Screaming on the Inside: The Unsustainability of American Motherhood
Like a lot of ambitious, young, and talented women, Jessica Grose was worried when she became pregnant with her first child. She was scared she wouldn’t live up to the idealized version of new motherhood she had been staring at for years on Instagram. There were countless images of blond and unbearably thin women who seemed able to joyously do it all. She was mesmerized by the images of perfection that seemed to be winking at her, prodding her to hope she could do the same. She describes how the women and children in these pictures always looked flawless with mothers whose “roots are never showing.”
Grose had internalized the dangerous message of her generation that insisted that the public’s perception of you as a new mother is concurrent with motherhood itself. So had a lot of her friends. Grose, whose father is a cardiologist and mother a psychiatrist, felt pressure to perform well in all arenas of her life. But the reality of what was happening inside her body had nothing to do with these sanitized images. We feel Grose’s struggle to live up to impossible expectations. Her new book, Screaming from the Inside: The Unsustainability of American Motherhood takes us inside her own journey with new motherhood while providing for us a historical overview of how motherhood came to be seen as it is today.
When she became pregnant, Grose and her husband were elated. Grose felt an increasing pressure to do everything correctly, but she reckoned that it was just her Type-A personality taking control. When Grose became pregnant and started the new job, she had published zero novels. She started that job in March 2012 and got pregnant that month, quit that job in May 2012, and her first novel came out in October 2012. One senses Grose never really gave much thought to what parenting entailed; she was on her upper-class generation’s treadmill, which told her she could do anything.
But Grose fell flat on her face. A decade later, she explains she can still feel the sting of her rapid downfall. She writes how she wishes she could tell her younger self: “I wish I could go back to myself a decade ago and tell her that she wasn’t a failure for being sick, for taking the medicine she needed, and for taking several months away from work to tend to her health and her newborn.” Grose understands now that society holds all mothers to unachievable standards; but at the time she was grief-stricken.
Grose had become severely depressed during her final year of high school. Her own mother, a psychiatrist, hadn’t noticed, a fact Grose slides over way too quickly without giving us any context regarding their own relationship.
When she and her husband were ready to try to conceive several years later, she went off her antidepressant pills thinking they might hurt the fetus. Neither her gynecologist nor psychiatrist questioned her about this decision, or its possible risks, and it was only later she found out that the recidivism rate for those who go off antidepressants is 68 percent.
Within a few weeks of going off the medication, she was nauseous and vomiting and couldn’t hold food down. She had trouble sleeping. She couldn’t make it to work and was forced to quit. A lot of days she couldn’t get dressed or get out of bed. Her husband tried his best to help her, but their marriage was strained from her illness. A new psychiatrist put her on Prozac and withing weeks she was feeling better. Grose tells us “I failed at ideal motherhood before I even had a child. I felt as if I had ruined it all by the time I was six weeks pregnant with my older daughter.”
Still, we sense a tremendous resilience in Jessica Grose. By the time her daughter arrived, she was ready to tackle this new chapter, and within eight weeks of her daughter’s arrival she hired a nanny for 30 hours a week so she could start freelancing. Her writing voice was recognized as one of LinkedIn’s Next Wave: Top Professionals 35 and Under in 2016, and she was named a Glamour Game Changer in 2020.
Grose’s oldest daughter was born in 2012. Her newsletter at the New York Times started in 2019, seven years later. She moved to opinion in 2021. She was determined to write about her experiences and that of other women who struggled, for one reason or another, as she had. She wanted to dismantle the airbrushed images on the internet of young mothers that had become the norm. She wanted to talk about the real difficulties in balancing work and family despite one’s best intentions. She wanted to examine the toll Covid has taken on mothers, particularly those who have young children. The strain of the pandemic on her household, which was busting at the seams with her kids home from school, and she and her husband working from home, caused her to start taking Klonipin at night in order to sleep. And despite all her duress, Grose is keenly aware she is one of the luckier ones. She has a safety net and a husband who has medical coverage that covers her and the children as well.
Grose’s curiosity leads her to try to figure out how things got so out of hand. For the longest time in America, she explains, fathers were responsible for the child’s character. It wasn’t known until 1827 that women contributed half the DNA to the fetus. In 1900, Ellen Key wrote an international bestseller, The Century of the Child, which argues that women belong in the home and if they didn’t long to be mothers, something was amiss.
Women were blamed for miscarriages; some folks thinking it was the woman’s evil thoughts that brought this on. After the Second World War, when they played significant roles in the workforce, as the men were overseas, they were expected to retreat immediately when the soldiers returned home. Later on, Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking book The Feminine Mystique, exposed the contradictions women were required to swallow whole and their simmering resentment.
But decades later, when interviewed, Friedan seemed perplexed as to how women could successfully do it all, and was troubled by her children’s resentments of her many absences.
Grose tries to persuade us that she knows better now. But one can often hear in her hurried voice the persistent anxiousness of a striver for whom the day is never long enough. She relates almost no stories about her interactions with her two daughters, or her husband or parents, and this sort of storytelling would have made her narrative far more compelling. She does concede that the pandemic did help her learn to be more in the moment with her children and allowed her to sometimes enter their private worlds. But other days when she simply took pictures of them dressed up cutely and posted them to Instagram with inane proclamations about the family toughing out the pandemic together.
We sense Grose is a work in progress, but she refrains from making a deeper dive into her own psyche. We don’t hear her questioning her desire to conform and succeed and be well-liked; it still sometimes seems enough for her that she figure out how to do so. The same can be said about her evolving feelings about motherhood. Once she established she had things in control, which she did before her first daughter was born, she was eager to move on to more transactional pursuits. She often cuts away from her personal story to relate tales about other mothers and their dilemmas, and while these stories are engaging, we are most interested in her own. Perhaps she is not ready yet to share with us the full intricacies of her experience.
Other writers on motherhood, perhaps older than she, have ventured into deeper territory. Rebecca Solnit is sick of the judgments thrust upon her saying “I was given advice about how to modify or limit my own life—rather than limit that this was wrong and should change.” Deborah Levy sarcastically and bitterly describes her own experience with motherhood claiming “We had a go at canceling our desires and found we had a talent for it. And we put a lot of life’s energy into creating a home for our children and for our men.”
Kim Brooks tells us how she found a way to cut through the “white noise of motherhood” in order to be able to have a creative life all her own. These women seem unafraid to express anger at a system that sabotages them. But Grose is reticent to do so. It seems by nature she is a people-pleaser, someone who doesn’t like to ruffle too many feathers.
Ultimately, Grose is a very engaging writer, but one is not certain she has fully absorbed that it really is her life, and her life alone. She is free to design it. She doesn’t need to explain it to anyone. Or photograph it nonsensically and continue to send fraudulent images into an increasingly hostile world.