by Jessica Grose
Mariner Books (2022); 240 pp.; $26.96 (Hardcover)Buy Book
I was compelled to read Jessica Grose’s Screaming on the Inside: The Unsustainability of American Motherhood (Mariner, 2022) based on the title alone. As an American mother who raised young children in the United Kingdom for four years, I couldn’t put my finger on the reasons why, as an expat, I had experienced a softer side of motherhood living abroad.
From the first chapter, I was enlightened by Grose’s theory about how American motherhood has evolved into the ill-supported, anxiety-producing job it is today. She explores the origins of our image of the “self-sacrificing, good mother” by delving deep into America’s history, religious foundations, and “work-at-all-costs” culture.
In a fascinating narrative that is part memoir, part research, Grose weaves together interviews with a diverse range of mothers. She uses the words these mothers say to illustrate her point about the burdens that American mothers carry, inspiring readers to fight for change.
Formerly a senior editor at Slate and an editor at Jezebel, Grose is a New York Times journalist who writes a popular newsletter on parenting. Her work has appeared in New York, the Washington Post, Businessweek, Elle, Cosmopolitan, and many other publications. She is also the author of two novels, Sad Desk Salad and Soulmates. Profiles Editor Holly Rizzuto Palker caught up with Grose over Zoom to discuss motherhood in America and parenting during the pandemic. This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Holly Rizzuto Palker: Wave your magic wand. Of the suggestions you explore in the book, what is the single most important government intervention that would benefit mothers in our country? Why?
Jessica Grose: I think universal healthcare and universal sick leave would be the best start. So many people, especially single moms, want to go for better [job] opportunities that could give them more flexible work. But they can’t because their employment is tied to their healthcare. It’s the original sin of the American workplace, and medical debt is the biggest reason for bankruptcy in America. Moms are more likely to be in difficult financial straits because of medical debt. It seems like that’s not something that affects moms directly, but it very deeply does. Everybody has a family member who will require care at some point, and who will need support because they can’t work. We have no wiggle room. That is unique to the United States.
HRP: You’ve portrayed an optimistic view, suggesting that with time, systemic change around making motherhood more sustainable is a desired and possible goal for people on both sides of the political spectrum. Our country is so polarized; do you believe meaningful change can happen? If so, in what specific ways do you believe the country’s attitudes will evolve positively, bi-partisanly?
JG: I’ve had more conversations with conservative Republicans about their desire to move forward on things like paid leave and childcare in the past five years than I’ve ever had before. The previous generation of politicians thought a mother’s place was in the home, and any legislation that pulled mothers from the home was anathema to a functional society. In 1993, when the Family Medical Leave Act passed, John Boehner, who was then a congressman, called it another example of yuppie entitlement. I don’t think a conservative Republican would say that today. Maybe as a new generation moves in, we’ll have similar values melding together in this arena, which would be nice.
I don’t agree with Rick Santorum on policies, but he is fighting for paid parental leave. It doesn’t seem like that matters, but that matters. He is calling for increased paid sick and family leave in economic relief packages. That is meaningful.
Childcare advocates passed a law in New Mexico giving childcare providers more financial support. It took ten years to pass that law in a purple-leaning-toward-blue state. The passage of that law will never make national news because it’s a local matter. But if you’re following the beat, you’ll see things like that happen all the time. Because I’m so close to it, I can be more optimistic. It can seem like nothing is happening, but if you follow it closely enough, you’ll see, things are happening all the time. That doesn’t discount all the injustice, but it does give me hope.
HRP: What concrete, bite-size actions can mothers take to make American motherhood sustainable?
JG: I think the daycare crisis is underreported. Last time I checked, there were 80,000 fewer workers in childcare than there were pre-pandemic. We talk less about how that affects aftercare programs in elementary schools. Most people’s workdays don’t match the school day, so you need to put your kids somewhere from three to six. I’m grateful that my kids’ public school is two blocks from our front door and that the aftercare program is robust.
I would go as local as possible in terms of political help. There’s an organization called The Childcare for Every Family Network that fights for universal childcare. Find activist organizations, see who’s organizing on these issues locally, and see what you can do to help them. Nationally, it’s not going to happen in the near term.
HRP: How has your research affected your perception of work/life balance as a mother and an American?
JG: Work/life balance has been okay for me, but it is only made possible by a lot of privilege and a supportive husband who does his fair share of childcare. Being a mom, there’s no slack ever. I don’t dillydally. I get my stuff done. I find the balance. I make it happen. When my kids were little, we were paying so much for childcare, it still boggles my mind. As American mothers, we are left to our own devices, and it makes us feel isolated and under siege. I know that sounds dramatic, but I feel like we are being attacked. We’re defensive, and it makes us less supportive of the other people in our community because we feel so attacked. I say that in the book. American moms also feel like we can’t ask for help because we’re surrounded by people who seem to be doing it all single-handedly. We see these images, and even if intellectually we know that they’re not true, we still feel “less than” if we can’t hack it because we perceive other people to be managing it.
HRP: How did interviewing women from all walks of life change your perspective as a mother?
JG: I’d been reporting for years before I wrote the book, so it wasn’t such a departure. I think that doing it so much in a small amount of time confirmed what I already knew deep in my heart. Everyone just needs to have empathy. Everybody is going through their own private, complicated issues, no matter their background. There are certainly differences, but there are also deep similarities.
HRP: How was the book received by mothers inside and outside your peer group?
JG: Overwhelmingly, the response has been so gratifying to me. I get notes a couple of times a week from people who feel like it illuminated something for them that they hadn’t been able to articulate previously. They feel validated and seen. But not everybody loves it. That’s the name of the game. I think some people felt they couldn’t relate. I’ve heard from moms who are very conservative, and think I didn’t reflect their experiences or feelings enough. I take that to heart. But you can’t be all things to all people. I appreciate anyone who cares enough about these issues to spend the money and take the time to read and engage with the book. I’m here for the response as long as it’s stated respectfully, which, on the internet, you can’t always get.
HRP: Have their perspectives informed you for the next thing you write?
JG: I think it’s good to accept a writer with opinions. They won’t always be popular opinions. Talking to people who didn’t like the book didn’t always change my mind about what I had written. I could see where they were coming from and why they reacted the way they did. But I think it’s important, especially if you write nonfiction, to understand that not everyone’s going to like it. And just because someone doesn’t like it doesn’t mean that you did the wrong thing or you had the wrong opinion.
HRP: I think that the world we’re living in feeds into anxiety. Everything is at our fingertips, and even the school expects a response right away. It was easier for my mom in the eighties. It’s so difficult for mothers to manage life nowadays.
JG: I often feel like one of those Stretch Armstrong dolls. That’s what we’re all like now. Every one of our limbs is being stretched in a different direction until our heads pop off. There’s too much to keep track of all the time. I also think mental health conditions are multifactorial. It’s hard to pin them on any one specific thing. In the perinatal period, it’s hormonal, it’s circumstantial, it’s hereditary, it’s biological, it’s everything, right? Some parenting anxiety is American.
HRP: During the pandemic, a New York Times article by Anna Goldfarb titled “What to Say When People Tell You About Their Coronavirus Fears” introduced me to the idea of “toxic positivity” and the necessity to talk about the hard parts. You’re addressing a similar theme when, in the conclusion, you discuss realizing that you needed to stop parrying your friend’s ambivalence with positivity about having another child. What techniques do you employ to help you “sit with ambivalence?”
JG: I still feel guilty about all sorts of things, all the time. Sometimes even to myself, I will dismiss certain feelings. All you can do is take a beat before you engage in self-talk. You can’t not feel your feelings. I’ve tried it. It’s about taking that beat and actually doing things that reflect your values, but it doesn’t work every time.
HRP: During your pregnancy and through the pandemic, you learned that you couldn’t control everything. How do you stay true to that when things get difficult?
JG: Having such a difficult entry into motherhood from the beginning, perversely, was helpful in terms of my accepting that I couldn’t control everything. I couldn’t control my pregnancy in any way. It allowed me to go into early motherhood, knowing that there were a ton of things that were out of my control. Once my second kid was born, I realized there were limits to what we could do as parents because my kids were so different. We have the same rules in place for them, to create structure, but they react differently to everything. They are just themselves. I find that delightful. It is one of the great joys of parenting. Seeing who these little people are beyond my projection of what they should be.
HRP: How did the pandemic make you a better mother? How did it make you a worse mother?
JG: Well, a bomb was dropped on all of our lives. I think I was less patient with [my kids] because it was so hard. In the spring of 2020, I don’t think any of us were on our A game in terms of our parenting. If you were, then God bless! In the early pandemic, the hardest part actually wasn’t about my kids, it was that my parents both had Covid. I couldn’t even focus on being worried about my kids because I was so worried about my parents. I was just getting through every day.
I’m more grateful now. Before, who would’ve thought to be grateful just for your kids going to school every day? Now, I appreciate the quality time with them more. I’ve restructured my life to spend more time with them. I work from home more. I prioritize being home for dinner every night, which wasn’t possible pre-pandemic. I would not go back to how our lives were previously.
HRP: What do you wish you were asked about your book, that you haven’t been asked?
JG: I would love to talk more about the hopeful parts. I spend a lot of time talking about ways in which the systems are falling short for American moms. Because we’re airing the difficulties, it doesn’t mean we’re despairing about them. I ultimately think that it’s a hopeful book. My intention is that once we’ve named the problems, we can start fixing them. I talk about that in the last chapter and in the conclusion. It’s within our power to improve our lives and the material situations of many parents in this country.