In Screaming on the Inside (Mariner, Dec.), New York Times opinion and parenting newsletter writer Jessica Grose explains the ways in which “morally charged” American cultural narratives and societal messaging hurt mothers, selling them fake images of perfection. Grose spoke with PW about how the roots of these unrealistic expectations run deep in U.S. history and how becoming aware of systemic sources of stress and perfectionism can lead to greater self-compassion.

Why are American moms so stressed?

Over the past 200 years, American culture has become more individualistic and less community-minded. When I sold the book, the title was All-Powerful and Totally Useless, because that’s what mothers are constantly told that we are—everything you do is so consequential for your children, but society doesn’t value you at all, or the act of caretaking, or raising children. Ultimately, it’s this individualistic culture that’s at the root of it. Although everyone I interviewed came from different backgrounds, there was the same thread of “I’m doing something wrong, I could have done this better, I’m failing in some way.” Hearing that over and over is powerful because it’s universal.

Where do these impossible standards come from?

There’s so much beneath the surface of our experiences that’s contradictory and strange. We can’t afford to work but we also can’t afford to stay home, despite pressure to do both simultaneously. It’s an unreasonable and unsustainable situation. So many times while doing the research and talking to parents, it was clear that the random array of expectations we’re all living under not only make no sense but are in direct contradiction with each other. There’s no way we can be all these things at all the same time. In the book, I quote Ann Crittenden’s writing in The Price of Motherhood“all of the lip service to motherhood still floats in the air, as insubstantial as clouds of angel dust”—and it rings so true for modern moms.

How does social media cultivate unrealistic expectations of mothers?

Most of us are savvy enough to know, at least intellectually, that these idealized images on social media are not real life. And yet we still perform it back ourselves and we internalize it as what we “should” be doing. Humans are social animals; we compare ourselves, which is normal. But just having that many images in your face of the most lacquered perfection does something to your brain.

What pressing systemic changes are in the works?

I, and lots of other people, have been writing for years about how all these systems that surround American mothers are shoddy and underfunded. No childcare, no paid leave—things that are table stakes in most wealthy democracies, we don’t have them. The thing that gives me the greatest hope is legislation proposing paid parental leave. More states passed paid leave as the book was being written. Everyone can understand that newborn babies need a lot of attention and care, and biological mothers need time to recover. It’s among the most popular of the changes that would help parents.

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