On a recent Friday afternoon, a stylish woman in her early 40s showed up at a Brooklyn podcasting studio to tape what was essentially a three-hour therapy session, which was to later be condensed and made available for the public to download.
After a bad breakup, the woman, whom the podcast producers were calling Joni, had found a sperm donor and had a baby on her own, but caring for an infant by herself was more difficult than she’d anticipated. As the podcast’s host, a psychiatrist named Alexandra Sacks who specialises in issues surrounding pregnancy and parenthood, asked her gently probing questions, Joni revealed that she’d become self-conscious about her choice. She hesitated to take her daughter to the park because she imagined that strangers were judging her child for not having a father, as if that were obvious to casual passers-by.
It felt slightly illicit to listen in the control room, alongside an editor and a producer, as Joni exposed her private shame, fear and disappointment. Yet it was also revelatory to hear how this woman’s anxieties had warped her assumptions about how the world sees her. I remember the identity crisis of new parenthood, and how easy it is to imagine that others are evaluating you as harshly as you’re evaluating yourself. But even in novels, I’m not sure I’ve ever had such a distinct sense of what that experience feels like inside someone else’s head.
Later, Sacks pointed out to me that I’d just seen, in miniature, the psychological dynamic behind the so-called mommy wars, merciless, no-win public competitions over the best way to raise a child. “Everyone’s always insecure they’re doing something wrong, and the stakes are so high — you don’t want to mess up your kids — so you’re constantly projecting your insecurities onto other people,” she said. The result is the widespread feeling of aggrieved defensiveness that dominates many cultural conversations about parenthood.
Sacks’ podcast, “Motherhood Sessions,” debuted in April. It’s consistently riveting, and I think it tells us something about media as well as about motherhood.
One recent report said that 90 million people have listened to a podcast in the last month, and I suspect one reason for this boom is that podcasts don’t lend themselves to social media’s hostile scrutiny quite as easily as the written word does. It usually takes more time to hate-listen to a podcast than to hate-read an article, and they’re not easy to search, screenshot or comment on. I co-host a podcast called “The Argument” with my fellow opinion columnists Ross Douthat and David Leonhardt, and find that the assumption of a basically friendly audience allows me to be a little looser, and maybe more vulnerable, than in other mediums.
Speaking honestly about the harder parts of parenthood — especially when you already feel culturally embattled — requires a particular willingness to be publicly vulnerable. In a TED Talk last year, Sacks described how she’s heard again and again from women who think they’re suffering from postpartum depression because they find the strain of caring for a newborn challenging, but who don’t meet the clinical criteria. She’s sought to popularise a term, “matrescence,” for the hormone-addled transitions of pregnancy and parenthood. The rhyme with “adolescence” is deliberate: “Both are times when body morphing and hormone shifting lead to an upheaval in how a person feels emotionally and how they fit into the world,” she said in the talk.
“Motherhood Sessions,” which is produced by the podcasting company Gimlet Media, is in many ways a show about the drama of matrescence. Its focus is the mother’s experience, said Sacks: “Not how to care for a child, how to care for a woman.” It’s that emphasis, she said, that make her podcast a feminist project.
In theory, the internet should have opened up a new world of candid conversation about parenthood, and in some ways it did, particularly in the aughts, when bloggers like Heather Armstrong of Dooce found fame exposing the awkward and ugly parts of family life. But the rise of social media means that anyone who writes online about any aspect of maternal ambivalence risks a barrage of trolling or sneering condescension.
Meanwhile, the influencer economy has given mothers who want to express themselves on the internet new incentives to Instagram-filter their lives. As Sarah Pulliam Bailey wrote in The Washington Post last year, the “biggest stars of the mommy internet now are no longer confessional bloggers. They’re curators of life. They’re influencers. They’re pitchwomen.”
“Motherhood Sessions,” by contrast, explores aspects of parenthood that don’t easily lend themselves to product placement. One episode focuses on a woman who thought she didn’t want children, gave into pressure to have one anyway, and thinks she might have made a mistake. Another features a woman trying to negotiate joint parenthood with an abusive ex and feeling shame that she and her child can’t afford to live without a roommate. There’s a woman who hated pregnancy but whose older wife wants a second child, and a woman pregnant with her second child who fears she won’t be able to handle two kids.
Through their interviews with Sacks, which are edited into episodes of roughly a half-hour, the women delve into their mixed feelings about motherhood, their guilt over those mixed feelings, and the shadows cast by their own childhoods. “These are things that are hard for people to admit in any medium,” Sacks said.
Toward the end of her session, Joni described how, when friends came to visit her, she’d break down crying, and they’d tell her that they’d felt similarly disconsolate when they were new mothers. She wondered why they hadn’t told her about their experiences before. “We talk about everything,” she said. “But this one thing that people don’t share.”
“Motherhood Sessions” aims to change that. Not so long ago, you could find plenty of defiantly messy women blogging through the discombobulating experience of matrescence. That sort of freewheeling internet may be gone for good, but the chance to listen to things once kept secret is a consolation.
© 2019 New York Times News Service