can easily be drained from exhaustion. Elizabeth Gilbert offers potent insights into the mysterious nature of inspiration, asking us to embrace our curiosity and let go of needless suffering. She shows us how to tackle what we most love, and how to face down what we most fear.

The Enlightenment of Bees by Rachel Linden

This novel offered an exciting escape, albeit fraught with complicated emotions pertaining to what it means to find the sweet spot in life where our greatest passions meet the world’s greatest need. At twenty-six, apprentice baker Mia West has her entire life planned out: a Craftsman cottage in Seattle, a job baking at The Butter Emporium, and her first love—her boyfriend, Ethan—by her side. But when Ethan declares he “needs some space,” Mia’s carefully planned future crumbles. Feeling adrift, Mia joins her vivacious housemate Rosie on a humanitarian trip around the world funded by a reclusive billionaire. From the slums of Mumbai to a Hungarian border camp during the refugee crisis, Mia’s heart is challenged and changed in astonishing ways—ways she never could have imagined. As she grapples with how to make a difference in a complicated world, Mia realizes she must choose between the life she thought she wanted and the life unfolding before her.

Slay Like a Mother by Katherine Wintsch

As founder and CEO of The Mom Complex, Katherin Wintsch has studied the passions and pain points of moms worldwide to help some of the largest brands develop innovative new products and services. In this brave, supportive book, readers are encouraged to understand the difference between struggling and suffering, not wearing “a mask” and saying “it’s just fine,” unrealistic expectations, and find the ability to enjoy the present and become your best self as a mom and woman.

Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl

This memoir from the former Gourmet editor-in-chief and trail-blazing food writer is a no-brainer—especially if you’re missing those days of dining out and cooking leisurely. This is the story of a former Berkeley hippie entering the corporate world and worrying about losing her soul. It is the story of the moment restaurants became an important part of popular culture, a time when the rise of the farm-to-table movement changed, forever, the way we eat. I’ve read almost all of Reichl’s books, and it brings me back to working in the restaurant world—and the world of magazine editing. I loved working in both, and she peels back the curtain on it for a boost of nostalgia. Complete with recipes, Save Me the Plums is a personal journey of a woman coming to terms with being in charge and making a mark, following a passion and holding on to her dreams—even when she ends up in a place she never expected to be.

The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (And Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did) by Phillipa Perry

The moment many consider the fact that they’re going to be a parent, one thought that sometimes crosses the mind is: “I’ll do things differently than my parents.” But whether it’s a small or major issue you’re addressing, Perry presents a refreshing, non-judgmental approach that begins with YOU as parents and your own psychological make-up and history—and how that in turn influences one’s parenting. Instead of mapping out the “perfect” plan (since that doesn’t exist), Perry offers a big-picture look at the elements that lead to good parent-child relationships, like understanding how your own upbringing may affect your parenting, breaking negative cycles and patterns, and accepting that you will make mistakes and how to address them honestly and openly.