Nothing might prove the point of Screaming on the Inside: The Unsustainability of American Motherhood, New York Times opinion writer and parenting reporter Jessica Grose’s book that traces the history of our country’s societal expectations of parenting and traditional gender roles, more than the fact that I’m late filing my review of it.
Sure, I meant to file my review early in the morning on the day of my deadline. But then the toddler wouldn’t go to bed easily the night before and the older child woke up early and the cats needed feeding and the kids couldn’t find their raincoats, there’s cereal on the floor and …
None of this should sound like an atypical morning, or even an earth-shattering revelation, for any parent; particularly anyone who has parented in the past two years.
But for parents (mothers) who are looking around for someone to blame for how we got to be such burned-out, overworked multi-taskers, the early pages of Grose’s book are illuminating. Part of it is that we spent eons not being thought of as anything more than vessels for offspring; Grose references an old French peasant proverb that essentially goes “rich is the man whose wife is dead and horse alive.”
Through interviews and research, Grose spends the first chapter of her book showing a trajectory of gaslighting, manipulation, and the good old-fashioned art of pitting classes of women against each other—all done in the name of religion, necessity and politics or through advertising—that made women believe we had to be the country’s “social housekeepers.” American gender roles and “traditional” family values were in place way before June Cleaver and her swing skirts and pearls entered our living rooms.
Staying at home and not working for paid labor was our duty, so the schooling went. Doing so would help decrease infant mortality rates and put smarter, well-mannered children out into the world. Never mind that many families could not afford to live on one income or that not all families even had two parents of working age. And, if women did work out of the home, it was our responsibility to pick up any remaining parenting and household tasks when we got home. If we were deemed too cold-hearted to coddle our babies, we were “refrigerator mothers” and blamed for such things as offspring with schizophrenia. Mothers who apparently “smothered” their kids too much were then called narcissistic and blamed if their kids came back from World War II with PTSD.
If reading that paragraph causes a deep well of anxiety and resentment to slowly seep up your esophagus, as writing it did for me, then the title of Grose’s book has done its job.
Later chapters of the book look at the more modern pressures of parenting strife. Grose braids her own experiences of birthing and raising her two daughters with the pressures to breastfeed and lack of support for maternity, paternity (or even simply caregiver) leave in legislation and the workplace. She also acknowledges that her own experiences (which, for the record, are not that different from my own) are ones that come with the privilege of being an educated white woman with generational wealth and a white-collared job. All of this has been well-documented both in news outlets and by the primal scream coming emanating from mom Facebook groups and online forums, park playgrounds, and school drop-offs around the country.
Still, Grose had the unique position of collecting all of these details during the coronavirus shutdown, both through her research for this book and in her day job at the Times where her duties include writing a popular parenting email newsletter. Right now, our wounds are fresh enough that Grose’s details on how the pandemic cut our already shaky social structure off at the legs like a hurricane taking out a lift house on the Bayou may come with an eye-roll of “no duh.” But, if we’re looking at it in the context of our social history, Screaming On the Inside and its now-present language and interviews with women that captured their day-to-day struggles in nearly real-time, has the potential to be looked back on in a few decades as proof of a catalyst of a sea change.
Grose ends her book on a more positive note than the way it starts. She lists some of the (few) good things to come out of the pandemic and other news events from that time, like the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. She talks of grass-roots activism and potential policy changes as well as more personal issues like partners and neighbors acknowledging the struggles for working moms. She also interviews authors and experts from a generation prior who promise that things definitely used to be worse.
As a parent, this gives me hope and trepidation. We’re already asking the next couple of generations to solve climate change, wealth inequality, and inherent racism. I want my kids to come of age in a world where the commentary in Grose’s book seems antiquated and that reading it will bring one day bring shock that people couldn’t take time off of work to care for sick or aging relatives, could have flex schedules and be given space and time to use a breastpump (if they wanted to breastfeed at all — no pressure).
Or I could just be relieved that my husband doesn’t think I’m less valuable than his horse.
Screaming on the Insideis available now from Mariner Books.
Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, daughter, and cats.