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First Look: Screaming on the Inside

Tuesday, December 06, 2022

This excerpt is part of our First Look column, where you’ll find exclusive sneak peeks of new and forthcoming books across all genres!

Jessica Grose is an opinion writer at the New York Times, and her new book, Screaming on the Inside, publishes today, December 6th! She frequently writes about parenting, women’s health, and culture. Read an excerpt of her book below and buy a copy here!

Though 71 percent of mothers with children under eighteen were in the labor force in 2020 —a year in which more than a million mothers were pushed out of the labor force to care for children who were home from school and day care because of the pandemic — American society still does not feel fully comfortable with the idea of mothers, particularly mothers of young children, working for pay. At the same time, the hard work of caretaking is devalued at every turn, leaving many mothers feeling conflicted and guilty whether they work for pay or not.

According to a Pew study of 4,602 American adults, 59 percent believe that children with two parents are better off when a parent stays home, rather than both parents working. Though older Americans are more likely to believe children are better off with a parent at home, a majority of eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds believe it, too. And when they say “parent,” many more Americans believe that children are better off with their mothers at home, as 45 percent say it’s better when the mother does not work for pay, compared with just 2 percent who say it’s better when the father does not work for pay.

Only 16 percent of Americans believe that it is “ideal” for children to have a mother who works full-time. Though interestingly, more Americans believe that it’s better for mothers of young children to work part-time than not at all. And certainly, I understand the appeal: I would love to be able to work fewer hours and have more time to live my life. But there are very few “good” jobs—with benefits, with potential for advancement—that make room for part-time workers.

These conflicting feelings about moms who work for pay might explain how we got to the current, quixotic vision of the “ideal” working mother: a woman who is usually white and Christian, making scads of money off a business she runs out of her home, preferably something that incorporates and does not seem to interfere with her role as a mother. If she employs any domestic workers, they tend to be hidden from public view. And she may be already swimming in generational wealth as it is.

Think Ree Drummond of “The Pioneer Woman,” one of the original momfluencers, who homeschooled her four children while creating a domestic empire on her immense cattle ranch in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. One of Drummond’s hands portrays herself as just a regular mom, living the rural life, homeschooling her kids while trying to eke out time to share her recipes with us.

Meanwhile, Drummond’s other hand waves away the fact that her husband’s family is one of the top one hundred landowners in the United States: as of 2016, the Drummond Family owned 433,000 acres in Oklahoma and Kansas.

In a New Yorker profile of Drummond in 2011, Amanda Fortini describes the Pioneer Woman’s shtick this way: “Whole continents of contemporary worry go unmentioned: this is a universe free from credit-card debt, toxins, “work-life balance,” and marital strife. The blog provides an escape from the viperous forces elsewhere on the Internet. Depending on your circumstances and your disposition, the relentless good cheer can seem either admirable or annoying.”

This is not to pick on the Pioneer Woman specifically—I love her roasted Greek salad recipe! It is to point out that this particular vision of combining work and caretaking, which is repeated by an endless number of sub–Pioneer Woman influencers on social media over the past two decades, making pesto eggs inside an enormous, spotless kitchen, is so beyond the wildest fantasies of the average American parent as to be absurd.

The work that goes on inside the home—caring for family members and doing domestic labor—makes the entire world function, and can be more emotionally and physically exhausting than paid work. And yet no matter how women spend their days, they cannot shed the role of “mother,” without being punished.

An entire body of research shows that mothers still “fare worse in the labor market” than men or women without children—which sociologists call “the motherhood penalty.” According to Shelley Correll, a sociologist and preeminent researcher on the topic, mothers earn an estimated 5 to 7 percent lower wages per child.

Experiments have shown that mothers are 100 percent less likely (not a typo) to receive a call back for an advertised job; they are significantly less likely to be recommended for hiring; and if they are recommended for hiring, they’re offered $11,000 lower salaries than women without children who have the same qualifications.

The reason middle- and upper-class professional women are penalized when they have children is because of those same deeply held beliefs about the way mothers should behave that Arlie Hochschild identified forty years ago: mothers are supposed to be warm and nurturing, and to have professional success in white-collar fields, you are supposed to be aggressive and competent—qualities that are unconsciously seen as masculine.

And here’s yet another trap: Mothers in professional fields tend to be seen as less competent and less committed. But if they act in ways that are perceived to be masculine, for example, they are considered “cold,” and while they are seen as more competent, they are also penalized for being unlikable.

Even in dual-income, middle-class families the motherhood penalty may be enough to sink them into bankruptcy if a spouse loses their job or someone in their family has an expensive medical catastrophe. As Elizabeth Warren and her daughter Amelia Warren Tyagi point out in The Two-Income Trap, Why Middle-Class Parents Are Going Broke, “Having a child is now the single best predictor that a woman will end up in financial collapse.”

Working-class mothers are often forced to make unimaginable decisions between their work and their children. Though there is not consensus among experts about the severity of welfare reform’s impact in the 1990s, many believe that single mothers have been pushed into low-paying jobs where they still struggle to make ends meet, without available high-quality childcare support to back them up.

As of 2019, only one in seven low-income children eligible for childcare assistance actually received it. That’s because parents may not be aware of the assistance that is available to them, and even if they are, there is not always the supply of childcare centers or workers to meet the demand.

Though the majority of contemporary mothers work for pay, what stuck out in my interviews with several of them was that they felt isolated in their attempts to manage their jobs and care for their children. Each felt like they had to forge an individualized path of support, and many were shocked at how difficult it proved to be. If they had partners, they all felt that their children’s care ultimately fell on their shoulders. No matter how privileged these women were, it was surprising to them how little agency they felt they ultimately had.

When Christine Hernandez, thirty-seven, had her first child, she had just started a job as an education director at a nonprofit. Meanwhile, she had a second, part-time contract job that she did on weekends and at night. “I was probably working fifty to sixty hours every week,” she said. Despite her long hours, she did not realize she might not be eligible for even unpaid leave from her full-time job through the Family and Medical Leave Act, which stipulates that you must work for a company for twelve months to qualify.The company did end up giving her a period of unpaid leave, but she had to fight for it. She ended up resigning while still on leave and keeping the contract gig, which was fully remote and allowed her to manage work and caregiving. Christine’s husband is an accountant and made more money than she did, even though she has a master’s degree.

While Christine was happy to work part-time remotely around her son’s schedule, she felt judged by the moms around her in New York City, most of whom worked full-time outside the home. They would make little comments about how stay-at-home moms had “all the time in the world,” which made her feel “not as cool, not as liberal and modern,” she said.

Her son was two and a half when Christine got pregnant with her second child, and by that time her family was living in Long Island. Her contract job had offered her additional hours and “to take the lead on this project they were doing. It just so happened it would be beginning right around my due date,” she said. “I could really use the extra hours—it was my only income. I felt I couldn’t say no to it, so I said yes.” She just didn’t tell her boss she was pregnant.

This was an active choice, and a searing indictment of the American system of work. “Not only am I a temp employee and could be let go at any minute, but what if they say they can’t fire me because I’m pregnant? Maybe they’ll just pick someone else to do the project,” she said. She was not entitled to leave of any sort, and she was afraid they’d force her to take unpaid time off “to heal,” which she did not want to do.

She managed to keep the birth a secret—she told her employer she had a family emergency that day—and kept working. “I would set my older son up on the couch and put my baby in the carrier and rock him to sleep so they wouldn’t hear a baby in the background” on work calls, she said.

Things only got weird when the pandemic began, Christine said, because her boss started sharing more about her personal life— about the ambulances rushing by and how hard it was to homeschool her daughter. Christine would talk about her son, but began to feel guilty about her additional “secret baby.”

Then she was angry that she felt guilty because she didn’t think a man would be shamed into sharing personal information with his boss. “I feel guilty because I’m not being vulnerable with my supervisor? Why should I care about that aspect of it, it has nothing to do with my work,” she said.

Her guilt certainly dissipated when she was laid off after the big project wrapped. Now she has a full-time job, with benefits. She still works remotely and keeps her younger son home with her because the cost of day care would take up most of her salary. She and her husband are talking about moving to a less costly area and having him stay home while she becomes the breadwinner for a while. Mothers are trained to feel like they should be grateful for whatever they get, Christine said, for having a healthy baby, for having any job at all. “I guess the moral of the story is I learned to ask for what I deserve,” she said.

Dreama James, forty-three, who is a fast-food worker in Georgia and a mom of five, was able to manage her caretaking responsibilities fairly well for a long time. She has also been a home health-care aide in the past, and she said she worked when her children, who are now twenty-three, twenty-two, twenty-one, eighteen, and thirteen, were in school. In a pinch, she was usually able to bring them with her. “I had to work, their father wasn’t very good about keeping a job, and he also wasn’t able to watch them.” It was going decently well, she said, “until corona hit.”

Dreama was deemed an “essential worker,” and her youngest, Conner, who was eleven at the time, was too old to be in day care, but too young to stay home alone for long periods of time. At first, her job would not allow her to bring him with her. She took twelve weeks of paid leave through the Families First Coronavirus Re- sponse Act in the spring of 2020, which allowed her to stay home and get two-thirds of her pay (the FFCRA expired at the end of 2020). That 66 percent of her salary was not enough for her family to stay afloat, and Dreama had to make hard choices about her family’s needs. She went into debt. “That’s where credit cards come in,” she said.

When Conner had to go back to virtual school in the fall, Dreama was trapped. She was out of leave, and she could not afford the $280 a week it would cost for a tutor to help her son. Her manager would not allow Conner to do virtual school from the restaurant’s lobby; he said he wasn’t running a day care. She found a friend who would watch her son, but Dreama still had to cut back on hours to monitor her son’s learning and deal with school closures.

Ultimately, Dreama’s manager was having so much trouble finding reliable employees that he started letting her bring Conner to work with her. “It still wasn’t the best situation,” she said. “He’s sitting in with a computer and I’m not sure if he’s doing his schoolwork or not, and we had to go all over the same stuff again.”

She also felt like her work was not taking the proper precautions to protect her family’s health. “We had four separate incidents where people had corona. We weren’t even told by the upper management, we were told by the people who had it,” she said. “The worst was I was in the drive-thru window one day and a lady sneezed on me. I got so sick, I thought I was going to die.” It turned out it was the flu, not COVID-19. But coronavirus “was a constant worry. I was going to work and I could possibly bring that home to my kids.”

When we spoke in July 2021, Dreama said Conner was spending the summer with his dad. But she’s worried about what’s going to happen in the fall. Georgia had lifted its mask mandate, and when I first spoke to her, her son was too young for the vaccine. “With so many variants coming out, you can’t know how to protect them,” she said. She’s still working her way out of the debt she accrued while staying home with her son. “I think the medical leave shouldn’t have been just twelve weeks,” Dreama said. “When your school shuts down because of a health emergency, you can’t just rely on anyone to watch your child.”

Excerpted from Screaming on the Inside: The Unsustainability of American Motherhood by Jessica Grose. To be published on December 6 by Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2022 by Jessica Grose. Reprinted by permission.


Jessica Grose is an opinion writer at the New York Times, where she writes a newsletter about parenting. Grose also write about women’s health, culture, and grizzly bears. She was named one of LinkedIn’s Next Wave top professionals 35 and under in 2016 and a Glamour “Game Changer” in 2020 for her coverage of the pandemic. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two daughters.