- I agree with Grose that mom guilt is real, but her book at times suffers from a judgmental tone that risks alienating readers outside of her well-educated, East-coast orbit. Tweet This
- A robust reckoning with the unsustainability of motherhood must also honestly reckon with the fragility of romantic partnerships in America. Tweet This
- The unsustainability of motherhood is driven by the bowling alone trends that drive much of the social angst of our time. Tweet This
I’ve been pregnant and given birth six times, and when I first saw Jessica Grose’s ironically purple, floral-covered book, Screaming on the Inside: The Unsustainability of American Motherhood, I thought the use of the word "unsustainable" an apt choice. Social workers burn out, teachers burn out; mothers burn out, too, though with consequences more severe than career change.
It’s not that I fault parenthood itself—like most parents, I enjoy my children—so much as I blame our modern ecology. My own experiences give me hope that it doesn’t have to be this way, because each of my pregnancies and postpartum periods, while similar, have also been vastly different. There have been times when I have felt like a queen in my glider, baby at the breast, feet propped up, a tray of lactation cookies and an oversized mug of coconut water on the stand beside me, and a long Donna Tart novel on my Kindle. For me, having children has been a transformative—even transcendent—experience. Yet there have also been times when I hated myself, struggled to function, and got lost in the fog of mom guilt that Grose and the women she interviews describe.
While some of this is unpredictable and beyond human control, it fascinates me to dissect each experience: what made one postpartum recovery so glorious and another so trying?
It was with this in mind that I read Grose’s book, during late night feedings with my two-month-old. (I ought to mention that this has been one of the glorious postpartum seasons: Jack is a mild baby, and my husband has been off work most of the past two months thanks to a generous paid parental leave.) Still, I found myself agreeing with Grose’s thesis: moms hear conflicting cultural messages about what it means to be a good mother; the expectations set us up for feelings of failure and guilt; parents need more support than our individualist culture provides; this support must be political and workplace-based, as well as interpersonal.
Her book is strongest and most engaging when Grose shares her own story. I could see myself in Grose’s account of terrible morning sickness as she’s trying to be a good employee at a new job, and in the relatable play-by-play of the birth of her daughter: “As I held my hearty little bear, red-faced and squalling in my arms,” she writes. “I felt love, but more than that—I felt relief.”
Overall, though, I was underwhelmed by the book, which breaks little new ground and at times suffers from a judgmental tone that risks alienating readers outside of Grose’s well-educated, East-coast orbit. (For example, the words “blond” and “Christian” are used repeatedly as pejoratives.) Grose does interview mothers from a variety of backgrounds, but the book’s tone and assumptions make the natural audience politically left-leaning, college-educated moms with careers and those who were most affected by the pandemic (moms like me in Red states that reopened schools faster had an easier time of it than my mom friends in NYC—though neither experience was easy).
To her credit, Grose does give lip service to the diversity of women’s preferences. “We’re not all going to have the same parenting styles, and we’re not all going to have the same personal or work goals,” she writes, “and that is how it should be.”
A glaring omission in this book on the sustainability of motherhood is the lack of discussion of the unprecedented rise in single parenthood and how it affects the well-being of moms and their children.
But the solutions she proposes—namely universal child care and paid parental leave—while broadly popular and deserving of conservative support, are also limited in that they would mostly impact families with two, working parents, a model that is preferred by the college-educated. In one survey, 72% of working-class women said they would prefer to have a stay-at-home parent for young children, compared with just 17% of upper class mothers who said the same.
Gross also praises diverse family structures, writing:
Every family has its own cultural traditions and rules, and those should be honored and appreciated, too. We pretend that the Donna Reed life is still the norm, but in fact, fewer than half of children under eighteen live with two married, heterosexual parents in their first marriage, and 41 percent of children are born to unmarried parents.
What she misses in this telling is whether these trends are by choice or by circumstance. I’m reminded of a single, working-class mother of two who once vented to me about how stressful her life was, then sighed and referenced the 1950s: “I wish my life was like a movie sitcom back then,” she said. “It’d be so nice.” Interestingly, a recent IFS survey conducted by YouGov found that among non-college educated parents who are “at least a little concerned about cultural trends in America,” the top concern is the rise in single parenthood.
Which brings me to what felt like a glaring omission in a book on the sustainability of motherhood: there is no discussion of the unprecedented rise in single parenthood and how it affects the well-being of moms and their children. For college-educated mothers who are more likely to be stably married, this may seem a less pressing issue. As Grose writes of her husband in her acknowledgements, “If all husbands were like Mike, I would not have had to write this book. He’s such an excellent dad and partner.” Figuring out how more people can access this kind of supportive coupling is an urgent social question. A robust reckoning with the unsustainability of motherhood must also honestly reckon with the fragility of romantic partnerships in America, which has the world’s highest rate of children living in single-parent households.
For all the ground that Screaming On The Inside covers in its pandemic-era reporting, it offers little insight into the roots of current trends. I found the chapter on the social history of motherhood to be scattershot and unnuanced. And though the book documents sources of present-day maternal stress—the demanding expectations of intensive parenthood combined with an expectation that moms should also earn money outside the home in workplaces that are less-than-flexible, for example—I was left wondering why motherhood feels so hard in a time of unprecedented affluence and equality for women relative to other historical periods. I wish that Grose had been more probing, taking readers on a quest for sources of sustainability instead of a frenzied surface-level tour of woes.
My working theory is that the unsustainability of motherhood is driven by the bowling alone trends that drive much of the social angst of our time. Individualism has undermined support for moms—if having a baby is primarily an individual lifestyle choice then so, too, is the responsibility of the baby’s care—and the historical arc of motherhood is bending towards isolation. Early humans lived and parented in tribes, and men and women in medieval times shared in the economic life of home-based industry, but the post-Industrial Revolution saw the separating of the domestic and public spheres in a way that siloed the formerly shared work of the home. More recently, the breakdown of marriage and weakening of the extended family, the erosion of neighborly ties, along with the overscheduling of children, and the growing importance of career as a marker to identity, have left moms more susceptible to loneliness.
I agree with Grose that “mom guilt” is real and terrible. These unreasonable and often unspoken set of expectations go hand-in-hand with “intensive parenting” and “total motherhood”—an unhealthy and unhelpful perfectionism that women ought to shed.
Grose touches briefly on some of these themes but does not develop them. She writes that "the contemporary set of expectations” about motherhood “don’t engage with the broader community in any way, shape, or form. Rarely do babysitters, teachers, grandparents, aunties, uncles, or friends appear in heralded images of motherhood that are beamed into our phones.”
She also writes of the importance of intergenerational ties, noting that she found that one of her happiest times as a mom was when they moved in with her parents. And she concludes, “If the pandemic taught us anything, it should have taught us that we need to invest in our local, national, and international ties to raise the next generation.”
Yet I question if it is possible to simultaneously strengthen social ties and reduce societal expectations? I imagine that strengthening multigenerational ties—as in, becoming neighbors with your mother-in-law—might increase the pressures and judgments moms feel, moving from a vague sense of social media pressure to the context of a specific relationship. For better and worse, if others are helping raise your children, they’ll also have more of a say in how things are done.
But I do agree with Grose that “mom guilt” is real and terrible. These unreasonable and often unspoken set of expectations go hand-in-hand with “intensive parenting” and “total motherhood”—an unhealthy and unhelpful perfectionism that women ought to shed.
I wonder if the connection between these two ideas—community and motherhood angst—is that isolation feeds the guilt, giving toxic expectations power. I’ve buckled under those pressures myself, and I’ve found that the way out is through relationships. Moms need the opposite of isolation. The way forward involves honesty, vulnerability, and real friendship.
When my daughter was induced early and had difficulty with breastfeeding and weight gain, the intensity and sleeplessness of our triple feeding schedule (breastfeed, pump, bottle feed, repeat) caught up to me. After months of this, combined with parenting our four other kids and doing freelance work, I was struggling with severe mood swings and depression. I reached out to a more experienced mom whose kids were older than mine, and our weekly talks were lifelines to wisdom and hope. She was the kind of person I could call when I was crying violently in the kitchen, stuck in a doom loop of mom-guilt, as my husband faithfully carted our kids off to the sporting goods store for a diversion.
It’s difficult to write these things, and it was difficult to share them. But bringing my struggles into the light of another mom’s kindness eventually rendered them powerless. My experience is that some of the motherhood anxieties of the well-resourced, college-educated set are culturally self-imposed, phantasms that fade when named. For me, this shared naming happened through friendships, counseling, a small church group I’ve met with for over a decade now, and spiritual direction.
Grose advises women, “We can’t just shed several lifetimes of cultural conditioning in one fluid motion. But we can start by listening to ourselves.” I agree this is a place to start. But it is not enough to stay in our heads. We’ve got to find and be friends, and from this solidarity, we can advocate for changes in policy and the workplace to better support families. Because as Grose puts it, moms need “allies.”
Amber Lapp is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and co-investigator of the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project, a qualitative research inquiry into how white, working-class young adults form families and think about marriage.
Editor's Note: This book review has been updated to reflect the fact that Ms. Grose does acknowledge American mothers' preference for part-time work in her book.