Using Our Words: On Minna Dubin’s “Mom Rage”
By Tanya Ward GoodmanNovember 20, 2023
Mom Rage: The Everyday Crisis of Modern Motherhood by Minna Dubin
I thought of this moment while reading Minna Dubin’s Mom Rage: The Everyday Crisis of Modern Motherhood. The book, an expansion of Dubin’s 2020 viral essay for The New York Times, attempts to make sense of the author’s own simmering rage—a feeling she describes as a “constant low-grade buzzing beneath [the] skin.”
Dubin’s portmanteau of memoir, self-help, and social commentary exhibits an apparent desire for visibility as well as an inclination to widen the lens. It’s a missive from the deep woods of parenting (at publication, the author’s children are ages 10 and six) that operates on many levels. Most successfully, the book calls to acknowledge rage in the moment. It gives gentle nudges toward calming strategies that might—emphasis on the “might”—keep us from throwing a box of tissues.
Dubin posits that repeated stressors such as lack of sleep, financial worries, and health issues act as kindling. The slow-burning flame they ignite is, in turn, fanned by gender expectations: she notes that “[i]t is culturally acceptable for women to be sad, not angry.” But constantly tamped-down emotion eventually flares to life—often sparked by something seemingly inconsequential. Voices are raised. Regrets are many. And then, in the aftermath, there is the effectively inevitable shame spiral. I’m the worst mother. By defining rage as a complex, multiphase cycle, Dubin endeavors to identify the larger forces at work. She hopes that understanding rage’s component parts will offer a way out of fear and shame. She also seeks her own personal form of reparation.
We write to figure things out.
Motherhood brings as much joy as ever, but it still brings boredom, exhaustion and sorrow too. Nothing else ever will make you as happy or as sad, as proud or as tired, for nothing is quite as hard as helping a person develop his own individuality—especially while you struggle to keep your own.
It’s been nearly two decades since I read these startlingly honest words from the 1975 preface to Marguerite Kelly and Elia Parsons’s The Mother’s Almanac. Even so, the pleasure of being recognized has stayed with me. I couldn’t help but think of Kelly and Parsons in the context of Mom Rage. One of the first child-rearing books written for mothers by mothers, The Mother’s Almanac is a softcover tome filled with chatty advice, recipes, and craft projects. The book was a surprise bestseller that inspired a deluge of similar books. The 1992 revised edition (gifted to me in 2002 by a close friend) nodded to changing times—CDs! Safe car seats! Alternating gender pronouns! The new preface celebrated a decreasing divorce rate and modern conveniences that took some of the drudgery out of chores. It acknowledged a rising force of working mothers and deconstructed conventional gender norms; Kelly pointed out that “[a]ny boy should be able to play with dolls or cook or take modern dance without anyone’s doubting his masculinity, just as any girl should feel comfortable with hammers and worms and trees to climb.”
Kelly included the 1975 preface in her revision—as if to underscore these positive changes while simultaneously acknowledging the ebbing and flowing nature of progress. Upon revisiting, I realized that the resonant original opening paragraph is slightly at odds with a conclusion which describes motherhood as “an art.” “[T]he more inventive you are and the harder you work at it,” Kelly and Parsons wrote, “the better the pay, for nothing is as rewarding as the love of a happy child.”
To this statement, Dubin might reply, “Yes, and …?” Leaning into the defining power of personal narrative, Dubin centers her own experience. She rejects attempts to “nail” her queer identity “into straightness with the role of Mother.” Instead, Dubin calls out this “art” as a scam, labeling it “capital-M Motherhood”—a role defined by the American cultural idea that “motherhood is the best job a woman can have.”
The book’s description of the shift from “custodial mothering” to more hands-on iterations, such as “helicopter,” “tiger,” and “attachment” parenting, brought me back 20 years to when I’d tracked, first, my pregnancies, and then the development of my children, on BabyCenter, a site dedicated to the inspection and contemplation of motherhood minutiae. Eager to do my best, I’d worn my babies in a sling, whipped up organic baby food, enrolled my infants in music classes, and spent afternoons at the park, or the museum, or on the floor surrounded by plastic ponies and Legos. I researched preschools with a vigor I did not apply to my own college search. I volunteered to paint classroom walls, write newsletters, tutor early readers, and bake truckloads of cupcakes. Whenever I felt angry or stressed—whenever I fell short in my own work as a writer—I blamed myself for failing to stay organized. In my daily planner, I wrote: “Do yoga.”
I stayed home with my children because I wanted to, and because I’d enjoyed the fact that my parents had mostly stayed home with me. I didn’t take into account the fact that, while I roamed our small mountain neighborhood or spent whole days in my room alone with a book, my parents worked from home. Much like Dubin’s parents, mine never planned playdates. They rarely signed me up for summer camp. We sat down to dinner most nights, but otherwise it seemed to me that we all lived discrete lives. It took years (and my own experience as a parent) to recognize all that my mother, and then my stepmother, did to keep our family running smoothly. My own shift to what Sharon Hays, author of The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood (1996), terms “intensive parenting” happened gradually. It took a long time and plenty of therapy for me to understand that my bursts of panic, frustration, and, yes, occasionally rage, were logical responses to a job with a volatile nature, unrealistic expectations, and a 24-7 work schedule. I wanted children. I loved caring for them. I hadn’t banked, though, on everything else.
Dubin credits a robust capital-M Motherhood “PR campaign” for the near invisibility of this shift in responsibility. “Care work,” she writes, “is often not seen as work because of the assumption it’s being performed purely out of love.”
Hindsight makes it clearer where I personally might have set better boundaries or hired more help (though this is, of course, not an option for everyone.) I might have declined to sit on PTA boards or skipped out on the Pinewood Derby setup, but I can’t overlook the fact that, unless I paid or otherwise brought someone in to take my place, my kids were in my charge for all the hours not covered by school attendance. Sometimes, the people I paid to care for my kids brought their own kids too, because, well, there was no other place for them to be. Because I felt privileged to be able to stay home and write while my husband worked long hours, I tried hard to balance his effort with my own. What I didn’t earn in cash, I made up for in sweat equity.
In The Mother’s Almanac, Kelly and Parsons argue that, “[b]asically, all solutions must come from your own attitude. […] Unless you’re prepared to work at it, motherhood can become very depressing. You need to accomplish a little bit everyday—something that can’t be undone by another wash, another meal, another day of dust.” Perhaps I was imagining it; still, rereading their book, I detected a slender thread of anger. Though they did not define “accomplishment,” I suspected the two might be referring to the Almanac itself. Unlike Dubin, who is upfront about the challenges of maintaining her writer identity, Kelly and Parsons don’t detail the struggles of balancing motherhood with the writing and publication process. Even so, their efforts to keep things cheerful cuts an edge that is hard to ignore.
“We are terrified that if we share how furious we’ve become since having babies,” Dubin writes, “it will get twisted into ‘I hate being a mom,’ which will further twist into ‘I don’t love my children.’”
As in her 2020 essay, Dubin begins her book with her own experience. Yet she soon broadens her scope of inquiry, finding company in the collective of a small but diverse spectrum of other parents. By clarifying that she is using “mothering” as a synonym for nurturing, Dubin expands our definition of “mother” to include all gender identities.
Coupled with her own extensive research, these interviews with other mothers helped the author understand that her rage was not directed at her children. Instead, it was the product of—and therefore pointed at—a culture that defines motherhood as “the most important job in the world,” yet repeatedly, palpably ignores the well-being of mothers. Prejudiced and substandard pre- and postnatal care, no federal family leave, inaccessible mental health treatment, a lack of early childhood education, and underfunded public schools are just a few of the obstructing pillars cited as Dubin burrows into the American care infrastructure.
Two years after the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade protected a woman’s right to abortion, Kelly and Parsons celebrated how “[t]oday we can plan our families so well.” Likely convinced that additional change was on the horizon, Kelly and Parsons reminded readers to pack a hospital birthing bag with crackers and cookies for guests. Assuming the role of postnatal “hostess with the mostess” now seems completely absurd; perhaps, though, they were seduced at the time by the optimistic vision of a woman who might “bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan.”
Dubin wears no such rose-colored glasses. And, following the 2022 Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson—a ruling that rolled back 50 years of progress—neither do I. After all, as Dubin writes, “[w]hen birthing people want to self-actualize by not having a baby, the state won’t ensure access to birth control or abortion. When birthing people want to self-actualize by having a baby, the state shrugs, ‘It’s on you.’”
Dubin sought the help of a therapist when her anger began to frighten her. She acknowledges that short-term repair, which might include a family meeting or a talking circle, is a necessary step. Still, she argues, the real path toward self-compassion and any hope of “alleviating mom rage on a systemic and cultural level” necessitates approaching rage with curiosity. Ever skeptical of ideas of fate, magic, gods, and ghosts, Dubin gives a “woo warning” before making an argument for “inviting [your] rage to tea.” Less mystic ritual than potent theater game, personifying rage allows the author to engage herself in effective dialogue. Where does it hurt? What are you afraid of? What are you trying to protect? What do you need? Designed to root out stressors, such questions ideally provide a map for working backwards towards peace. Kelly and Parsons ask similar ones. “[D]ecide exactly what bothers you most about motherhood,” they advise. “You need to find two or even three solutions to get reasonable serenity.”
Messy rooms, lack of privacy, the drudgery of housework, the dread of nightly toothbrushing: all are possible sparks for a rage inferno. By identifying such triggers, we might find ways to keep the explosion at bay—because, as Dubin avers, “[w]hen we listen to our rage, we pay homage to our anger.” This awareness might create more balance in domestic partnerships. It might coax you to enroll in a writing workshop, take a walk, or see a friend. Of course, whatever form of self-care you choose, Dubin is quick to point out that “all the om shantis in the world won’t strong-arm our country into giving us paid family leave.”
Feeling powerless is a key contributor to anger. Dubin offers a dismal pileup of statistics demonstrating how maternal caregivers are undercut in every sector. We live in a country with the highest maternal death rate of all industrialized nations—a country that falls last on the 2019 UNICEF study ranking of 41 middle and high-income nations on maternity and paternity leave and state childcare. Our schools are underfunded by $150 billion a year; the median salary for early childhood educators rests barely above the federal poverty level; and, on average, mothers earn just 69 cents for every dollar earned by men. She advocates for massive policy changes, including free preschool; accessible and legal access to birth control; free or subsidized prenatal, birthing, and postpartum care; and flexible parental leave. Shifting away from the “money or mommy” care system requires adequate compensation for care workers and possible subsidies for at-home parents.
All of this may sound like a pipe dream. Yet, as Dubin argues, there is precedent. She cites the Lanham Act of 1943–46, which spurred the war effort by creating hundreds of childcare centers so that women could work in factories. She notes the more recent American Rescue Plan of 2021, which gave up to $300 per child during the peak of COVID-19 and lifted three million kids out of poverty during the pandemic’s first month. The program has since ended. But it was written into President Biden’s Build Back Better bill, which, at least in its earliest versions, also provided half-price childcare, universal preschool, paid family leave, and increased pay for care workers. Of course, none of this has happened—not yet.
Dubin doesn’t necessarily need to tell us that she resists “the societal mandate that mothers’ purpose in life is to provide nurture at all costs, even to our own detriment, even if it means erasing ourselves.” Her book itself is evidence of her existence. With an appendix of concrete tools, such as “For Partners: 19 Steps to Alleviate Your Co-parent’s Mom Rage” and “Reveal Your Rage Risk Factors,” Mom Rage provides much-needed advice, company, and consolation. It also offers a timely reminder that we might use our voices for more than bedtime stories. We may have left behind the nylon stockings and Mother’s Almanac–esque “attention to toilette,” but our country has yet to find a way to fully prioritize the physical, emotional, and creative well-being of those responsible for raising our future generations. In the relative calm of my empty nest, my own rage feels less like a “buzzing beneath my skin” and more like an energizing, full-body force—one with the potential to power the next phase of my life.
Tanya Ward Goodman is the author of the memoir Leaving Tinkertown (2013).
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