99 Problems

Published on November 16th, 2023 | by Elizabeth Tannen


Stomping Our Feet: Tantrums, Maternal Instinct, Mom Rage, And Burning it All Down

I’m sitting inside my 20-month-old son’s room with my back to the door, blocking it so he can’t get out, and reading a board book aloud. Stomp your feet, clap your hands, everybody ready for a barnyard dance! 

It is bedtime. This is a bedtime story. But in this moment, my son is not able to listen: he has been occupied for the last thirty minutes flailing around the room—slamming his limbs against the hardwood, the blue and red patterned rug, the white-painted crib, the bookshelf, the wall. His screams spill out the open window and into our neighbor’s yard. 

Neither of us know what he wants: to get out, for his father to get in, revenge for the five seconds during which I (playfully, I thought) took possession of one of his three precious lovies. He is overtired and I am having a rare moment of confidence: I don’t know what he wants, but I know what he needs, which is sleep. I know we will only keep on the road to sleep if we stay in the room. I know that he can only scream and thrash for so long. I know that it will get worse if I leave. So, I commit to calmly reading on the floor until he settles. 

In what feels like a miracle, he eventually does. He crawls across the room and onto my lap— stopping for his milk along the way. He lifts the flaps and, as his breath recovers, giggles at the cartoon cat portraits in the book Babies Love Kittens, which he proceeds to request that I read six times more. Thirty minutes later, he is asleep in his crib.

I am triumphant: what had happened (a toddler tantrum!) could not have been more ordinary, and yet what I’d pulled off (a toddler parent keeps her cool!) felt like a rare, extraordinary achievement. Some alchemy of variables—both within and beyond my control, it seemed—had enabled me to navigate that challenging moment.

The next day, I gloated to my mother: “I feel like I should be a mom influencer or something.” She played along: “You did exactly what he needed you to do in that moment.” I beamed. I texted assorted mom friends: is there some kind of award for responding to toddler tantrums? If so, I deserve it. 

I love nothing if not validation. 

Prior to this incident, though, I wouldn’t have consciously thought that I value being seen as a perfect or even good mother.” I’ve come to terms with (and written about) the shame and grief tied up with my desire to be seen as a mom. But at that point I hadn’t yet understood how much I’d absorbed an adjacent societal pressure: to be (something like) a perfect one. 

The slightest criticism of my parenting, I realized, whomever the source (mother, mother-in-law, teenage restaurant manager) completely destroyed me—hit me with the force of one million magnatiles. 

How dare anyone suggest I not have the skills and tools to know exactly how to parent my baby? 

When, in fact, the real question ought to be: how should I? 

We had no idea what we were doing / photo by Stephanie Sunberg

“He likes it when you stroke his hair to get to sleep.” 

I’m talking with one of the teachers at my son’s daycare. It’s an arts-based center where he, like many children like him (white, middle-upper middle class), is cared for by mostly women of color who are likely from a lower socio-economic background than mine. Almost half my paycheck goes toward his care; I’m too scared to ask what the workers get paid but, especially given that this center is (relatively) affordable compared to others nearby, I fear it’s not adequate. 

At this point we’ve only been sending him there a few weeks, and this woman is one of the aides. I’ve seen her sweep up crumbs following meals and stack up the cots after nap while more senior teachers supervise the kids on the playground. She reads as Latinx, has long black hair that she wears loose, and a big, warm smile. One day she’d proudly told me that she’d run my kid’s lovie through the wash, for which I’d felt a flash of shame and thanked her profusely. I look at her with what must be an expression of awestruck appreciation.

“I’ve taken care of lots of kids,” she says, by way of explanation. “It’s how I grew up.”

It’s not how I grew up. As the youngest in my family by ten years, I never observed other children being parented up close. And when my son was a newborn, I couldn’t stop thinking about the absurdity of two people caring in isolation for such a helpless being that needs such constant care. Our early days were complicated by my son’s inability to latch paired with my stubborn determination to make breastfeeding work, and I remember standing over his changing table in the dark, weeks between me and anything more than a two hour stretch of sleep, bracing myself for yet another middle of the night “triple feed” session for which I had to assemble a clunky, hospital-grade pump, silicone “nipple shield,” and bottle of donated milk that someone (aka my partner) had hopefully remembered to thaw. Surely, I thought, this could not be what nature or any thoughtful architect of social economy could have intended. 

Our societal undervaluing of care work means it’s easy to go through four decades of life (and earn advanced degrees!) without learning any parenting skills or tools in any context—not at home, not in our education, not (formally, at least) among our peers.

The dysfunction of the nuclear family for childrearing—and just about everything else—is not a novel concept. 

The scholar Sophie Lewis takes the idea to its logical, if bold, extreme with her book Abolish the Family. “For all purposes except capital accumulation,” Lewis writes, “the promise of family falls abjectly short of itself. Often, this is nobody’s fault, per se: simply, too much is being asked of too few.”  

We, collectively, know this. And yet, the bulk of cultural commentary surrounding American parenting’s assorted burdens—the simultaneous pressures of intensive parenting alongside the dearth of economic and social supports—usually comes disconnected from this critique. And, often, any political context at all. 

As has been widely noted, the absence of structured preparation for parenting translates to many mothers relying on social media—a messy encounter. (See Sara Petersen’s new book, Momfluenced.)

In my experience, this means being assaulted by a panoply of contradictory advice on any given topic: feeding, sleeping—to train or not to train!?—play, speech, etc. And all of this alongside the broad genre of “mom comedy”—a black hole of content featuring desperate, exhausted, and mostly full-time mothers who parent amongst remodeled kitchens, chaotic toddlers, and perpetually disappointing dads—always pooping through the toddler tantrums and snoozing through the baby’s cries. Along with the requisite kids are the hardest and best thing rhetoric, at least we’re in it together seems to be the subtext of all this—as though virtual solidarity is any adequate substitute for a social safety net, or grandparents who live next door, or a social system that provides parents with any sort of relief. 

me and my kid

When I was pregnant with my son, I read a ton about pregnancy: books, articles, apps. 

I read virtually nothing about babies. The parenting books my mother sent in the mail (bless her heart) have mostly collected dust. 

I’ve rationalized this with one (very legitimate) truth: I have so few hours in which I’m not working my paid (nonprofit) job or parenting—how can I be expected to spend those precious minutes doing homework

Though I dabble in the occasional Unruffled or Dr. Becky podcast, mostly, I seek advice from peers: from the pair of mom friends whose babies were born a few months earlier (that I have such friends is a blessing I can’t overstate) and from my brother, whose twin boys are a year and a half older than my kid. 

But really, I think I don’t read up on parenting because I have this sense that I should just know how to do it. 

Photo by Jenna Norman via Unsplash

A recent episode of the NPR podcast Throughline explores the American myth of the “ideal mother”—an archetype the hosts describe as fully imaginary, and that, when paired with a capitalist society that ruthlessly prioritizes profit over people, creates a host of toxic impacts.

To summarize: rather than compensate caretakers fairly for their labor (motivated by pure love!), we deny them, and thereby their children, basic financial stability or any support at all, and shame them for anything short of a commitment to working (thriving!) in the labor market for most of their waking hours while simultaneously providing independent, constant, and selfless care for their kids. 

While I love being a mom, I also swell daily with rage at how completely this country has abandoned families. I live in Minnesota, one of the most progressive states, and also home to a lack of affordable childcare until my son (and expected daughter) are almost six. We spend thousands of dollars a year on our family’s medical bills with “good” insurance. Despite being among the top twenty percent of earners among American households, our wages haven’t kept up with inflation—which means we can’t afford to save. And parenting in a nuclear family unit with two working adults (and neither set of grandparents local) means a devastating scarcity of time: by the time the kid is in bed, we can barely summon the energy to complete the evening’s chores before conking out in hopes of getting some rest before his early wakeups begin. 

While “mom comedy” might suggest otherwise, it doesn’t need to be this way—our precarity and our exhaustion are the product of policy choices our society has made, and could make differently. 

The persistence of these conditions—the way in which they’re normalized and seen as inevitable or within reason—trades on the myth of maternal instinct: the way we’re taught that becoming a mother endows us with some singular circuitry granting all the knowledge required to care for our kids. While there is something to the hormonal and neurological changes that accompany matrescence (for all forms of parents, the data shows), these changes aren’t exactly a roadmap for navigating the vast sea of challenges that parenting presents. They don’t grant us practical knowledge like how to react when your child pushes another, or ways to stay calm amidst a massive meltdown. I know this. And yet, unconsciously, I buy into the myth as much as anyone else: despite having received no training, no education, and observed little to no childcare prior to having kids, I hold myself to an obscenely, irrationally high standard. I feel like I shouldn’t need books or podcasts or other people’s wisdom to know how to feed or comfort my kid. I ought to just somehow, instinctively know.

via Unsplash

Part of my buy-in to the motherhood myth is shaped by class.

Scholar Catherine Liu’s book, Virtue Hoarders: The Case against the Professional Managerial Class describes all the ways in which this group (to which she and I both belong) has abandoned the struggle for collective goods in favor of our own individual success—and, by extension, that of our offspring.

“Preparing for a child is just the beginning of a torturous and expensive preoccupation for today’s elites,” Liu writes. “Managing the development of successful adults dominates the ethos of PMC parenting.” 

The mania she describes seems particular to a small set of coastal elites: the frantic efforts to ensure elite college admissions, the in-vitro Mozart, the actual measurement of infant poop. Such intensity requires an extraordinary degree of privilege, bolstered by a deep buy-in to individualist values with which many in this group would espouse to disagree. 

Still: her scholarship reminds me that the pressure I put on myself is surely intertwined with my class background and current status upkeep. Of course, no mothers—regardless of socioeconomic status—are immune from the burdens of modern parenthood. And as with everything, those with the least wealth bear the brunt. 

And, there is a way in which a higher class status—along with the accompanying, relative privileges of time and resources, however scarce—enables a certain convergence of extreme and toxic tendencies: the under-valuing of care work alongside the intense expectations to perform perfectly as a parent. 

A few nights after my award-winning tantrum response, I experienced a less triumphant parenting moment.

It was three in the morning. My son had been screaming for no discernible reason for close to an hour. I was four months pregnant and exhausted from consecutive nights of no sleep. I stood in my white nightgown above the blue couch in our living room and struggled to keep hold of his unruly body. Faint streetlight came in from our one window without blinds. I felt the urge to squeeze him. 

I’d been kicked into the state that Minna Dubin described in her 2019 essay and delves into in her new book, Mom Rage

“Mom rage stems from the overwhelming stress and impossible expectations of modern motherhood,” Dubin writes, “combined with a debilitating lack of support from within the structure and societal systems.” 

Put another way, to experience mom rage might be the primal and desperate expression of the devastating emotional toll that our collective experience—parenting without preparation, support, or social safety net—creates. 

The term is having a moment. And while often whitewashed of political context, Dubin takes it there, so to speak: locates this phenomenon beyond individual pathology and right at the center of the assorted oppressive systems (capitalism, patriarchy, etc.) where it belongs. 

Dubin lays out a series of policy recommendations to address mom rage, all of with which I agree. But she stops short of the how: how we are to organize a group whose oppression is defined by lack of energy and time, and that is very unlikely / unable to utilize the main lever of power within capitalism: withholding labor. (Fertility rates may be declining, but I can’t envision a birth or caretaking strike any time soon.) 

Dubin suggests that we must rely at least in part on non-parents to advocate on our behalf. This is surely true, and means we must recognize our struggles as interconnected with those of other groups fighting for change. 

Too, we must recognize that we’re not just advocating for a menu of policy shifts, but a fundamental, radical overhaul of our entire economic system and the backward, anti-family and anti-human values it promotes. Any indictment of mom rage or its underlying impacts rings hollow unless we’re ready to indict the whole system that supports it. Unless we’re willing to burn it all down. 

Matthew Desmond’s new book Poverty makes the case that we all benefit from the existence of an underclass; similarly, you could say that all of us benefit from the exploitation of mothers. The burdens and costs of caretaking that mothers shoulder are costs and burdens the larger society gets to avoid. But, also similarly, it’s equally and importantly true that the exploitation of mothers harms all of us. Our failure to support caretakers with the skills, tools, and resources to raise children and care for ourselves adequately then punishes caretakers, kids, and the larger society alike. It’s the product of an economic system designed to prioritize capital over people, and it won’t change until the system does. 

Each of us may continue to find our small, occasional parenting victories—but until we’re celebrating them alongside an interconnected, supported, and supportive web of fellow carers, they won’t be nearly enough.

feature image photo (woman in hallway) by Sinitta Leunen on Unsplash

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About the Author

Elizabeth Tannen is a writer based in Minneapolis. Her poems and essays have appeared in a range of publications including Willow Springs, Front Porch, PANK, Southern Humanities Review, NPR.org, the Rumpus, Salon and elsewhere.

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