American Mothers are Screaming: A conversation with Jessica Grose

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Jessica Grose has been reporting on parenting for over a decade. As an Opinion writer for The New York Times, she documented the experience of parenting during the pandemic—a crucial record-keeping in and of itself. More importantly, she observed that what was happening to families during the pandemic revealed much about America’s persistent gender inequality and anti-family policies. Reading Grose’s op-eds has given structure and sustenance to my own fury, and as soon as I saw the title of her new book, I knew I had to read it stat.

Screaming on the Inside: The Unsustainability of American Motherhood takes us on a historical romp through our conception of motherhood in American society, medicine, psychology, and politics. While some things haven’t changed much at all for mothers in the last few hundred years, Grose writes, we have added so much more to our plates in the spirit of progress and feminism. With the expectation of raising children and working and staying healthy and having fulfilling passion projects, American mothers are burning the candle at both ends. Her book offers a pause for reflection as well as glimmers of hope and actionable suggestions. We spoke by phone in November—the day after daylight savings and the day before the midterm elections.

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The Rumpus: I want to start this conversation with a moment of joy and solidarity. When I logged into work today, my colleagues were Slacking what time their children woke up thanks to daylight savings (it was all in the four o’clock hour) and I had to laugh, mostly because I was just so grateful to be able to share that moment with other parents at work. Your book is steeped in the importance of parents supporting each other and driving policy change together. Tell me about how these ideas percolated for you during the pandemic.

Jessica Grose: The pandemic crystallized a lot of ideas for me. I think it woke up a lot of people who realized that they were not enjoying parenthood as much as they thought they could because of all the sort of structural difficulties that they were having. And it made them more aware of all the deficiencies. These are all ideas I’ve been thinking about for a decade, but it was the pandemic where everything just absolutely fell apart. Moms, in particular, were expected to just be there holding the bag without complaint.

The [New York] Times was really amazing during the pandemic, and they did all sorts of things to support parents. But I have to say, the only way we really got through it was by moving in with my parents. When there was no childcare for anybody, it was just not possible to have a two-working-parent family without help. So, despite having a kind of ideal workplace for our current moment, again, the only way that I really got through was relying on family.

Rumpus: As a person who didn’t have family back-up, I was very jealous reading about the set-up that you had. Do you have advice for parents who don’t have family help?

Grose: I’m extraordinarily lucky and blessed to live near my family, and to have healthy parents who are not super old. [My parents] were sixty-three when I had my older daughter, and we have a good relationship. My grandparents, my maternal grandparents, lived near us growing up, and they enabled my parents to be a two-working-parents family. So, it was not hard at all for me to ask for help because it was a generational norm for my family.

For folks who do not have those myriad privileges, I think creating your own support network of other parents who are willing to help is imperative. It takes time and effort, and it’s not always easy to find your people, especially if you are new to a city. So, I’m not suggesting that it is easy. But I think normalizing asking for help and making it explicit is important. If you have friends through your kids and you’re clicking, offer to babysit their kid. And then they can reciprocate. Sometimes you just have to make the first move.

Trusting people with your kids is always a journey, but I think the first step is just accepting that nobody can do it all themselves and everyone will be happier and benefit from spreading the care around. I think parents are always in a sort of defensive crouch, apologizing like it’s such a burden for other people to spend time with their kids. I think that that’s the wrong frame. My husband’s sister just had a new baby, and I am so psyched to hang out with this baby, hold this baby, and then give this baby back! But I think because we are in a culture that is so truly anti-child in some ways, I think a lot of people have the mindset that it’s a burden to ask someone to just spend a short amount of time with your kids. And I just think that a lot of people would love to. With our girls, we’ve had friends come babysit our kids and they have such a great time. It’s a couple hours, you know.

Rumpus: Yeah. And a couple hours can lift a huge burden for the parent. Like, if you’re holding the baby all day and night, two hours to not hold the baby is amazing.

Grose: Exactly. I think it’s a mindset thing. It’s a community thing. And I don’t ever want to offer this advice lightly and be like, “Yeah, just ask somebody, it’s no big deal!” It’s really, really hard. It’s taken years for us. Our kids are six and nine now, and I don’t think I would have been comfortable asking our friends to come sit with the kids when they were two and five, because it would have involved dealing with so much work. My kids now—they go to the bathroom by themselves and can fix themselves food and it’s like literally just hanging out with two small people.

Rumpus: I think it’s so interesting and has been my experience, too, what you said about the social norms of a family often—not always, but often—setting expectations for how a woman thinks about her working life. Given what all of us pandemic parents have been through, do you think there will be more intergenerational living when our children have children? Like, when we’re the grandparents, will we be more willing to help our kids out?

Grose: I haven’t seen good data on this, but anecdotally I’ve heard of so many people who during the pandemic moved to be closer to family—uprooted their whole lives, moved states. A lot of people left when they realized, “Oh, I just really need to be near my family of origin now.” So, I think it is happening already.

My six-year-old, I don’t know if she’s just like this or if it’s because she was three when the pandemic started and she’s just used to being with me so much, but she had the flu last week, so she was home from school, and she just was like, “Mommy, I want to just stay home and be cozy with you forever and I never want to leave.” My older one never said stuff like that. So, I don’t know if it’s just her personality, if she would have been like this anyway, or she’s just a product of the pandemic and . . . if this generation of kids will just be like, “Yeah, I don’t want to move super far away from my family because we all went through this crazy time together and I realized how important it is to be close.” Who knows? But I’m optimistic that we’ll move in that direction.

Rumpus: Another shifting norm you write about is our relationship to social media. You highlight how, during the pandemic, things got a little “out of control” in terms of how much we were depending on it for connection—just a basic level of connection that we needed to survive that isolated time. Social media’s normal ability to spark anxiety, jealousy, shame, and guilt also got exacerbated by our circumstances. What are you thinking or seeing now about how we’ll move forward?

Grose: Listen, we’re all human—we all want to connect with each other. That is a basic human need and desire. And no matter how evolved you are, it is still very human to compare yourself to other people. We all deal with that, right? I need to be on social media to see what people are talking about on social media, to know what’s important to the groups of people that I’m trying to talk to and reach. If I felt that I could do my job as well without being on social media, I would be gone tomorrow. But it’s still an extremely valuable tool for me because of the work that I do.

But let’s separate a typical parent who does not work in media or an adjacent field where being on social media is imperative to them doing the best job that they can do. In broad strokes, I think more and more people are moving to more private communication for connection—like a big WhatsApp or Discord group—something that has more of a barrier to entry, less of a sort of public forum where strangers can comment rudely on whatever you’re doing.

That said, I continue to be moved by stories of people who have gone through incredibly difficult times in their parenting with specific problems and that have found support among people they don’t know in real life. I remember one mom I talked to in the book who talked about being in a Facebook group for moms whose kids were in the NICU for a long time. And it wasn’t just like, “Oh we’re all in this together.” They gave her practical advice for how to deal with that situation day in and day out. In that situation, your friends can support you emotionally, but if they haven’t been through something like that, they just won’t know the sort of details, right? So, for some things, social media will always be incredibly useful.

One piece of advice that I’ve taken from Dr. Ilyse DiMarco, who I interviewed for the book, is that I don’t follow anyone who makes me feel bad. I immediately will unfollow or block anyone who’s making me feel bad about my parenting choices—or anything else—in any kind of way.

Rumpus: Maybe the most frightening thing in your book, for me, came in chapter six where you say that opinions around parenting became “much more retro” during the pandemic. You say, “The only nontraditional attitude was that there was more support for both mothers and fathers earning money. This combination of expectations that mothers should earn money but also stay home with young children is actually the worst of all possible worlds.”

I totally agree that this expectation is the worst; for many people it’s just not attainable, or good for their physical or mental health. But I’m curious, given all your reporting: What are you seeing women really want? If expectations can be set aside: Do most women today want to be at work with full-time childcare? Or do they want to be at home with the kind of government support you see other countries have? Do you see any kind of majority stake here, or are our desires truly all over the place?

Grose: I think it’s all over the place, but it also changes over time. We try to divide stay-at-home moms and working moms into two separate people, but they’re actually the same people, because most people who stay at home for some period of time end up going back to work eventually. So, we pretend that those are two different species of parent. But it’s just that sometimes they would like to be home, when they have very little kids—or they are home when they have very little kids because childcare is so expensive that they cannot afford to continue to work. The idea that you only want one of those things is just not true. I would say it’s both, for different people, but even possibly for the same person at different points in their motherhood or fatherhood.

I’ve read many different polls [on this topic], and they always ask questions slightly differently, and you’re not always getting the full picture, so let’s take this with a grain of salt. But based on the data I’ve seen and based on the number of people I’ve talked to, I think the ideal scenario for a lot of parents would be to work part-time. They want to keep a foot in the adult world and do whatever they were doing for work, especially if they have a career that they like, or a career that they’ve enjoyed.

The crunch is that, usually in the United States—and this is why I wrote the book about American parenting specifically, because there are some specific ways that American parenting is different—the American workplace ties our healthcare to our jobs. So, lots and lots of parents are working full time jobs—they’re working many, many more hours than they would like to work—simply because they need health insurance. And that is stupid.

So, everybody wants different things. But mostly I think people want more unstressed time with their kids. I think so much of the time we are spending with our kids we are exhausted, and we have all this other stuff on our minds that’s mentally draining, physically draining. But the answer is not always more childcare.

Rumpus: It seems that between the time you finished editing this book and now, any importance or interest in paid family leave and the American Families Act and Build Back Better just got totally forgotten in the shadow of the abortion debate. Less than twelve months ago we were having a totally different conversation. I don’t know about you, but I find this infuriating.

Grose: As I was revising this book, two more states adopted paid leave. It’s not going to be on the cover of the New York Times that Maryland passed paid family leave, but the fact is that there actually are things happening and activists doing really hard work and politicians doing really hard work and change is moving forward all the time on these issues.

On a federal level, I’m not optimistic. Then again, I don’t like to remember this, but you know who’s done the most for paid leave on a federal level of any president in recent memory? Donald Trump. He created paid leave for federal workers. So, this is why I’m not a pundit because I think you can say lots of things about what’s going to happen in the future and many of them will be wrong.

The other thing I’ve been talking about, and it seems like this is negative, but in a way is also inspiring because it means we can do it too, is: Roe falling didn’t happen overnight. That was a fifty-year conservative project. They kept their eye on the prize. Why can’t we do that? Why can’t passing paid leave be a liberal project? I think we cannot expect these things to happen overnight, but why aren’t we using their playbook? They’re really good.

Rumpus: You wrote about the particular time in a parent’s life where childcare is so critical, when children are young, and that for most people this is a relatively short-lived period of time, so it’s easy to forget once you’re out of it just how hard it was. Like childbirth! Do you think that that is also part of the political problem here?

Grose: I’ve looked at so much polling on this and it’s like everybody wants it, everybody says they want it, and then if you look at the priority list of issues, this is their fifteenth priority. So, it’s just about making it more urgent. It’s about having politicians who are really fighting for it and making it central to their message. And I wish that more male politicians would be doing it. But I really do believe, on this issue, we’re going to just need more moms in Congress. I think about the people who have been the most outspoken about the issue and it’s all women who have experienced it themselves. I wish our politics could be less like this, you know, but it’s how it is. Women have been the biggest, loudest supporters of these issues.

I’m speaking to you on the day before the midterm elections, and one of the things that I find the most disheartening in this moment is: I have not heard a single politician with a national platform talk about anything around universal childcare, universal pre-K, any of these things that were part of Build Back Better. And there are things in these bills that are important for everybody. There are so many things that yes, benefit parents—but they’re also good for all of us. I think it’s a detriment actually that these things are framed as parent issues because almost everyone in America will at some point have to provide caregiving to a family member or will need it themselves. People get sick; that is life. We all need a gifted politician to make that case.

Rumpus: You have been writing about these topics for over a decade. What most surprised you in putting this book together?

Grose: I read all these diaries and letters and historians’ accounts of motherhood for the past couple hundred years and, you know, despite the fact that things have changed so much in so many ways, the sort of raw emotions of motherhood, especially early motherhood, have always been the same. There is one mom I quoted who was talking about childbirth in like 1849, about how the truth of it is that it’s hell—and I just had to laugh. I mean, women have always been telling the truth about what it’s like, if only amongst themselves. And that was both surprising and also very delightful. Reading these accounts, which were often really very funny, you can see that real-talk-among-girlfriends tone was always there, and it continues. It’s funny and sad and, I think, hopeful in a way, in that, you know, this is the reality.

 

 

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Author photo by Judith Ebenstein


Margot Kahn is co-editor of the New York Times Editors' Choice collection This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home (Seal/Hachette) and the forthcoming Wanting: Women Writing About Desire (Catapult, February 14, 2023). www.margotkahn.com More from this author →