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“As a society, we have mommy issues”: how America discriminates against mothers

There’s a “special kind of misogyny reserved for mothers,” according to author and podcaster Hillary Frank, and it impacts everything from work to health.

Hillary Frank, author of Weird Parenting Wins and creator of the podcast The Longest Shortest Time
Hillary Frank, author of Weird Parenting Wins and creator of the podcast The Longest Shortest Time.
Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Nobody told me how much it would hurt to have a baby.

If that sounds ridiculous, I’m not talking about labor itself — people do discuss the pain of contractions and pushing. I’m talking about what happens afterward: the pain of recovering from what amounts to, for many women, a serious injury, all while caring for a helpless new human being.

The physical pain many women experience postpartum — especially if, like me, they have significant tearing with birth — doesn’t get a lot of public conversation in our culture, and even doctors don’t always discuss it very much. As a new mom, I wondered why.

Hillary Frank, the host of the popular parenting podcast The Longest Shortest Time, has some answers. As she wrote in a New York Times op-ed in December, she was injured so badly when she gave birth to her daughter in 2010 that she couldn’t walk for two months. The experience led her to start work on the podcast, but when she tried to get episodes on the radio, she got “rejection after rejection,” she writes. One male gatekeeper asked her, “Who would want to listen to this except for moms?”

Frank calls this “a special kind of misogyny reserved for mothers” — the idea that “mom stuff,” even though motherhood is a common human experience, is somehow fringe or uninteresting. Slowly, American culture may be changing; thanks to writers like Angela Garbes and Meaghan O’Connell, more people are talking about the physical and psychological experiences of pregnancy, birth, and motherhood.

But mothers still struggle with everything from postpartum pain to pay inequity — as Frank puts it, America has “mommy issues.” The author of a new book, Weird Parenting Wins, about the strangest things parents have done in moments of desperation/genius (think using an electric toothbrush as a white noise machine to soothe a baby to sleep), Frank talked to me by phone about creative parenting, maternal health, and how to make America a better place for mothers. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Anna North

Your op-ed really resonated with me in part because I was in a lot of pain after having my baby in May, and it struck me that postpartum physical pain isn’t something we talk very much about as a culture. Do you agree, and if so, why do you think that is?

Hillary Frank

I do agree, and I think we’re just not accustomed to talking about vaginas.

I also think that doctors aren’t necessarily trained in postpartum care. What I’ve been told by the doctors I’ve spoken to, both my personal doctors and people I’ve talked to through my reporting, is that they’re trained in the delivery of the baby but not really in postpartum care. And for whatever reason, pelvic floor physical therapy, which does help lots of women, is not a thing that a lot of doctors know about, is not talked about much, and is often not covered by medical insurance.

Anna North

Broadly speaking, do you think there’s a lack of concern for mothers’ bodies and physical health in American society?

Hillary Frank

I think in our society that once you say the word “mom,” they kind of glaze over. I don’t know why, but it feels like as a society, we have mommy issues. I don’t know if it’s related to how we feel about our own mothers, but there’s something about talking about moms where people picture the SNL sketch of moms in their mom jeans. You become this stereotype of someone who’s not cool or relevant anymore.

Anna North

Your op-ed talks about the special misogyny reserved for mothers. Can you talk a little bit more about how your perception of sexism in America changed when you became a mom?

Hillary Frank

I don’t think I put it all together until I thought about all the different examples as a whole, and it took a few years before I really did that. In the beginning, when I first started pitching my work about motherhood, I got the comment that I sounded like a little girl, and it just seemed weird to me. I didn’t think of it as misogyny.

Then it built, as I got told more and more, “This subject matter is small; no one’s going to want to listen to it except for moms.” As I put it all together, I was like, this is a larger thing, and it’s a repeated pattern across many different organizations and many different people, and it all has the same tone to it.

One of the things I always really liked about working in public radio is that I didn’t feel discriminated against as a woman, and I didn’t feel discriminated against for wanting to do stories that were off the beaten path. But as soon as I started doing work about mothers and parents, I met a lot of resistance.

Anna North

How do moms and the larger culture push back against that resistance?

Hillary Frank

I think men are a big part of the solution. Dads should take all of their parental leave, so that they’re not setting up a system in which there’s an expectation that you wouldn’t take it or that there’s machismo for not taking it. And if you have a parent to take care of, take your family leave.

I think it’s the same with misogyny against moms in the media. I’m getting a lot of messages now after having published that op-ed from men who are leaders in media telling me, “This is making me think about conversations I’ve had with people in the past.” My hope is that with a new awareness, maybe those conversations will go differently in the future.

Anna North

Can you talk more about what dads can do to help push back against anti-mom misogyny?

Hillary Frank

I think taking on some of the tasks that would typically be thought of as stereotypical mom things, and not taking for granted that you’re just going to be able to have the baby and continue to live your life as if you didn’t have the baby. I think a lot of times what happens is you become a parent and then you’re supposed to return to work as if nothing ever happened, and it’s a lot easier for dads than moms to do that, both physically and because of the way our society works and the way the American workplace works.

Dads, I think, are less at risk of losing their jobs or not getting promoted if they acknowledge that they’re doing father things, so I think they can do things like say, I can’t do the drinks after work, can we do a lunchtime thing?

The cover of Weird Parenting Wins, by Hillary Frank Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Anna North

A big difference between when my parents had me and today, when I’m a first-time parent, is the internet, which is this incredible double-edged sword. It feels like there is a glut of parenting information in our lives now — how can that information help us but also harm us?

Hillary Frank

So much of the stuff that’s online is sensationalized, and I think a lot of media about parenthood is positioned in a way to pit us against each other — all of the “mommy wars,” do you stay at home or work, do you bottle-feed or breastfeed, are you a co-sleeper or not. It’s as if you have to take one side or another, but in reality, I don’t know parents who live like that. Most of the people I know, it’s all gray areas and you’re just doing whatever works. One of the things I do in my life is not pay attention to a lot of it. I’m on social media as little as possible because I find it too noisy. I find my interactions with people in real life to be a lot more helpful.

Anna North

The “wins” in your book aren’t necessarily going to work for every kid, but reading them, I found there was something soothing about knowing that other parents had to do something bizarre to get their kids to stop crying. What would you say you’re offering parents with this book?

Hillary Frank

The main thing I’m offering with these stories is encouraging parents to get creative and to trust their own instincts. I think we all know our kids best, and every kid is different, every parent is different, every relationship is different, and so of course different things are going to work for different parents and kids. What this book is doing is encouraging you to just go down that path even if it seems really weird — like, yeah, grab that electric toothbrush and use it to soothe your kid. It’s also encouraging parents to find ways to care for themselves, because it’s hard to even think creatively if you are going out of your mind.

Anna North

What was most surprising to you about working on Weird Parenting Wins and The Longest Shortest Time?

Hillary Frank

What’s surprised me the most is that parents are capable of having rational conversations about parenthood and even disagree without getting out of control. The thing I’ve learned is that people really do just want to relate to each other, while the internet would have us think otherwise.