American Moms Have Always Been Screaming Into The Void
Jessica Grose wrote a book about the ways the United States has been screwing mothers for hundreds of years — but she’s hopeful things will get better.
In her new book Screaming on the Inside: The Unsustainability of American Motherhood, Jessica Grose introduces herself by writing, “I failed at motherhood before I even had a child.” As soon as I read it, I relaxed. This was someone I could trust, a mom who wasn’t going to sugarcoat and tell me how to breastfeed while picking organic turnips from the garden.
Grose, who has written two novels, worked as an editor at Jezebel and a senior editor at Slate before becoming the founding editor of Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s weekly Lenny newsletter. In recent years she’s been breathing new life into the parenting beat at the New York Times, writing and editing stories that have illuminated the crisis of parenting through the pandemic, the struggles of American motherhood, and the broken systems that leave many parents overworked, exhausted, and enraged.
Screaming on the Inside takes Grose’s years of research and reporting and goes even deeper, into stories of women like Fanny Longfellow, the first American woman to receive ether during birth, in 1847. Of this early version of an epidural, Grose writes that Longfellow “freaking loved it.” It’s one of many moments where Grose manages to make a book about the ways the United States has been screwing mothers for hundreds of years into something that is actually fun to read — that is, when you’re not feeling enraged.
Grose spoke to Romper about the child care crisis in America, the awful power of mom guilt, and the ways she hopes her book will give voice to so many of us who sometimes just feel the need to scream.
Dina Gachman: You spearheaded so much of the conversation around parenting throughout the pandemic, so is that what inspired this book?
JG: I started writing iterations of the proposal starting in 2014. It never really coalesced, but then the pandemic happened and everything fell apart. It just became clear this was a once-in-a-lifetime crisis that hit parents in a different way than it was hitting everyone else. Obviously it was horrible for so many people, but mothers were doing such a disproportionate amount of picking up the pieces of all of the parts of society that had broken down, and that was obvious to many more people. It became a national issue in a way it just had not been. It’s a bummer that it took a mega-crisis for that to happen.
DG: Your book is deeply researched, so how did the process of writing this book differ from working on novels, or even reported pieces for the Times?
Jessica Grose: It was pretty intense. Over the years I had read so many studies, but I never tried to put it all together in this overarching argument. I really started off by just reading a ton, as many books as I could get my hands on. It was extremely illuminating. Even though I thought I knew quite a bit , about certain laws that were passed and how much the U.S. legal firmament treated the nuclear family for hundreds of years, connecting all the dots was new to me.
“I would schedule reporting calls at night, because when you’re talking to moms, that’s convenient for everybody.”
DG: There was a pandemic going on and you have two young kids, so when did you write?
JG: I am a freak who channels anxiety into overworking, so when I was up and couldn’t sleep because I was freaked out, I would work on the proposal. I sold the book in July 2020, and I would do a lot of reading at night after my kids were asleep. I started writing it slowly. I always wrote Sunday mornings and my husband was so great about protecting that time for me and taking the kids out, so that was like my concentrated writing time on the book. I had about half of the first draft written and then I got eight or nine weeks of book leave. I was very disciplined about my writing and reporting schedule during those weeks. I would schedule reporting calls at night, because when you’re talking to moms, that’s convenient for everybody.
DG: Were your kids back in school?
JG: Oh God, no. It was such a mess. We moved in with my parents for a part of the pandemic, which I talk about in the book. That was the very intense lockdown, when nobody was seeing anybody. Not everyone gets along with their parents and it’s not a fix-all, but it was amazing for all of us. My kids were back in some sort of normal camp or school situation about halfway through me writing the book. Sometimes I can't believe it happened and that I got anything done, ever.
DG: Like you said, that time illuminated the child care crisis in America in ways it had not been before.
JG: I think it’s so important for all working parents to talk about the child care they’re paying for and not keep it a secret, because we are all not doing this while simultaneously watching our kids.
DG: The New York Times Primal Scream Hotline became such a touchstone for parents who desperately needed to be heard throughout 2020 and beyond. Can you talk about how that came about?
JG: There was a day during summer 2020 that I was moving laundry from the washer to the dryer. I had a conference call on my headphones and my children started whining in the background because they were hungry for lunch, and I was like, I feel like nothing I have written and nothing anyone has written has expressed how full to bursting every single minute is right now. It wasn’t just all of the things, it was all of the things in the same minute that you are expected to do right now. That was the animating idea behind the whole package. I was like, I want this feeling captured. I think the phone line was Jessica Bennett’s idea. I loved that she came up with that. I hope we did capture that feeling of too much-ness. I don’t think I’m going to do something that cool again for the rest of my life.
DG: In recent years, you’ve devoted your career to exposing how morally bankrupt the ideals and expectations placed upon American mothers are. Has the research and insight you’ve gained been freeing in some ways?
JG: It has definitely been freeing. I am not fully actualized. I still feel guilt all the time and I struggle day to day, but what it has allowed me to do is if I have some negative feeling about my mothering or about my relationship with my kids, I can step back and say, ‘OK, are you feeling bad because you feel like you’re going against your own values and is this something you would like to improve or be better at, or are you feeling bad because of some societal bullsh*t that you don't even believe in?’ It has allowed me to have a little bit more distance when I do run into moments where I don’t feel so great.
DG: What sorts of things make you feel that guilt?
JG: One thing that is a constant source of guilt for me is that I am not crafty. One of my older daughter’s best friends from preschool, who we still hang out with, her mom is so crafty, she’s so amazing. She’s made stuff for my daughter and I’m so grateful we have them in our lives. Occasionally I would feel bad, but we all have our strengths and our interests and that is not one of mine.
“New moms will say why isn’t anyone talking about this and it’s like, actually people do talk about it, but nobody listens to women.”
DG: Did anything surprise you about motherhood in America as you worked on the book?
JG: Overall I think I had this idea that mothering used to be in some ways “easier” or “more natural” hundreds of years ago, and that it’s only modern conveniences that keep us away from our natural selves. Even if they were only talking amongst themselves, women [in the past] saying like yes, early motherhood is so difficult, my kid won’t breastfeed, I’m exhausted, my husband’s not helping. They were saying “thees” and “thous” and using old-timey language, but it was the same feelings that they were writing to their sisters or their mothers or best friends. So that was actually very affirming to me, like, it has always been hard, and just because it’s hard doesn’t make you any better or worse of a mother. I still love my kids, I’m still so glad that I’m a mom.
DG: How do you hope those revelations help other parents who read the book?
JG: It helps you admit that it’s not perfect all the time. That was one totally amazing revelation. For years, since I’ve been writing about this topic, new moms will say why isn’t anyone talking about this and it’s like, actually people do talk about it, but nobody listens to women.
DG: When you put it that way, it is so true and beyond frustrating.
JG: We have been wrestling with these things for a very long time. It’s maddening but also comforting. I just bought an old Cosmo from 1986 on eBay with a special section on mothers, and some of the cover lines were “Heroic House Husbands” and “The Shameful Daycare Crisis.” If in 1986 they were writing a version of the same article I write like every six months, I’m going to lose my mind. That means they’ve known it’s been a huge problem for 40 years and no one has done anything.
DG: The shame never ends. That’s one thing I loved in the book, is your honesty about taking medication while pregnant, or struggling or experiencing prenatal depression.
JG: Even now if you say any sort of honest thing, you will get people saying you are unfit to be a parent. I’ve written about prenatal depression twice. I had it. In August 2012 I was still in it, and I wrote about it, and I wrote about it once more, in 2019. That’s it. Both times I had people say women with mental illness shouldn’t be parents. That’s why people aren’t talking about it, that’s the fear that someone is going to tell you you’re unfit to be a parent or worst-case scenario take your kids away. People are afraid to be shamed or made to feel less than, especially during the early motherhood period where you’re so vulnerable and tired.
No country that is as wealthy as the United States gives as little to parents. That is something that we don’t have to stand for.
DG: The opposite of that is the whole momfluencer culture, which makes motherhood look like a divine, blissful experience. Do you think that’s here to stay?
JG: I think some aspect of it will always be there. It’s what advertisers love. That’s what the momfluencers are doing, ultimately. They’re selling product, whether it’s clothes, makeup, or cookware. I don’t think that perfectly manicured, perfect blowout and nails against the backdrop of some beautiful location is ever going to go away. TikTok has complicated that image because the stuff that plays better on TikTok is funny and more real. I think it will ebb and flow, but I don’t think it will ever really go away.
DG: What do you hope your book ultimately says to parents, and American mothers specifically?
JG: I want people to feel better about themselves and their parenting and to feel seen. And I want people who are not parents to read it. Obviously the main audience will be people with kids, but maybe people who want to be parents someday or who want to support their friends will read it and become allies in fighting for a better world. I am hopeful that things will get better, I actually really am. No country that is as wealthy as the United States gives as little to parents. That is something that we don’t have to stand for.
You can order Screaming on the Inside on Bookshop.
Dina Gachman’s book of essays about grief, So Sorry For Your Loss, will be published by Union Square & Co. in 2023. She writes for The New York Times, Vox, Texas Monthly, and more. She's based in Austin, Texas.