In Caitlin Shetterly’s recent novel, Pete and Alice in Maine, a New York City couple flees their home with their two young children in the early days of the pandemic. The timing is unfortunate, though, as Alice has recently discovered Pete’s infidelity. The book turns into a series of reflections by Alice about the impossibility of her situation. But soon her complaints start to take an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink tone. Suddenly she is not just upset about the pandemic or the lockdowns or her marriage. Alice tells her therapist, “I’m so angry all the time.… I’m like Sandra Bullock in that movie. Everything about the last few years—Trump and Brett Kavanaugh and #MeToo and George Floyd and Pete and this whole disgusting system of racism and sexism and there’s no space anywhere, ever. Everyone’s on top of each other, stinking up the bathroom, dirtying dishes.”
Knowingly or not, Shetterly has her finger on the pulse of a very specific subset of mostly progressive women who seem addicted to public utterances about the torment of their lives. What sets these kvetches apart is that they mix their own personal burdens—their marital problems, misbehaving children, and frustrations with work—with what they see as the political burdens of America. Like a certain type of busybody who wants to tell you how bad things are because her mother-in-law’s cousin has just been diagnosed with liver disease, these women claim all the world’s problems for themselves.
Little wonder, then, that they are angry. In Mom Rage: The Everyday Crisis of Modern Motherhood, a San Francisco writer named Minna Dubin tries to describe this anger and offer some solutions for how to fix it. Based on an essay that Dubin wrote for the New York Times a couple of years ago called “The Rage Mothers Don’t Talk About,” the book suggests the problem here is a kind of social pandemic that mirrors the pandemic we just came out of.
The premise of the book is so absurd that its very existence—the fact a publisher wanted to publish it—is telling. Mom Rage pathologizes the human condition itself. Is it possible to find a mother of young children who does not, on occasion, rant about how her children are driving her crazy, or how she felt guilty for losing her temper with her child, or how her husband seems ignorant of what is going on around him? This is the way of all mothers from time immemorial. But Dubin is a new kind of mother—a mommy-blog mother. Since their emergence in the early 2000s, the mommy-blog mothers have taken navel-gazing to levels of intensity more akin to horror fiction than to rueful reflections on the way we live now.
We can start examining the meta-meaning of all this complaining by trying to separate the things Dubin is angry about in her own life from the things in society at large that are making her angry. This is something, I should say, Dubin does not do herself. She has a son who is on the autism spectrum. He didn’t sleep for a long time when he was a baby, and, as an older child, his behavior has made it difficult for Dubin and her husband to find the right school for him. Until recently, it was all but impossible to leave him unsupervised. This must be a trying situation, to say the least, and any mother—whether she is at home full-time or trying to work—would find it difficult.
But Dubin has also made her own life harder. She decided, for instance, that she wanted to make all her own baby food. She also apparently made the choice when giving birth to skip an epidural. Many of these choices are explained by Dubin’s decision to live in San Francisco, where mothers are rewarded for using cloth diapers and engage in other labor-intensive, environmentally virtuous but completely silly uses of their time.
Dubin blames these decisions not on her progressive friends, but on what she calls the “scam of motherhood” created by motherhood’s “PR team.” In Dubin’s view, there is a society-wide conspiracy to get women (or “birthing people,” as she occasionally refers to us) to think of motherhood as a wonderful state of being that women are uniquely suited to because of nature, and that they should engage in various acts of martyrdom for their husbands and children.
So while women may think they have a choice about having children or determining who takes care of them and how, they have actually been bamboozled by the patriarchy into thinking that motherhood is great—and that they have to uphold its very high standards. It’s similar, says Dubin, to the “PR team for white supremacy.”
Oddly, this arrangement—the one where the burden of mothering falls on women—is, in Dubin’s estimation, only a recent phenomenon. Which brings me to my biggest question about Mom Rage: Did this book have an editor? And what happened when that person came upon the following passage without so much as a footnote: “In the Middle Ages, European mothers were not seen as containing some supreme maternal instinct that better suited them for child-rearing. Fathers and mothers shared parenting duties equally.”
As someone who regularly reads the complaints of modern feminists about how difficult the life of modern women is, I’d thought I’d seen everything, but I was nonetheless shocked to find that now they are pining for the Middle Ages. Ahh, the good old days when your father married you off, you were pregnant at 14, and if you survived childbirth, you could—what?—depend on your husband to watch the kids while you tilled the field or wrote freelance articles?
But back to the rage. The real challenge for Dubin is not the daily difficulties she has finding time for writing while her two young children need her attention (though this is when her rage typically manifests itself). Nor is it the anger she experiences when she and her husband disagree about how to raise their children. These are all the sources of rage above the surface. But Dubin argues that in order to understand “mom rage,” we need to look at the “basement” of women’s lives.
It is rage at the “system” that has led modern women to lose their minds. Take, for instance, “America’s high maternal death rate,” which Dubin says is a “symptom of a dehumanizing capitalist health care system mired in patriarchy, white supremacy, ableism, and homophobia.” She notes that “76,000 birthing people die each year from preeclampsia,” a largely preventable condition.
She doesn’t mention, though, that only about 700 of those deaths took place in the United States.
The solution to all this will surprise no one who has read a tract on American motherhood in recent years. Dubin calls for more paid maternity and paternity leave, as well as better and cheaper health care. She’d like to end our oppressive capitalist system and ensure more access to contraception and abortion. Until all that happens, the rage will be completely justified.
Because Dubin is a white, educated, middle-class Jewish woman, she seems self-conscious in complaining about her life. She wants readers to know that she, too, is a victim. For instance, it may seem that she is just living in a typical privileged heterosexual nuclear family, but she is actually bisexual. A few years back, when she was out in public with her husband, she felt as if she was “acting” (which added to the rage). In fact, “the performance became more intense with the role of wife, and it felt like I was getting nailed into straightness with the role of Mother.” So she decided to reveal her sexual orientation on social media. Then her husband “realized he was queer, too, which made me feel less lonely in my skin, and gave us an exciting new connection point that we used to grow our queer community.” I’m sorry…what? And then she adds, “For mothers in the throes of matrescence, I recommend the transformative power of creative practice. I also recommend Queerness, but that’s neither here nor there.” No kidding.
Speaking of queerness, if we cannot somehow get the American government to provide unlimited paid leave for new mothers and fathers, or get fathers to take on more of the “emotional labor” of motherhood, we should at least explore “alternative family structures” that will give mothers the support they need. For instance, one mother Dubin interviewed recommends “ENM,” which stands for ethical non-monogamy. When her daughter had trouble with her math homework, she just went to her boyfriend’s wife, who happened to be a mathematician!
The book contains interviews with women of other races and classes who are also enraged. Sometimes frighteningly so. One mother who has adopted two black foster children is clearly overwhelmed by all of the trauma they suffered before coming to live with her and by the accompanying behavioral and developmental problems they’re experiencing. But her concerns about the rest of the world are interfering with her ability to be a rational parent. “When the kids would reach for gum at a grocery store, Zaara would angrily scream, ‘Don’t touch that!’” Her fear: “If you touch that they’re going to assume you stole it, you’re gonna be arrested, the police are going to kill you.” She told Dubin that when she was raging, “I wasn’t reacting to an eight-year-old who doesn’t feel like doing math because it’s boring. I was reacting to ‘Oh my god, you’re going to be homeless because you’re not going to finish college.’”
I really hope this mother is seeking professional help, and I wonder whether she should be caring for these children at all. But the sentiments she is expressing are becoming all too common. Feminism has a long history of arguing that the personal is political. But the reverse, that the political is always personal, seems to be on the rise. The fact that these women believe that the situation in our country is so dire, that black children are being shot by police for picking up gum, that our health-care system is so bad that we are regularly leaving pregnant women to die of preventable causes, that they should look to the Middle Ages for enlightenment, is becoming a mass delusion of the upper-middle class. How many women have bought into this conspiracy theory?
And how many believe that motherhood is really a “scam”? At one point, Dubin interviews a woman named Eloise who has two children and also cares for her aging father-in-law. It’s clear she is stressed out, even with her husband’s help. But she says, “I grew up with a mother always taking care of somebody. I don’t want that to be what my kids think of with me.” Why not? Most mothers would be thrilled if that’s how their children were to remember them. But it wouldn’t leave much time for freelance writing. Or rage.
Photo: AP Photo/Jenny Kane
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