Published on January 28th, 2021 | by Amanda Montei2
The “Hot Mess Mom” is an Economic Problem, Not a Mom Problem
After I gave birth, the nurses at the hospital called me “easy” as they passed me off on shift changes. They chatted about my vaginal delivery, the effortlessness with which I took on that first post-birth shit—I even declined the routine stool softener!—and though neither the birth nor the subsequent shit had felt easy (and even as I sensed an indistinct suspicion in the nurses’ praise), in those early days of motherhood, I embraced their assessment of me, hopeful that I, in my new relationship with my baby, might always be easy.
A year later, my husband and I left an academic life in Western New York for California, desperate for support. I took a part-time job at my sister’s home day care, and spent the following year rarely speaking more than a few words each day to anyone over the age of four. I had nannied briefly years earlier—a job for which my only qualification was my gender—but it was not a line of work at which I excelled or that I in any way enjoyed. We had six or seven kids spread between my sister’s small condo living room and patio, and when I worked, it was usually just me, my sister away running errands. I walked the kids to the park down the street, pushing a double stroller in which the two littlest children sat, and beside which four others ambled, holding too loosely onto colorful safety straps that were meant to keep them close, but just left them all jockeying for position.
When the kids got hurt or missed their moms or lost their shit for no discernable reason, I did my best to hold them, running back and forth from one climbing apparatus to another, trying to avoid a call-the-parents fall. As I did, my own daughter, now walking, dangled on my leg, making her jealousy known. When we returned from the park, I cooked lunch in a frenzy, already covered in snot and other kid fluids, already behind schedule, tripping over toys and baby gates while holding my daughter, or refusing to as she cried, or as I held another kid who cried, or as I broke up trivial toy conflict, trying to get everyone fed before naptime, hoping to avoid becoming responsible for some irremediable injury. I often burned the vegetables I was charged with roasting and, after the kids picked through their food, I cleaned most of it off the floor, then sat among the small bodies cuddled on mats on the floor of a dark bedroom, rubbing and patting backs with one hand and trying to keep my daughter quiet on my breast with the other.
I learned the term touched out quickly, and when parents arrived for pickup, my hair was wild, my stretched out maternity clothes stained with equivocal substances—my wild disarray filmic. Back at my apartment with my daughter, it was more of the same: tugging and pulling on my body, demands and tantrums, flying food, unconscionable mess. Five nights a week, it was just us, as my husband worked late hours at a tutoring center, and I cooked dinner between screams and upsets, trying to pull together one fruit, one veggie, one carb, and one protein, all on a colorful Ikea plate. I often fell short of completing the pattern, and, of course, in other ways.
My daughter and I bathed together then, her wet, naked body nursing mine in the tub, and then I packaged her up for sleep and stood in the hallway outside her room, sometimes for hours, waiting for silence, all of the lights in the apartment turned off and my wine propped on a shelf in the hall closet. Then I drank more alone, falling asleep to the glow of the television, passed out on the couch in the wreckage of our day—a shit show of broken toys, dirty snack cups, kids’ water bottles, puzzle pieces, crushed crackers, costume changes, ripped books, miscellaneous trash. Hours later, I would awake on the couch to my own thirst, walking into the kitchen for water, eyes half-closed, forgetting for a moment that the outside world moved inside at night: in my stupor, I would step right into the trail of slick, wet slugs that crawled in the through the open seals of the apartment at dark, dotting the kitchen floor, looking for scraps of food I had neglected to clean up after dinner.
In that era of motherhood, I learned that there is a certain degree of filth and fury to the work of care. I also learned that any structure of caregiving in which the number of adults is equal to or less than the number of small kids can become untenable. Even so, in a capitalist economy that has always relied on a gendered division of labor, and that still has no national maternal leave policy and no state-supported early childhood care system, in recent years, the purportedly inbuilt suffering of motherhood has become a kind of existential truism.
This should come as no surprise, though: we have a long-term cultural fascination with the pain of women, and mothers are no exception. As Jaqueline Rose writes in her book Mothers, referring to the common image of “a mother bereft of her child” who “carries and assuages the burden of human misery on behalf of everyone,” mothers who suffer publicly serve an important purpose: “the mother must be noble and her agony redemptive” because her mourning helps make power nebulous, rather than discrete. Rose is not writing about the mothers, celebrity and ordinary, who struggle to live up to the maternal ideal, even as they make time to giggle publicly about their failure to do so, but these representations also relocate into amorphous places the suffering caused by bad policy and by the conditional inclusion of women in public life. “What the pain of mothers must never expose,” Rose writes, “is a viciously unjust world in a complete mess,” since we use “the agony of mothers to deflect from our awareness of human responsibility for the world.”
Especially in White women’s America, the image of the hapless mother bereft of herself—the hot mess mom struggling with her own desire to have it all and with her related inability to keep up with her maternal and domestic labor, full of loss and always on the brink of breakdown—has become an almost revolutionary new anti-ideal, even as she so often implies that all women’s suffering is droll and unlocatable. She is the motherly spinoff of the new American cult of busyness, and since the pandemic, we have all become hot messes. How could we not? Child care centers will almost certainly need a bailout that may never come, those in favor of privatizing K-12 schools have been, at best, totally opportunistic about school closures, and, as Katherine Goldstein wrote recently, mothers are being actively pushed out of the workforce.
The hot mess mom is sad to me in this way. She is also funny, I guess, because she looks like shit, drinks a lot of coffee and wine, is behind on her domestic labor, says the wrong things, feeds her kids processed food, has no sense of style, loves Target, and either DGAF or shares her struggle because, well, the struggle makes her likeable and honest. If she works outside the home as well, she’s especially waggish, because she is bungling her life in a whole other realm: her inbox is perpetually glutted, her work clothes are stained, and she is always always late. The hot mess mom is, however, generally free of the pain that actually accompanies the mess that is American motherhood, even if she is clearly suffering—she still gets out of bed, pushing through day after day—and in that sense she glows with American optimism and with the language of perseverance, even if one of her primary characteristics is that she does not glow, ever. Her pain, in other words, is well corralled, because even though she is overworked and overwhelmed, it’s okay. She’s just so real.
I can’t deny that there is something appealing and comforting about the hot mess mom. She is even a little Bartlebyan in her refusal of the idyllic. And, very often, she looks a lot like me. But she also portrays the horrible working conditions of motherhood in America with an irony and levity that the situation really doesn’t deserve. Perhaps the hot mess mom’s enduring popularity in pseudo-feminist discourse is a result of the fact that, as Jia Tolentino points out in her book Trick Mirror, we now live in an age in which any woman can be rendered a feminist icon. Or perhaps I have been so run down by motherhood over the years that I no longer have any sense of humor. But the comically miserable mother also depicts the despair caused by the political and economic context in which she circulates as a mere fact of maternal life—or, worse, as something she has done to herself (like I said, perhaps it’s me). She transfigures the joke of a world built on women’s unpaid work as mothers and housekeepers, and therefore on making women’s lives a fucking mess, into the joke of women’s ever disordered and flighty lives.
The pseudo-feminist response to this new pseudo-feminist figure also generally misses the institutional component of the critique, as American mothers continue to assert that their struggles are not anomalies, but rather are part of being human, and that the only true revolution lies not in a bless this mess mentality, but in women’s acceptance of their innumerable flaws—and perfections. “By celebrating hot mess mom [sic],” an editor for the website SheKnows wrote in 2018 in her piece on the glorification of the new standard, which she claims is inspired by the Bad Moms franchise, “we’re shaming the mom who actually holds it all together.” That perspective—that women’s embrace of ongoing failure devalues rather than celebrates “motherhood in all its incarnations”—forgets that maternal success is only achievable by those in deeply privileged positions, such as those who can afford to outsource the bulk of care work, usually to women of color for poor pay. It also sustains the idea that the hot mess mom’s reactionary politics is related to problems that exist on an individual, rather than collective, level.
Misappropriating a muddled rhetoric of diversity, in other words, doesn’t help mothers, because any story that presupposes that women’s suffering is simply human—and yet, somehow, still always gendered—is just the same old rendering of hysterical women whining in pain, a narrative that characterizes women’s lives by a loss of control and a loss of power, and sees men’s lives as naturally full of a cool, collected strength. It suggests not only that men never and need not pass through such a transformational stage, but that suffering is, for women, just a steady state. And while there is certainly power to be found in survival against impossible odds, I would rather define my relation to care work by the struggle of a movement—by what care could be if it were to be acknowledged as work at all—than by the struggle to just survive, even if, for now, that makes me appear a little unreal.