'The perfect mom doesn't exist': Writer Jessica Grose explores American motherhood in her new book

Screaming on the Inside author Jessica Grose shares her insight on motherhood, from changing expectations to momfluencers. (Photo: Judith Ebenstein)
Screaming on the Inside author Jessica Grose shares her insight on motherhood, from changing expectations to momfluencers. (Photo: Judith Ebenstein)

Welcome to So Mini Ways, Yahoo Life's parenting series on the joys and challenges of child-rearing.

We are parenting in the age of baby wipe warmers, Amazon Prime, white noise playlists on Spotify and expert advice just a few keystrokes or swipes away. It's also the age of pandemic parenting, infant formula shortages, a childcare crisis and failures to pass federal paid family leave or universal pre-kindergarten. As an opinion editor for the New York Times, Jessica Grose uses her platform to make sense of all that modern-day parents are struggling with, from burnout to seemingly flawless momfluencers who unintentionally make us feel bad about ourselves to the need for fundamental government reform that supports families.

This week, Grose released her book Screaming on the Inside: The Unsustainability of American Motherhood, which digs deep into the unique challenges facing moms today, tracing how the demands and expectations of motherhood have evolved ever since they stepped foot on what is now known as U.S. soil. American mothers have endured Puritanical moral imperatives, Freudian theories blaming them for miscarriages and morning sickness, and the Donna Reed "trapped housewife" model. But the current standard of a "supermom" who is also somehow expected to squeeze self-care into her busy day is hardly one that's easily attainable.

In the book, Grose describes the "perfect mother" as "a woman who seamlessly melds work, wellness and home. She is often blond and thin. Her roots are never showing, and she installed that gleaming kitchen backsplash herself (watch her TikTok for DIY tips because the public projection of this perfect motherhood is part of the deal). She single-handedly runs remote school and still finds time to meditate at 5 a.m. Her children are a glossy reflection of her efforts, never a spot on their clothing or a frown on their faces. Even as she is expending maximal effort at home, she still behaves like an 'ideal worker' in her paid employment. The 'ideal worker' — a term coined by legal and gender scholar Joan Williams — means working as if you have no family or health responsibilities."

That high standard is something Grose has found herself contending with as a mother of two. Woven throughout the book are her own experiences of motherhood, from having to quit her new job during her first pregnancy because she was both "vomiting uncontrollably" and experiencing depression and anxiety as a result of going off her antidepressants while trying to conceive, to feeling judged because she struggled with breastfeeding and returned to work weeks after giving birth.

Ahead, Grose speaks to So Mini Ways about what her personal journey, and her extensive research into the all-consuming world of motherhood, have taught her about mom shaming, unhealthy comparisons and the importance of community.

The conversation below has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Do you feel like social media has made mom shaming worse — or has it just evolved from overt (your mother-in-law grumbling about your kid’s outfit) to perceived, internalized messaging? The average person probably is'’t getting a barrage of abuse from trolls, like a celebrity mom might, but there are a lot more eyeballs seeing how we live and parent, which means a lot of moms second-guess or censor themselves.

Jessica Grose: I definitely think parents feel more judgment than ever, and statistics I have seen from the organization Zero to Three support that notion: "Nearly 9 in 10 parents across the board feel judged (90% moms and 85% dads), and almost half say they feel judged all the time or nearly all the time (46% moms; 45% dads)." Reading the comments on social media can definitely make you feel like you can't do anything right, because commenters can forget there are real humans with feelings behind those posts.

Mom shaming is so cruel and yet, even as moms who should know better we might roll our eyes at an Instagram post or gossip with friends about what another mom is up to. Why do you think moms are so quick to offer judgment rather than grace or sympathy? Have we just internalized centuries of toxic messaging, or does it make us feel a little less like failures ourselves?

JG: I think pretty much all humans are judgmental; we're wired that way — moms included. I do think the best thing moms can do is check in with themselves and how they feel around other people, or when looking at certain social media accounts. If an account or person isn't making you feel good, why are you spending time with them? That's always a place to start.

Motherhood can really feel like a hardship Olympics with no winners. A solo mom might resent hearing her married friend complain about "being a single mom" during her husband's business trip, and that's to say nothing of the inequities across cultural and socioeconomic lines. Is there any point to this "whataboutism"?

JG: It's hard to offer grace when you feel unheard or stretched thin yourself, and so many moms feel completely overwhelmed by their responsibilities. I don't think comparing makes anyone feel any better.

Grose writes about the nuances and challenges of American motherhood in her new book, Screaming on the Inside. (Image: Courtesy of HarperCollins)
Grose writes about the nuances and challenges of American motherhood in her new book, Screaming on the Inside. (Image: Courtesy of HarperCollins)

Let's talk about mommy groups. I'm often struck by how much women share in these groups (opening up about their relationships, posting photos of their pregnancy tests before they've even shown their partners, asking for medical advice). To what do you attribute the power these groups hold over so many others?

JG: I hear from moms all the time that they find solace and connection from mom groups, not just judgment. Especially when they are going through a hard time (their kid is in the NICU, or they are experiencing a pregnancy loss, for example), having a community that understands your problem deeply can be very affirming.

Has the process of researching and writing this book led to any direct changes in how you parent, view parenting or split responsibilities with your husband?

JG: It caused me to reflect more. Whenever I feel guilty about something, instead of just letting that emotion take over, I now ask myself: Why are you feeling guilty? Where is this coming from? Does this even align with your values?

You write about the societal preference for modern-day moms to stay at home but do some part-time work from the home, hence the rise of momfluencers. Do you see influencers as the next generation of MLMs, in terms of giving women who are raising kids a supposedly "flexible and profitable" work option? And while we often mock or judge these momfluencers, what does their rise (and the rise of mom-dominated MLMs) say about our society and the limited flexible, remote career options available?

JG: I think like all things, there are good things about influencers and bad ones. I applaud the hustle, creativity and hard work of the ones that can really make it work for themselves, but I also am so glad podcasts like Jo Piazza's Under the Influence exist because it shows how few people can really make a living off this kind of work. I think it's like most gig economy jobs, in that it is very difficult to make ends meet even if you are working constantly, because there are no benefits or protections.

You mention acknowledging the advice that "you cannot raise a daisy like an orchid." Yet with the rise of social media and an exhaustive stream of content from parenting coaches, parents are inundated with blanket child-rearing advice. On the one hand, there's something democratic about having a parenting professional at your fingertips. But is it just too much? Does the perfect mom have to be constantly improving and educating herself?

JG: The perfect mom doesn't exist. For me, the best education has been listening to my own kids. They tend to tell you what they need if you're open to hearing it.

You write about your experiences, from pregnancy on, about feeling like a failure despite doing everything "right." What would you tell moms who are experiencing those same feelings?

JG: It gets better as your kids get older, and also, knowing where those expectations come from can help you realize the deck is stacked, and "failure" isn't what you think it is.

In the past few months, paid family leave and other family-friendly reforms have failed to materialize, gun control has become a more pressing parenting concern and pre-COVID life has largely resumed while RSV and flu run rampant. Does any of this change how you feel about the challenges facing moms right now?

JG: Motherhood has always been difficult, and people have mothered during all manner of hard times. Despite the challenges of this moment, there are so, so many people out there working to make our country and our world a better place for parents — to despair does all of those people a disservice.

Motherhood is so fraught, but ... what do you love (most) about it?

JG: My kids are the greatest joy of my life. I laugh out loud every single day at something they say or do. My favorite thing right now is seeing my daughters' relationship with each other. They have so much fun together and even though they also fight like crazy, that sister bond is unparalleled.

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