In a scene of Hulu’s Fleishman Is in Trouble that practically won Claire Danes a Golden Globes nomination on its own, Rachel Fleishman lets out a galaxy-ripping scream during a yoga retreat with her lover. She screams for an impressive 85 seconds, her face expanding into a black hole of rage, her skin flushing into a reddish hue, with anguish and catharsis pulsing through every decibel pouring out of her throat. Through it, she expels all of the pent up shit that’s been weighing on her for more than a decade.
We’re already seven episodes deep into the novel-turned-limited-series, and yet this is the first time we’re seeing things from Rachel’s perspective. For the six episodes before that, the audience has listened to Rachel’s ex-husband, Toby (Jesse Eisenberg), endlessly slander his former spouse for all the ways she’s failed as a wife, as a mother, and as a life partner. Her sudden disappearance, which has left him as their two young kids’ primary caretaker, only exacerbates this. Like any sympathetic viewer—guided by the show’s equally sympathetic narrator, Libby Epstein (Lizzy Caplan)—I’ve been on Toby’s side up until now, watching as he’s struggled with the parenting woes that mar the Upper East Side’s wealthiest: ushering his kids from 92Y summer camp to Broadway shows to the Hamptons and back. And just like Toby, I’ve become convinced that Rachel is the epitome of evil, having spent more than a decade doggedly running her talent agency at the expense of her family’s true happiness, which she’s taken a backseat in trying to achieve—the worst thing a mother could ever do.
These sound like rich people problems—and they definitely are! Roll your eyes! But Rachel’s predicament also shows us a mothering experience recognizable to most moms. In the scream that ends all screams, we’re finally told a different story about Rachel, one that illustrates the extent of her exhaustion and anxieties as a working mother, caged in on all sides by what scholars call “intensive mothering.” Coined by scholar Sharon Hays in 1996, intensive mothering is a child rearing philosophy in which mothers are made to “take all the responsibility for managing, thinking, and organizing their children’s lives,” Dr. Lynn O’Brien Hallstein, a scholar of contemporary motherhood at Boston University, told Jezebel. This doesn’t mean just shuttling them off soccer practice. It means “making sure that your child is in an elite soccer program so that they can be successful, and it will help with their college app.”
Prior to this, Hallstein says that we as a society embraced a model known as “flower pot” mothering, wherein the general understanding was that you “give the children water and the basic resources they need, and they’ll grow up healthy.” But apparently, watering kids just wasn’t enough. And if mothers weren’t already struggling to selflessly embody the weight of parenthood before, they sure were after the world shut down. “We asked them to do even more, not less,” Hallstein said. With the weariness of an entire global pandemic reaching its third year, intensive motherhood—in all of its thankless glory—has rightfully inspired a couple recent works that illuminate the absurdity of just how much we expect from mothers. “Mothers are at a breaking point,” Hallstein said.
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The phenomenon of intensive mothering emerged in the 1980s, largely in response to women solidifying their place in the workforce and embodying the ethos of “individual choice” that so strongly coursed through the feminist movement of the time. For the first time ever, they were able to “have it all.” But scholars later argued that intensive mothering molded itself into a double-edged sword for working moms. While these women technically “had it all,” this newfound freedom was simultaneously weaponized against them by adding more pressure to be “perfect” in everything they did. “It’s a way of making sure that no matter how much success or how much responsibility a mother has outside of the family, the mother is still primarily responsible for raising children,” Hallstein told Jezebel. To put it in today’s terms, they faced the pressure of juggling the identities of a perfect housewife and girlboss.
So much of what Toby doesn’t see in Rachel’s journey of early motherhood shows just how heavy the weight of the responsibility really is. After the doctor breaks her water without her permission during the delivery of their first child, Rachel succumbs to a postpartum depression that renders her unable to live up to the expectations that are cheerfully revered at Mommy & Me sessions. Unable to connect with Toby (who ruthlessly criticizes her), the other moms, or even her newborn, Rachel finds her only solace at a sexual assault support group, where she wordlessly sobs as the other women try to comfort her.
Any mother will tell you that the expectations set by intensive mothering require a whole lot of resources, time, and energy. “Mothers who have economic and educational privilege are the most able to meet the standards, but even they fail, because no one can meet those kinds of standards 24/7,” Hallstein said. Because of this, even someone like Rachel—who is seemingly positioned to “win” motherhood with her co-parenting setup, money to pay nannies, and a circle of moms to coordinate playdates with—is doomed.
Even if we know the societal pressures imposed on child rearing are at once painfully constricting and overwhelmingly abounding, we continue to push them on mothers fiercely, judging as they flounder and fail. Unsurprisingly, tolerance for mothering failures varies greatly depending on things like race and class. For example, Black mothers—whose mothering is the most policed and surveilled—have worked together to create alternative child rearing practices, such as community mothering, that push against the idea of the nuclear family as the center of care. Despite its successes, these mothers are still demonized for their choices, particularly because of how community mothering “violates the principle of intensive mothering that it’s the individual mother who is primarily responsible, not communities,” Hallstein explained. “The ability to be valued and lauded for motherhood continues to remain a privilege of whiteness, wealth, and hetero-nuclear family formations,” she added.
Motherhood is hard enough for those who want children, let alone for those who don’t and still end up having to take on its herculean obligations. This is exactly what happens to Gemma (Allison Williams) in the thriller comedy M3GAN, when she finds herself the primary guardian of her newly orphaned niece Cady (Violet McGraw). And as much as M3GAN is about the absolutely maniacal antics of a child robot, it’s also about how Gemma tries (and inevitably fails) to solve the challenges of motherhood by taking human limitations out of its equation entirely.
It’s obvious that Gemma, a career-driven roboticist and toy developer, isn’t cut out to parent Cady (which isn’t even her fault, really). During a visit with a social worker, Gemma can’t seem to properly display the maternal affection needed to prove that she’s a capable guardian: While being observed, she reluctantly offers Cady her collector’s figure to play with (which she previously clarified isn’t a toy) and corrects her about how it works rather than fostering Cady’s own discovery. Free from the scrutiny of the social worker, Gemma leaves Cady without toys or food while she coops herself up in her home office to meet a work deadline.
By intensive mothering standards, Gemma flounders—as would most anyone who suddenly became a mother overnight, and entirely against her will. To stave off more embarrassment, Gemma introduces Cady to her latest invention, M3GAN, a cybernetic doll who is capable of displaying both spontaneous speech and empathy. When Gemma first created M3GAN, she intended for the robot to be a salve for the grunt work of parenthood, and now here she was, filling in the gaps for what Gemma isn’t willing (or able) to do for Cady. As M3GAN takes on the responsibilities of rote discipline and engaging play, Gemma is able to focus on the career she’s made her life—in theory, it truly is the best of both worlds, and Gemma seems primed to come out the other end of intensive mother’s demands triumphantly.
M3GAN isn’t the first to attempt the use of lifelike robo-dolls to crack the code of intensive mothering. In Jessamine Chan’s 2022 novel The School for Good Mothers, for example, those whom the state has deemed “bad mothers” are shipped off to a school and forced to practice their parenting on dolls, while their real children are put in foster care. But M3GAN pushed this issue onto the screen, granting us a visceral visual representation of parenting horrors. We see as Gemma learns that motherhood—unlike her house and car, which are both equipped with Alexa-like assistants—can’t be optimized to perfection. Instead of merely supplementing Gemma’s parenting, M3GAN usurps it, challenging Gemma’s authority and taking on a paternalistic role over Cady to protect her from all harm. Unmarred by the checks of human conscience and morality (and gaining a disturbing sentience of her own), the robo-doll’s boundless devotion devolves into a kind of monstrosity that Gemma herself can hardly wrap her mind around, leaving her with no other choice than to seek its destruction. As it turns out, the humanity inherent to motherhood—especially its flaws—does serve a purpose.
In an ending wholly reminiscent of Frankenstein, Gemma is faced with the extent of her hubris—one that currently threatens to bring on her own demise, but was originally grounded in an earnest and innovative attempt to give mothers a break. Had the expectations on mothers not been so relentless, perhaps Gemma wouldn’t have created M3GAN at all. She violently mangles her own creation, metal grating as she tears M3GAN’s limbs and decapitates her, and releases her own expectations of perfection, knowing that whatever version of a family she and Cady build together will be infinitely better.
If the absurdity of intensive mothering was previously meant to be endured silently, perhaps we’re finally starting to change the terms of agreement. In these two creative works, mothers make noise—blood curdling, destructive noise—demanding that we give them a damn break already.