Interview Book cover that says "Screaming On the Inside" in white letters on dark purple background

Published on December 13th, 2022 | by Cheryl Klein

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We All Scream: Jessica Grose on her New Book About American Motherhood

When I was fresh out of college and just beginning to write “seriously,” I read an article—source long since lost—about publishing, which described a shift in the industry. Once upon a time, publishers took a chance on unknown authors and put their resources into making the authors known. If it worked, both publisher and author would make money. Now (meaning the early 2000s when I encountered this idea, but also now now, and increasingly so), the burden of risk was increasingly on the individual. Authors should be able to demonstrate that they had a “platform”—a popular Twitter account, a YouTube channel, a stint on a reality show, a friendship with Oprah—so that publishers could bet on a sure thing. All that platform-building needed to happen before the publisher got involved. Yet if the author’s book was successful, the publisher made as much money as ever.

What does any of this have to do with parenting? The dumping of risk (and blame, and work) onto individuals rather than a collective entity is everywhere. Once you notice it, you can’t unsee it. I thought a lot about this phenomenon when reading writer and journalist Jessica Grose’s new book, Screaming on the Inside: The Unsustainability of American Motherhood

Part memoir, part reportage, Screaming chronicles the many ways that American mothers are given an impossible task and then blamed when they “fail.” Drawing a line from the post-WWI rise in working married women through The Feminine Mystique, legally encoded racism, and the feminist movement of the 1970s, right up to the era of influencer moms, Grose paints a picture that will make readers want to scream indeed, but is not without hope. She devotes the latter portion of the book to intersectional activism catalyzed by the pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement. 

“We owe it to our future selves to make our own lives more equal,” she concludes. She spoke with MUTHA about what she learned as both a writer and parent.

Book cover: Screaming on the Inside by Jessica Grose

CHERYL KLEIN: At what point did you know this needed to be a book?

JESSICA GROSE: I have been thinking about writing some version of this book for almost a decade. As I navigated a very difficult pregnancy with my older daughter, it was obvious that American motherhood was so much harder than it needed to be, and so much harder than it was for parents in other countries. 

I had been reporting on the American family and policy shortcomings before I became a parent myself, but experiencing it firsthand brought it home to me. Then, I had another kid, and I took new jobs, I wrote another novel, and writing a nonfiction book got away from me. 

But when the pandemic happened, it was a moment when almost every parent in America realized that these systems weren’t serving them. In fact, some of these “systems,” like for child care, were barely systems at all. 2020 really illuminated a lot for me. When things went very wrong, mothers were expected to be everything, and do everything, and if we complained we’d be criticized for it.  

I had a lot of questions as I was living this, and they all basically boiled down to: why is it like this? These expectations are often contradictory and yet many of us have internalized them.

CHERYL KLEIN: Early in the book you say, “It became crystal clear to me that you could do everything that American society pressures you to do as an individual and as a mother, and if anything goes wrong, not only are you on your own, but you will also be either tacitly or explicitly blamed for your deviation.” In what ways do you think the American love of rugged individualism has infected our ideas about motherhood?

JESSICA GROSE: In countless ways! For me the most obvious example is with maternal and infant health. So many mothers are tortured about what they eat while they are pregnant, or breastfeeding the precise right amount, or continuing to take medication while they are pregnant or breastfeeding. There’s this fantasy that it’s all under your control and every small decision you make could have huge consequences, even when the science behind these choices is more nuanced and complicated.

Meanwhile, we live in a country without universal healthcare, where environmental racism means that there are cities where families do not have access to clean drinking water, where the mortality rates for Black and Indigenous mothers and infants are disproportionately high. There’s so much we are not doing as a society to support the health of everyone in our communities. It makes no sense that we put all this pressure and shame on individual health choices. 

White woman in her 30s rests the side of her face against her hand. She has straight brown hair, red lipstick, a white sleeveless shirt, and sits behind a table.
Jessica Grose. Photo credit: Judith Ebenstein.

CHERYL KLEIN: You talk about your struggles as a white mother working in media, but make a conscious effort to include voices and data from women of color and working class mothers. Did you get a sense that these mothers have been “screaming on the inside” for much longer than their white, middle class counterparts? What were some of your takeaways from talking to mothers outside your own demographics?

JESSICA GROSE: It was important to me in the book to show the way that a lot of the pressures that mothers experience today are from explicitly racist laws and past “experts” who had bad motives. To oversimplify, I would say that if you weren’t white, straight, wealthy and Christian, the ideals of American motherhood were obviously not built for you. 

So yes, mothers who don’t fit this very narrow description have always felt alienated, and were often horrifically abused. Historically, mothers have had their children taken away from them or been denied the ability to be mothers in the first place, by being sterilized (which still happens, and is a profound moral failure).

In talking to contemporary moms of various backgrounds, one of my big takeaways was that even when mothers were aware that the ideals were garbage and not made for them, they often were negatively affected by them. These values — that they don’t share — wormed their way into their minds and it was a lot of work to consciously reject them. 

CHERYL KLEIN: The book covers a lot of territory historically, culturally, and demographically. What were the biggest challenges of organizing and writing it? 

JESSICA GROSE: Trying to fit everything in in a concise way! I hope I succeeded, but I am sure there are things I missed and hopefully that can inform future reporting. 

CHERYL KLEIN: How did your research impact your parenting and vice versa?

JESSICA GROSE: It did help me call b.s. on some of my most negative self-talk and occasional guilt.  

CHERYL KLEIN: I like the bit about how internet/text-based relationships can become a lifeline (I’ve got one of those sacred group chats too), almost like a village square. What are some of the other big and small creative strategies that you see mothers adopting to improve their lives?

I see a lot more cooperative work than I did before the pandemic. Whether it’s for childcare, schooling or community activism, so many mothers are finding collective ways to engage with other parents. 

I think more moms have also had productive conversations with their partners, friends and families about what they need to do to make parenting more sustainable. A lot of folks have trouble asking for help because we have internalized the individualistic messages, and I am hopeful that is changing. 

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

CHERYL KLEIN: That said, you note that “America wears moms out to the point that we are just too exhausted to agitate for the changes we need to make our lives better.” This seems like a major tactic of capitalism in general, but of course oppressed groups have initiated collective action in spite of exhaustion. What might be a tipping point for mothers? What might be a roadblock? (E.g. Mothers are a fragmented community and can’t just form a union.)

JESSICA GROSE: I want to be clear that so many mothers have and ARE agitating for change and have for centuries. I have interviewed so many moms of different backgrounds over the past two years who are actively working, and I don’t want to erase their hard work. That said, you’re right that we haven’t been able to collectively activate on an enormous scale over things like child care or paid leave.

I do think the pandemic itself was something of a tipping point, but major systemic change doesn’t happen overnight. It will take decades of wins big and small.

That said, I think the major roadblock isn’t exhaustion. It is that there are still so many people who think that it’s not the job of the government to help support the next generation of children and their families. 

A major contradiction that continues to irk me is that so many think mothers should stay at home with their young kids, and yet we have constructed a society that makes it financially impossible for most parents to do so — and that doesn’t even get into the desires of individual mothers. I have spoken to so many mothers over the years who either want to work and can’t because of the high costs of childcare, or mothers who would prefer to stay home or work fewer hours, but can’t because they need health insurance and retirement money. It is a mess.

CHERYL KLEIN: This isn’t a question, exactly, but I read most of this book while I was in the process of traveling to adopt a baby from a NICU across the country. In some ways I was very well supported by family and work; in other ways, it was a horribly alienating and difficult experience, and since getting home, I’ve struggled with a lot of continuing anxiety, although it’s not technically “postpartum.” So I especially appreciated the sections about mental health challenges and how women feel guilty for not “loving every minute” of an experience they worked very hard to get. Thank you for writing this book.

JESSICA GROSE: First — congratulations on your new addition, and I’m sorry you went through such a difficult time. Second — readers like you are why I wrote this book, and I am so, so thankful you told me that it helped you. It truly means the world.

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About the Author

Cheryl Klein’s column, “Hold it Lightly,” appears monthly(ish) in MUTHA. She is the author of Crybaby (out in 2022 from Brown Paper Press), a memoir about wanting a baby and getting cancer instead. She also wrote a story collection, The Commuters (City Works Press) and a novel, Lilac Mines (Manic D Press). Her stories and essays have appeared in Blunderbuss, The Normal School, Razorcake, Literary Mama, and several anthologies. Her MUTHA column “Onesie, Never Worn” was selected as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2022. She blogs about the intersection of art, life and carbohydrates at breadandbread.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter: @cherylekleinla.



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