Motherhood is in crisis. And nowhere in the West is this truer than in America, famously bringing up the rear by every measure when it comes to parental leave. (Where Sudan offers eight weeks of statutory maternity pay, the USA offers precisely zero.) The United States’s unique combination of workaholism and social conservatism means that mothers are failures if they stay home with their kids (unemployed layabouts!), but also if they work outside the home (neglectful career women!). The American way involves mixing anti-abortion politics with a bootstraps insistence that if you make the decadent lifestyle choice to perpetuate the species then you’d best not expect help with that.
It’s always a challenge to balance professional and personal responsibilities, no matter your gender or nationality. The 2022 Autumn of Cough was not just a US phenomenon. But the American mother is always, at any given moment, doing the wrong thing — and, at least in theory, being shamed for it. American motherhood literature emerges, then, from that situation.
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An earlier microgeneration of American moms had to contend with parenting advice. Books that explained whether you could drink a glass of wine while pregnant, or how to get your children to eat vegetables. (The answer in all matters was: be like the French.) Today’s reading material, growing out of the lockdown and school closure era as it does, is more nihilistic. The message is: it’s not your fault; everything is systemic. A portrait begins to emerge, in contemporary American mom-lit, of a mother who, rather than taking small steps to ease her suffering, wants to use her own struggles as a starting point to highlight still-greater ones. She’s not a sassy bad mom, but if she moms badly, it is because the system has (and it has!) set her up for failure.
This year, for instance, we have had New York Times parenting journalist Jessica Grose’s book Screaming on the Inside: a well-reported, head-on attack on American mothers’ struggles, which are structural, and worse for the marginalised. We have had, too, the science journalist Chelsea Conaboy’s Mother Brain, which takes a more roundabout approach. Here, too, everything is structural, everything is impossible, but extra impossible if you don’t happen to be straight or white. Arguing contrary to conventional wisdom, Conaboy’s conclusion is that being a mom (or a dad, or a non-binary parent; she doesn’t exclude) can actually make you a better worker.
These books — like the various articles, posts and newsletters making similar cases — are written not, of course, by mothers generally. They are written by a subset of American women who happen to be both writers and mothers, and who apply the liberal critiques common to the world of mainstream journalism to the intractable problem that is American motherhood. They speak to an audience of women who agree with them, but who are too resigned, too exhausted, or privately too convinced the American way is the only valid one, to materially shake things up.
And they, the writers of American motherhood-crisis lit, have a way of blurring material challenges with ambient (and at times imagined) social pressures. Health care bureaucracy and the absence of paid leave, which the writers I mention point out repeatedly, are facts. The requirement to wake up at 4am to bake “dinosaur-shaped muffins that taste like rainbows but are made of steamed arugula” is the stuff of satire but not an actual demand. The suburban writer who recounted, in the New York Times, that “pulling up with the stroller in anything besides smudged black leggings would earn me glares from other moms” at her local play area was reporting on a vibe, not a reality. Who’s to say that if she’d shown up in couture anyone would have cared?
This blurring is an issue because such nebulous plights seem to weigh more heavily on the well-off, but get wrapped up with the ones that operate the way usual plights do, namely by primarily harming have-nots. Grose acknowledges her class privilege, not in a handwringing sense but in a matter-of-fact way, noting that her experience of being able to leave a job without another lined up while pregnant related to her husband’s income. She mentions her mother being a psychiatrist, a plus when she’s having her own struggles with mental health.
The trouble with privilege disclaimers is that they inevitably go on to be about how things are that much worse for those without the same advantages. But are they always? When it comes to things like getting to spend the vomiting phases of pregnancy at home, money helps. Yet some of what Grose describes regarding the pressures to be a “supermom” are specific to the sort of milieu where families have the extra bandwidth to worry about such things. A highly stratified society might be the source of both woes, but it’s unclear whether a year of guaranteed mat leave would impact the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses of school pick-up.
That is not to say that social pressure on moms isn’t a real thing, or a bad one — or one that purely affects middle-class women. Mothers across the socioeconomic spectrum doubtless feel insecure when they look at those influencer accounts where the flawless-looking mom, surrounded by five perfect angels, holds forth about being #blessed. That is, after all, the business model — you feel bad about your own inadequate life, so you buy whatever it is their sponsored posts are selling.
Grose speaks of algorithms as foisting images of maternal perfection upon unsuspecting women, who then feel they have no choice but to scroll their feeds or even watch their television shows. One sees this a lot in even the best commentary about momfluencers: this idea that you can be minding your own business when suddenly, a white woman with a centre part and beachy waves appears before you, selling you special handbags for “busy moms”, or judging you for your own children’s refusal to try even a small amount of bell pepper. Momfluencers, though, are entirely avoidable, in a way that needing to be in a work meeting and at your child’s doctor’s appointment at the same time is not.
Is there something in the American national character that encourages perfectionism? Something in the baseline impossible situation of American motherhood that promotes aiming higher still? Is the supermom concept just a natural next step, once everyone’s striving in vain regardless? And does all of this idealism serve to obscure the unassailable material facts that no woman can wriggle out of? “Why,” asks Conaboy, “does the United States still lack [a paid maternity leave] policy, more than a century after mothers here formally began lobbying for one?” Her answer is, in part, that “the belief in maternal instinct and biology as destiny — women hold the capacity to care for children, their highest and best use — plus the absolute primacy of the maternal-infant bond”.
Her answer to this is that we must challenge the idea that biology is destiny. She objects that if “the entire infrastructure of mainstream online and in-person support groups is exclusive to birthing, cisgender women, then not only are we telling other birthing parents that they are on their own but we’re sending a message to fathers and partners that this stuff just isn’t really for you”. It’s an interesting idea, but the problem in the States seems more that the people who personally, physically, have babies — the overwhelming majority of whom identify as women — are treated as biologically inconvenient. Easier to just hire a man.
I was pregnant with my second child during Covid, and expectant fathers, or non-birthing parents otherwise identified, were not allowed to attend obstetrician appointments. This was unpleasant but understandable in the context of an inherently unequal role distribution. The reason the expression “we’re pregnant” grates — and it does — is that only the mother-to-be is avoiding sushi, not that she wants it anyway what with her morning sickness. She’s the one going through ten different dress sizes in the course of a year, and needing sensitive parts of her body stitched back together. Gender identity discourse can serve as a distraction from the material questions of how a society deals with the practicalities of perpetuating the species. And Americans seem uniquely incapable of sensibly dealing with this fact of life.
A culture that actually venerated “the absolute primacy of the maternal-infant bond”, as Conaboy says America does, would prioritise giving new moms a year home with the baby. By not offering paid maternity leave, the US effectively asks new mothers whether they want to have careers or whether they want to be present for the first months of their baby’s life. Are you going to be a businesswoman or a trad wife?
Another way is possible. In Toronto, where I moved in 2015, after growing up and spending most of my 20s in New York City, it’s normal for even the most ambitious women to take a year off work after having a baby. The women one meets at library baby time — and it is almost only women at these — are not, as a rule, stay-at-home moms. This state of affairs exists not because Canadians are somehow more enlightened than Americans about gender essentialism but because of a 1981 postal worker strike. But for whichever mix of cultural and political reasons, American mothers bemoan the status quo, without being empowered to change it.
There’s something bleak about Conaboy’s insistence, central to her book, that contrary to popular belief, being a mom actually makes you a better worker bee. All this scientific backup for the much-repeated pleas about how moms are pros at multitasking — to what end? American employers view having a child as an inconvenient lifestyle choice that they have no obligation to accommodate. Imagine going to the American boss who has groaned when you’ve shared your good news and saying, look, studies show that my brain will be sharper than ever when I get back, see you in a year! Although when you’re in that situation, your choice of words could not matter less.
American motherhood lit can at times be hazy about what’s specific to the US and what’s a broader facet of having children in the modern world. Even in countries with superior paid-leave policies, employers whinge when expecting mothers announce what’s coming. There are mothers all over the world who find themselves effectively shut out of the workforce because childcare is too expensive. And the existence of paternity leave doesn’t prevent the arrival of a baby from changing the gender dynamics in a hetero household. Some of this is just, life has its challenges, and no particular policy shift, in any direction, would make things otherwise.
And yet. The solutions to the American motherhood crisis are mundane: maternity leave obviously, socialised medicine indirectly, and maybe reduce the chance of school shooting by not effectively handing out guns to anyone who so much as ponders getting one. All of this could transpire without any sort of communist revolution. There could still be fast fashion and plastic toys and food colouring.
But US exceptionalism is a powerful drug. To change what is at this point the American way might mean accepting that other places sometimes — no, not always, but sometimes — do in fact, objectively, have the right idea.