Book review: Screaming on the Inside, by Jessica Gross



On her second day of a new job, Jessica Grose found out she was pregnant. Within a week, she was vomiting uncontrollably. Because she had gone off her antidepressants to conceive, she was also quickly consumed by dark thoughts. Her status as a new employee meant she didn’t qualify for unpaid parental leave. She had been bestowed with many privileges — White, in a stable marriage, no debt — but given her health, how could she work? How could any of it work?

Short answer: Grose quit. But she got her career back on track postpartum, and a decade later, she writes a column and the Parenting newsletter for the New York Times. Grose, who wrote two novels before she had her two daughters, is now the author of a new book, “Screaming on the Inside: The Unsustainability of American Motherhood.”

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If there’s a through-line in the newsletter and Grose’s latest book, it’s that American mothers are held to a too-high standard. “In our current era, the perfect mother is a woman who seamlessly blends work, wellness, and home,” she writes. “She is often blond and thin. Her roots are never showing, and she installed that gleaming kitchen backsplash herself.” She keeps her boss and kids happy at all times by staying on top of all the things. Plus, she’s up at 5 a.m. to meditate.

That sure is a high bar, though it is also a very specific one. To her credit, Grose tries to expand her lens wider, to capture the experiences of many different kinds of mothers. She attempts to unpack outsize ideals of motherhood in a variety of circumstances and examine how they took hold. The book is part memoir, part history lesson, part sociological study, part parenting advice guide and part call to action. In other words, like most moms, Grose is trying to do more than is humanly possible.

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The most engaging material comes from Grose’s interviews with dozens of women at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Although these tales are tied to unusual circumstances, they illustrate deeper problems mothers in America face. Grose shares the story, for instance, of one woman who had a “secret baby” she never mentioned to her boss because she worried she’d be kicked off a big project. A fast-food worker in Georgia recounts the saga of having to get permission for her 11-year-old to do remote school from the restaurant lobby. And there’s the single mom who waited a year to get her son into a day care only to have it permanently shutter during the pandemic, forcing her to scramble to find a spot somewhere else.

Grose shows that even before the pandemic, mothers — particularly minority moms — were operating in a world without adequate services and safeguards. She points to common work scheduling practices like “clopening” shifts, where an employee must close a business late at night and then reopen it early the next morning, and “just in time” scheduling, which means employees don’t have set, predictable hours. That’s simply not compatible with the scarce child-care options that exist. Add a pandemic to the mix and of course “Everything Falls Apart” (the title of Chapter 6).

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It’s unfortunate, then, that Grose undermines this valuable research with distracting anecdotes from her own life. For instance, of her understandable decision to give up on breastfeeding, she explains, “I recalled the many books I had read about Queen Victoria and her wayward son, the future King Edward, that implied their relationship was damaged from the start, in part because breastfeeding him made her feel ‘insurmountable disgust.’” I’m guessing that’s baggage most moms aren’t struggling with. At least that’s a smidgen more relatable than her complaints about feeling “less than empowered” as the editor in chief of a start-up feminist newsletter while pregnant with daughter No. 2.

Grose also has a tendency toward lengthy digressions. A chapter on social media dives into a detailed history of mom blogging that obsesses over the outsize influence of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and “sponcon” (a.k.a. sponsored content). Apparently, it’s not easy to make money off posts unless you have a perfect blowout and fake eyelashes. Of course. But also, who cares?

Many of Grose’s notions of “ideal” motherhood just don’t ring true to me — even as someone who fits her demographic profile almost exactly. Every mom has her own insecurities and perceived shortcomings. What’s truly universal is the need to be kinder to ourselves and other moms. As she wraps up, Grose encourages readers to stop trying to live up to some fanciful, preposterous standard, and instead channel that energy into fixing the structural problems that hurt so many families. We need to be screaming on the outside to achieve a more practical ideal: paid leave and affordable, quality child care for all.

Vicky Hallett is a freelance writer in Washington.

The Unsustainability of American Motherhood

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