When I spoke to Jessica Grose, she was mired in household illness. Like many moms, she went on with her day and our conversation ended up touching on how often we subordinate our bodies and their needs to our work. Why do we do this? I’ve done it so many times; most of the times, really. I’m doing it right now.
My own home has not experienced a week entirely free of illness since maybe mid-October. As we are buffeted from virus to virus, like a shiny little ball family in a disease-themed pinball machine, I start to feel more and more unhinged, less capable of doing that thing where I work through my kids’ illnesses and/or my own. Just now, as I finished writing that last insane sentence, I got a call from my four-year-old’s preschool letting me know that she has a fever and could I please come pick her up. Did you know that there are respiratory viruses that are neither COVID nor RSV nor the flu? Did you know that my family has probably had all of them this month?
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I am lucky. I can afford the childcare that I need and that care has been blessedly dependable this year. I am dealing only with the predictable challenges of trying to work and raise children, nothing extraordinary or extraordinarily difficult. And yet. These last few weeks have felt ever-so-slightly reminiscent of the most difficult points in the pandemic, the moments when I would think, ‘How, though?’ Jessica’s writing has been a must-read for parents because she met so many of those moments with clear eyes, compassion, and great reporting on exactly what we wanted and needed to know. Her new book, Screaming on the Inside, offers a trenchant diagnosis of what ails parents, particularly mothers (spoiler: it’s not just respiratory viruses). It also thinks about how we might make change, however incremental. Reading it was illuminating, cathartic, and heartening. Keep scrolling for our conversation about hiding pregnancies during COVID, working after D&Cs, and raising daughters.
Photo Credit: Judith Ebenstein
So what was the impetus behind writing this book? Besides, you know, everything.
I've actually been thinking of this book for a decade since I got incredibly sick during my first pregnancy. That experience was just so hard and sad. And there were so many issues that even though I knew intellectually existed and had written about them in terms of paid leave and comparison with other countries and family policy- I knew all those things, but just living them in a really intimate way made me feel like there was just so much there. And there are so many amazing books about motherhood, there's so much amazing history about motherhood, but I did feel like I had something unique to say. And then it really crystallized for me during the pandemic. I think more and more people realized that the way we do motherhood in America is not sustainable. And there's so many unreasonable expectations put on mothers that were just laid bare in 2020; a lot of people who felt like it was really hard but didn't realize how hard or were so busy they didn't even have time to think about how hard it was. I think it really all came to a head in 2020 when all of our structures fell away and moms, for the most part, were supposed to be the ones picking up all the pieces. I've written versions of this proposal since 2014 but it really coalesced in the summer of 2020.
It gave it urgency. I became a mother around the same time you did – I have a ten-year-old – and for so long I couldn’t name the issues because they just felt so amorphous.
I think also as you're living through it, you don't want to seem ungrateful because – this always sounds like Pollyannish or cheesy, there's no way to talk about it that doesn't sound corny – my kids are the greatest joy of my life. And so sometimes I think it can feel like, ‘Oh, you have two beautiful healthy kids, what are you complaining about?’
And for some people it takes them a long time to even have the children so how do you then turn around and say, ‘oh, actually, this kind of sucks, in many ways.’
Yes, I think we're not saying like, ‘Oh, this is a horrible burden,’ we're saying this is harder than it needs to be. And that there's been lots of policy decisions made over the past 100 years that have made it this way.
I’ve spent a lot of time and energy perseverating on various parenting decisions and you point out that, in some situations, things are set up in such a way that there are no good choices, only bad and less bad.
It's really in my mind because it was the piece I reported this week, but I've been talking to a bunch of people who are in the sandwich generation, which means they have childcare responsibilities and they also have elder care responsibilities. And in some cases, their parents have chronic illnesses that are really debilitating and sad. And one woman I spoke to had a job that she loved. She worked as a paralegal and she wanted to continue working but she lost her childcare. It was at-home childcare and the provider decided she wanted to take another job and the cost for the two kids was $2,500 a month to be in daycare. And the math just did not work. And on top of the considerable caregiving responsibilities she had for her mom, it didn't all add up, right? And so you could say she made a decision to leave her job but that was not an active choice.
Right, she would have made a different decision if facts on the ground had been different for her.
And again, I think it's always important to say, and what I hope people take away from the book is that you should feel good about yourself for making the best decision of bad choices, right? We beat ourselves up for not doing the “best thing,” whatever that even is. And we can debate about why we think certain things are the best decision, and that's very culturally constructed too. But I think a lot of parents – dads too – beat themselves up over these choices that they make when it's like, no, you should feel like you are doing the best you can with not being given great tools.
I love how many women you talked to for this book. It feels like hearing from other people, understanding that our overall challenges are similar, is our best chance at understanding that it’s a systemic problem requiring systemic changes. What was the biggest surprise for you in all of those conversations? Did any of them change the direction of the book in any way or inform what you thought you were doing with it?
That's a great question. I don't remember. My brain is broken. The first draft was finished in August 2021 so most of the research and interviews happened in 2020 and 2021. I literally don't remember where I intended it to go. I don't remember where it ended up. It got done.
It exists. I would love to answer that question, I just truly don't remember. And I will say the way that I write, and this is with my columns too, I try not to go in with a preconceived structure or notion of what I'm trying to argue because then what is even the point of doing reporting, right? So I never wrote chapters with like, ‘Oh, and it has to hit these marks, it has to go here, here, and here.’ I knew the personal stories I wanted to tell about my life and so those were part of it. But the parts that were reported, I really wanted those to be shaped by what I heard. And in terms of what was surprising to me, I am still blown away by the number of people who told me they literally hid pregnancies during the pandemic. Remote work during the pandemic led them to have secret babies.
Yeah, I'm one of those people, actually. In March 2020, I had just started a new job that I was very excited about but was resigned to the fact that I wouldn’t have that fourth kid I sometimes thought about. But then they sent us home indefinitely and I was like, well, maybe I can do this. And so I just didn't mention it for a while because it was unnecessary. And also, I felt like why should it color anybody's opinion of how I'm doing my job?
Yeah, it's just such an indictment of how we think about everything that the best option was to just simply not tell anyone ever. Because the blowback, prejudice, assignments taken away from you, thinking of you differently in the workplace, monitoring maybe, looking at every kind of output through the lens of, ‘Oh, this person is pregnant.’
In the book you write about one woman who hid her entire pregnancy and birth and then she was like, ‘Wait, now I can't mention this kid ever.’ That was wild to me because I myself ended up telling people that I was pregnant a month or two before the baby was born. It felt insane not to.
Oh no, like the whole thing, she was just like, no. And was able to pull it off! I mean honestly, that just shows you women are amazing.
Yeah, it struck me that it was the first time that we could do it, you know what I mean? We never had the option to withhold that information before because our bodies had to be in the workplace.
I was freelance when I had a miscarriage between my two girls. It's not a big deal, everybody has them. Basically, it's a fact of life, I feel like we should talk about it more to normalize it. Was it fun? No. Was it very sad? Yes. But I went on to have another child.
Right, I think it's different things for different people and that's okay.
Yeah but that's why you should just normalize talking about it. In any event, I had one between my two girls and I was freelance and I did not stop working. I took maybe one day, like the day that I had the D&C.
I took a grad school language exam the day after my D&C.
Yeah. And it's just like, that's fucked up. Why did we do that?
I think it's complicated why we do it. I think the hiding pregnancies from work is much more straightforward than that. I don't know, just thinking about my own miscarriage, I don’t think anyone would have noticed if I had postponed that exam but I felt like, ‘well, I'm not pregnant so I'm just getting back to life,’ which is a whole thing that I probably should have unpacked at the time.
No, I mean, I'm someone who uses work as a coping mechanism. I do it to this day. Why do you think I was a person who was like, you know what? We're in a pandemic and I have no time, but I'm just going to write a whole book. Who does that? Like dumb, dumb. So, yes, I'm very familiar with using work as a coping mechanism and that was part of why I did it for sure. But I just wonder if knowing what I know now and having written this book, if it happened again now, if I would be like, ‘You know what? Maybe take a few days, be kinder to yourself.’
Yes. I do think that it's part of a larger cultural thing that we need to really think about.
I'm not saying like, ‘I did miscarriage wrong.’ But when I think back to that moment, I'm like, ‘Maybe you should have just taken an extra day.’
Yeah, I think we're not supposed to, or we think we're not supposed to, show vulnerability related to pregnancy and motherhood in the workplace. It's both a personal thing and a cultural thing. Speaking of cultural, I loved reading the parts of your book where you talk about the contrast between how motherhood is performed publicly and privately on the internet: Instagram motherhood, the way we're supposed to look while we're doing it, versus the more anonymous message boards, the private Facebook groups where people actually talk about the hard stuff. And I love how the title of the book reflects that dichotomy. Screaming on the Inside is an internet phrase but also reflects the impulse to hide any vulnerability or imperfection.
I mean, I owe the internet my career. And I am a trash monster. Like, ‘You're 40, why are you spending this much time on TikTok? What is wrong with you?’ So, listen, I have my own fractured relationship with social media. When I was reporting that chapter on the pervasiveness of this very singular vision of motherhood, I found that it is the same vision of motherhood that's been pressed on us forever: perfect, beautiful, perfectly groomed, usually blonde, many children, everyone's perfectly dressed. You have a beautiful home, you're in a field, everything is easy and effortless. You are a domestic goddess. That vision of motherhood is still the dominant mode on the internet in terms of who's making the money, what advertisers want to support. And the internet is a huge place so you can find all sorts of moms who are not doing that and who are having real talk and are supportive. Whatever flavor of motherhood you are trying to find, it exists on the internet. And I have tried on Instagram to tell them, please do not serve me this content and I still get it. I don't know how the algorithm works, they don't tell you, but certainly the advertiser money and something is having this very specific vision of motherhood rise to the top.
Right, I’ve found it pretty unavoidable.
Another thing is, I want to show my friends my kids, sweet pictures of them, and that's nice. I don't do it in a way where it's super posed or whatever but certainly I'm not showing our bad moments. But it's the context collapse, right? When I see my friends posting pictures of their kids because we are friends, I know that like, oh, this one had a tantrum ten minutes ago. Or they are dressed like a slob just like me when I see them on the playground, they don't always look like that. So I think it's just seeing the perfect images without the real-life context of someone’s actual humanity. And as much as we are all educated and know that – I don't think any adults on the internet think that what people are posting is real – your lizard brain still thinks that it is and you can still compare yourself to it. The stories that moved me most in my reporting for the book were folks who are going through difficult times in their motherhood and feel like their real-life communities cannot understand. They really find a lot of solace on the internet. People with multiple pregnancy loss, people whose babies are in the NICU for a long time, people with sick kids, people who are part of the autism community, those are the people who are like, ‘I can't exist without my specific communities.’ And they're super helpful and can be incredibly supportive and practical, giving you serious practical advice about things that you would not know about it because you had not lived it before and that your friends or your mom can't give you because they did not have that specific experience. I just always want to try to not have pat conclusions, especially about social media because I feel like sometimes the news coverage of it is just like, ‘It's all bad, it's all ruining us.’ And nothing is all bad.
And it's connection, which is something that we need if we're going to make change, which you talk about toward the end of the book. I loved that quote from Alice Kessler-Harris. You were expressing your frustration at how hopeless everything felt and she was like, ‘actually, the changes have been enormous.’
I know, I think about that all the time.
And it's true but – and I wonder if you feel this way because we're around the same age – growing up in the '90s, I think I had this warped sense of where we were at in terms of feminism and the ability of women to be mothers and also be other things. Did you feel that way at all? I felt like becoming a mother myself woke me up to all the ways in which we still very much need to fix things.
Yeah, I mean, for sure in some ways. I think part of that's maturity too because everything seems possible when you're 19 and you don't know how the world actually works. And I also think the trajectory was really moving forward. A lot happened from, let's say, 1950 to 2000. From 1950 to 2000, you could tell us a narrative of consistent forward movement for women, right? Not all women, certainly a lot of women got left behind, but on a lot of indicators it was moving forward.
We got credit cards.
Yes, we had credit cards, we entered college at insane rates. I mean, you look at the percentage of college graduates who are women, it just was a straight upward line. And now women outnumber men as college graduates. So I think you could have plausibly thought it will keep going. And this sounds like it's depressing but it also shows you that with concerted effort, things really can change: the conservative project to destroy Roe, they were looking at the long game, right? And so, you can be like, ‘Oh, nothing will ever change’ but they showed that they could change, in a terrible way that I'm not happy about, but let's use their playbook.
Well, isn’t motherhood kind of the final frontier? Everything was great, we could go to college, we could do all these things, but once we hit motherhood, once we had to worry about being vulnerable in the workplace about our bodies and the people coming out of it, that's what holds us back now and that’s what needs to change, at the same time that they're changing it such that we have to have the babies.
Something I've been thinking about a lot and trying to figure out how to write about in a way that is more focused, because this is just a big concept, but I feel like often the answers that we're trying to get are like, ‘well, we need more childcare, we need to be able to work more.’ And it's like, I don't fucking want to work anymore. Americans work more hours than anybody, period. American mothers work more. American fathers work more. Americans without children work more hours than all of our peer nations. Why? Why are we doing this? For what end? And Angela Garbes is so great on this topic, but to find a way to elevate care and caregiving as worthy, as important to society, as valuable for us to do- the forward motion when you become a mother doesn't just have to be about, ‘Well we need to erase the motherhood penalty at work.’ I mean, certainly that needs to happen too but there's this whole other thing that needs to happen about caregiving and how we value caregiving. And if it were to be fully egalitarian, then the gap between men and women in the workplace would resolve but I am a realist so I would say what is more likely to happen and what I would hope for is that we venerate care more. And so it is less of an issue that women are not working as many hours.
100% and I think that would have a domino effect.
I often will ask a question in my reporting: what's the one thing that would make your life better? And it is almost never working more hours. That's not an answer. I'm starting to sound like a hippie.
Just working the amount that I already do- I can work better if I have a society supporting me in all the ways that matter.
And that doesn’t make me feel like I'm doing something wrong all the time. That's a psychic weight that we can't even quantify, right?
Yeah and that was a big takeaway for me from your book and also from Angela's book. Just thinking about those things and it's like, how would my life be if this was different, if there was actually infrastructure and public support for caregiving? And it's wild and kind of depressing, but I like how both of you gesture toward hopeful change.
Yeah it does a disservice to all the people who are working so hard to make change to be apathetic and say nothing's ever changed, going to change, what's the point? It’s like, ‘well, not with that attitude it won’t.’ I often joke that I'm the most cynical optimist because I am ultimately hopeful. Obviously not everyone who has children made an active choice to have their children but I think if you did actively choose to have children, that's a hopeful position. Because if you are like ‘no, the world is a garbage fire and it's never getting better,’ you’re going to bring kids into that?
Yeah, and you have two daughters, I have three. I have to believe that things are going to be better for them.
Exactly. I think so much about having girls in this moment but, honestly, I watch them and I'm like, ‘You've got this.’ I mean, even my ten-year-old is- she'll be ten next month, so she's not quite ten, but she has the soul of a 40-year-old so I think of her as already ten, she is so much more socially aware than I was at her age. And I think it's just the time that they're being raised in. And it's amazing. I didn't give a shit about anything when I was that age. I mean, I remember my mom got involved in some local politics, which I remember thinking was cool. But beyond that, I got nothing. I had no idea what was going on in the world. And she's definitely way more aware and that gives me a lot of hope.
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This is such a vital interview--thank you. The unsustainability of American motherhood is the number one thing I'm talking about with my female friends now, and it feels so validating to see more about this in print. The volume of private messages/ DMs with undertones of "I'm broken", "I can't keep up," I'm exhausted" just keeps rising, and this interview gets at so many of the causes. We have to keep talking about it and normalize vocalizing these experiences.