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3 Books Not About Parenting That All Parents Should Read

Photograph by Twenty20

Babies don't come with instruction manuals. Unfortunately, this fact hasn't stopped people from trying to write said instruction manuals.

I get it, I get it. Well-meaning authors think that they are doing us all a favor by penning the "What to Expect When You're a Tiger Mom Who's Attachment Parenting Your Baby Just Like Superior French Parents Do" books of the world. And to be fair, evidence-based and timely advice can be useful to any mother or father.

But sometimes these parenting instruction manuals and guidebooks are a little too heavy on the "should"—all the rules we should be following, all the foods we should be feeding our kids, all research we should be absorbing.

I think we parents could use a little less "should" in our lives. If anything, we need more of what I like to call "unguidebooks" in parenting. These are books that spend less time "shoulding" all over us and more time revealing bigger, broader and more timeless truths.

Here are the three best:

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"Operating Instructions" by Anne Lamott

I read this book when I was pregnant with my first child. Honest and tender and real, Lamott's account of her son's first year prepared me for the reality of parenting in a way that no other book or words of advice had.

I often think back to a prayer Lamott said to her son on the night he was born. It's a prayer I say now for my own children, even though I'm not exactly the praying type:

"Please, please, God, help him be someone who feels compassion, who feels God's presence loose in the world, who doesn't give up on peace and justice and mercy for everyone. And then one second later, I was begging, Okay, skip all that shit, forget it—just please, please let him outlive me."

My original copy of "Operating Instructions" is no longer on my bookshelf. Years ago, I gave it to a friend and encouraged her to share it with any other parent who might enjoy it. I've heard that it's passed through dozens of hands over the last nine years. I think that's a testament to the power and beauty of Lamott's words.

2. "Lit" by Mary Karr

I didn't expect to read much about parenting when I began Karr's third memoir. But less than halfway through—maybe even after the first few pages, in which Karr writes a letter to her college-bound son—I realized that the book's primary focuses weren't only alcoholism and sobriety and writing and redemption. "Lit" is also about becoming and being a mother.

... Karr also captures, with incomparable poetic insight, the specific joy of parenting—a joy that begins with the first oxytocin-fueled moments with her newborn son.

Of course, there's a bleakness and gallows humor in much of what Karr recounts in this book. Not every parent smashes up the family car on a drunken, snowy evening. (Though some do.) Not every parent spends a harrowing, hospitalized month getting sober. (Though some do.) But many mothers and fathers teeter on their own particular precipices throughout the early years of parenting. I've teetered on mine. Karr once teetered on hers.

With that said, Karr also captures, with incomparable poetic insight, the specific joy of parenting—a joy that begins with the first oxytocin-fueled moments with her newborn son:

"[He] squints up with dark blue eyes as if trying to make us out through smoke, and from the instant his gaze brushes by me, some inner high beam flips on. Never have I felt such blazing focus for another living creature. I can't stop looking at him. Joy, it is, which I've never known before, only pleasure or excitement. Joy is a different thing, because its focus exists outside the self—delight in something external, not satisfaction of some inner craving."

3. "Between the World and Me" by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Written as a letter to his 15-year-old son, Coates's book is as visceral as it is profound. In one of his most oft-cited passages, he writes: "Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage." He does not speak metaphorically. There is more than enough empirical evidence to support this claim.

I am a white mother of three white sons. Coates did not write this book to, or for, me. He did not write it to, or for, my children. And what this book means to me is far different from what it means to parents raising black sons and daughters in the United States. But it is this very chasm between who I am and whom the book is for that makes Coates's words such essential reading.

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My world and my children's world is built upon a foundation of racial violence: slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, police brutality, housing discrimination and staggering social and economic disparities. We have privileges that we've inherited at the expense of those who came before us—at the literal expense of millions of black bodies. And if I'm going to talk to my sons about race (which I should), and if I'm going to refuse to let them believe sentimental myths about America's racial past (which I should) and if I'm going to expect them to struggle actively against white supremacy (which I should), then I first need to shut up and listen to black writers and black thinkers and black parents like Coates.

OK, so there are a few "shoulds" that accompany any reading of this book. But they are some of the most important "shoulds" that any modern parent can heed.

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