by Jessica Grose
Mariner Books, 2022Buy Book
In Screaming on the Inside: On the Unsustainability of American Motherhood, Jessica Grose explains that while caregiving is typically not included in traditional economic models, it is labor on which our economy depends, labor on which all of our well-being depends. American parents are raising the next generation of customers, clients, students, computer scientists, voters, doctors, maintenance workers, teachers, politicians, cashiers, truck drivers, lawyers, and therapists. We need parents to grow and raise those people, which means that parents are doing demanding, unpaid labor that benefits all of us. If this is true, Grose asks, why don’t we as a society support parents in a way that is commensurate with their contribution?
“When sociologists compared happiness levels of parents and nonparents in twenty-two countries,” writes Grose, “they found that parents in the US were comparatively the most miserable.” Financial pressure in the US sends one in four people back to work within two weeks of giving birth. According to a 2021 poll, “44% of households with children under age 18 have been facing serious financial problems. That figure jumps to 63% for Black families and 59% for Latino households.” Finding quality, affordable childcare is a constant struggle for US families; most options demand an unsustainable fraction of a household’s income. Screaming on the Inside reminds us that this situation is untenable.
The first time I got pregnant, I was staring down the barrel of single motherhood in New York City. I googled daycares in my neighborhood and learned that they would cost my entire research assistant salary, leaving nothing for rent, food, or anything else. I couldn’t work without childcare, and if I didn’t work, I couldn’t feed and house myself, never mind a child. I chose to end the pregnancy.
I got pregnant again a few years later, and my situation had changed. I gave birth to a baby girl. When she was small, my parenting partner was working in another city for half of each week. My daughter was kicked out of her daycare for slow gross motor development. (An assistant teacher at the center later admitted that the daycare director had discovered she could make more money by ejecting my kid and taking on two older children instead.) Even after we found a second daycare, my daughter was often sick, as is common with children in group care. With my family several states away and friends sprinkled around a gigantic city, my child’s illnesses frequently left me scrambling in the first months of a brand new job. I tried to make up the many canceled work hours late at night in between her frequent wakings, but ended up driving myself half-mad and sick from lack of sleep. For me, weaning was an overwhelming hormonal upheaval, and it occurred just as the career I had spent years building imploded around me, employers dissatisfied, students enraged. I watched my daughter become thinner and thinner, more and more stressed, as she refused for months to take a bottle. Desperate for something, anything, to make things better, I reached for the tool that had gotten me through excruciating circumstances pre-motherhood: cigarettes.
At the time, I did not see any of these events as evidence that I was living in a society that is unsupportive of parents. I saw only personal failure, an inability to “cut it.” I saw selfishness, weakness, incompetence, addiction, and mental illness. If I was unable to combine my internalized vision of an ideal worker and ideal mother, then I must be the one at fault. I was not motivated to question the lack of systemic support for child-rearing because I believed that I was the problem. I had gone hoarse screaming on the inside—at myself—and had no voice left for screaming on the outside.
Thank goodness New York Times parenting columnist Jessica Grose emerged from early motherhood with her voice still intact. In Screaming on the Inside, Grose offers an alternative perspective on my difficulties in combining home and market labor. Drawing on work by scholar Joan C. Williams, Grose explains that our cultural “expectations of ideal mother and ideal worker are in an unresolvable conflict.” She argues that our expectations of ourselves as mothers need to change, our expectations of workers need to change, and the amount of support that our government provides families and birthing people needs to change.
Grose is a snappy writer with a knack for synthesizing large bodies of information and condensing complex ideas into easily digestible chunks. In Screaming on the Inside, she uses these talents to explore critical social issues. The book’s argument is three-pronged. Grose combines research on the idea of motherhood across history with research on representations of motherhood in social media. She uses this research to advance the position that American society holds mothers to unattainable (and thus harmful) standards. Specifically, Grose argues that “good” American mothers are expected to be “selfless” and “immaculate,” sacrificing their “whole person to [their] child.” Grose supplements this argument by weaving together quotes from original interviews with a diverse group of American mothers. These quotes illustrate the degree to which real mothers (as opposed to the imaginary ones in our collective imaginations, or the constructed ones on Instagram) are suffering in the double bind of absurd standards and insufficient support.
The third component of the book is the story of Grose’s own struggle to succeed in her career while simultaneously reaching for the ideals of motherhood she had internalized. She describes how her misguided desire to embody the cultural ideal of maternal “purity” caused her to stop taking antidepressants in early pregnancy, which led to debilitating anxiety attacks. Grose shares her battle with hyperemesis gravidarum (extreme morning sickness) in pregnancy, her internal fight over whether to breastfeed despite the pain, and her demoralizing interactions with patronizing, misogynistic male colleagues. She also includes memories of working and mothering her two young daughters during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in NYC, a section she titles (fabulously), “Celebrating My Birthday with a Klonopin Prescription.”
Grose and I are both college-educated, married, white, similar-aged, English-fluent mothers with two children living in New York City. Even for me, a mother who is demographically close to Grose, the descriptions of her personal maternal struggles felt somewhat distant and unfamiliar. (While Grose’s child came into her bedroom during a Zoom interview and fell asleep beside her, my child barged into my Zoom work meeting and announced that she had “pooped a REALLY BIG poop” and needed “help wiping.”)
To her credit, Grose explicitly acknowledges her level of privilege. It was hard for me, though, to imagine starting motherhood as Grose did, having “barely held a baby.” It was hard to imagine an early pandemic experience in which my parents could help with childcare because they lived in my city and did not themselves have to work. It was hard for me to imagine a motherhood in which day-to-day interactions with growing children do not present a substantial challenge. Public tantrums, angry biting, midnight-vomit-covered sheets, the endless negotiations over screen time and treats, the monotony of going up and down the same staircase twenty-eight times, those ungodly hours of weekend mornings during which no one in their right mind should be awake and yet here you are trying to explain why slime doesn’t belong in your underwear drawer… All of these parts of parenting are suspiciously absent from Grose’s experience, or absent from her representation of that experience. Of course, no one’s personal circumstances in mothering are universal, so it isn’t possible for Grose’s own story to be a thorough accounting of “what makes parenthood hard.”
The sections that describe her own parenting life serve a function that I valued even more than a relatable and exhaustive description of parenting challenges. Grose’s willingness to share her parenting choices—her decision to restart antidepressants while pregnant, to bottle-feed when she knew breastfeeding wasn’t right for her, to both stop and start working because she wanted and needed to—all of this serves to point a way forward for other mothers, to show what it can look like to reject unrealistic ideals of selflessness. Grose’s story demonstrates how we can start from the assumption that the birthing person has worth and valid needs when making decisions that affect the well-being of both baby and birthing person.
Screaming on the Inside is a timely chorus of outrage, a manifesto rallying parents, mothers, and birthing people to push back against our lack of institutional support. It is a concise history and passionate indictment of our unrealistic standards for “good” mothers, and a frank accounting of one journalist’s struggle to maintain her professional identity in the face of pregnancy, birth, and the early postpartum period.
Read it to remind yourself that you’ve been set up for failure.
Read it to give yourself grace.
Read it to accept your own maternal ambivalence.
Read it to be inspired.
Read it to remember how angry you are.