In the depths of the hell that was parenting in the pandemic, when anxiety threatened to get the best of me, there were some cultural touchstones I saw as bridges connecting me to other moms who were also alone on their islands, forsaken by society: the Encanto song “Surface Pressure;” Dr. Becky’s advice; and Jessica Grose’s New York Times articles about parenting.
Today is the publication day for Grose’s latest book, Screaming on the Inside: The Unsustainability of American Motherhood. When I first heard the title, I had high hopes that Grose had once again snuck into my brain and communicated my dark fears. After reading I’m happy to report that she did even better: She spoke with hundreds of mothers of different races, ethnicities and backgrounds about modern motherhood, while also putting it into the context of how mothers have been marginalized throughout history...some groups more than others.
In our phone conversation, Grose said it was important for her to document the historical moments of motherhood that are unchanging. “I very firmly feel that mothers have always felt this way,” Grose told me. “Motherhood has always been this combination of pain and joy and love, and we don’t hear about the bad parts, because nobody listens to women.”
Grose has reported on work and family for more than a decade, and she’s currently an opinion writer for the New York Times, where she writes a newsletter on parenting. In her introduction to Screaming on the Inside, she talks about how the parenting fiasco of covid was not just a crisis, but “the culmination of more than two hundred years of unrealistic, elitist and bigoted expectations,” and the laws and policy that flowed from these expectations. She cautioned parents to “refuse to feel the guilt and failure that plague so many of us when we are just trying to raise our families under this broken system.”
Grose’s research discusses early modern pregnancy manuals, which often warned women that “their thought crimes” could alter their fetuses. She spoke with a 19th century women’s health researcher, who said pregnant women were advised not to experience any extreme emotion or to read exciting novels for fear of causing a miscarriage.
Unsurprisingly, being a stay-at-home mother and fulfilling that domestic ideal was something constructed and pushed forward by men, and usually only applied to white Christian women.
“Often when I would be like, ‘Where does this weird idea come from that we have in modern life that makes no sense, it would always lead back to a Victorian eugenicist,” Grose told Jezebel. And while mothers of many backgrounds have struggled to be treated with humanity and respect, Grose’s book makes a point of highlighting how Black mothers in particular have been made to feel less than throughout history.
“From the beginning of our country’s existence, laws and cultural norms in some cases have not allowed Black women to be mothers,” Grose said. “Black women had their children taken away from them, they were sexually assaulted by their enslavers. The history is horrifying and should be faced by everybody.”
“The ability to have children in a healthy way and in a healthy environment has often not been afforded to Black women in the same way that it has been to other women in the country,” Grose continued. “You only need to look at what’s happening in the majority-Black city of Jackson, Mississippi right now. You cannot raise healthy children without clean water.”
Grose pointed out that a lot of the cultural norms against working women were about punishing Black women, who have always worked.
Being a working parent in a country without federal paid parental leave or consistently subsidized childcare—not to mention forced birth now, in many states—can feel unsurmountable, and this was only exacerbated by the pandemic. “The shock absorbers are the moms, and the stress they continue to experience as a result of the pandemic is untenable,” writes Grose.
We are still feeling the aftereffects of covid now. I had intended to publish this article a week before Grose’s publication date, but a series of events caused by RSV/pneumonia/lack of childcare etc. created a delay in my ability to submit this story. The irony is not lost on me that I’m a working mother, who is struggling to get her work turned in about another working mom who spent the pandemic juggling two young kids at home while writing about the unsustainable history of motherhood in America. It’s no wonder Grose set up a hotline during the pandemic, where parents could call and just scream into the phone.
I have found that the next step in parenting after feeling like screaming into the void is usually guilt at feeling that way. Grose said that almost every woman she spoke to for the “Identity” chapter in her book talked about feeling guilty in some way or another. She says she likes to take advice from a common source in her columns, psychiatrist Pooja Laskhmin, who urges mothers to use “mom guilt” to figure out what your actual values are.
“You cannot prevent yourself from feeling that initial pang of guilt,” said Grose. She said her biggest takeaway from writing and reporting from her book is pausing and contemplating why she feels guilty. “Is it because I’m falling short on my values? Okay, that’s something to listen to. Is it because some lady at the PDA made me feel shitty about something? Well then, fuck that lady.”
A big thesis in Screaming on the Inside is how deeply people are affected by the performance of social media, and how they feel pressure to perform it themselves.
“Before social media you could see even the moms in your life that always look like they had it together, and they always look perfect and their kids look perfect, but you knew enough about their everyday lives to know they had real problems in life,” says Grose. Social media takes away that context, and Grose is interested in understanding what seeing these images without context is doing to our brains and emotions that we can’t fully comprehend, but will “understand in a hundred years.”
Grose braids together our current challenges in America, our misogynistic and racist history, and what ties mothers together—and in doing so, she acknowledges how easy it is to be pulled into feeling despair in the current political climate. But she says she finds despair “unhelpful.” For those of us who have a choice and choose to have children, it’s ultimately a hopeful act. “If you did not believe that the world was a place that could improve, you would not have children. It’s saying you have hope for the future right?”
“I think laying out how things happened, helps you figure out how to solve them because it’s not like all these things happened by accident,” says Grose. “They happened because of laws made and cultural mores that were pushed on people. We can push back against all those things, we can make other laws, we can have other ideals for ourselves. We don’t have to accept the way things have been.”