You cast a wide net to find the 33 women you highlight in The Moms Are Not Alright. Can you discuss your reporting process?
Anne Helen Petersen: I have a very wide network of people who follow my social media platforms and newsletter, and they’ve watched as I’ve done previous projects that required interviewees to be very vulnerable and open about their struggles and societal failures, so I think I’ve engendered a certain amount of trust. If I’m reporting on something, they know I’m going to do it with thoughtfulness, inclusiveness, and nuance. People are also very willing to retweet or forward requests to others in their lives, along with their recommendation that I’d be a good person to talk to — so I get quite a bit of responses from people who come to me through second- or third- or even fourth-hand recommendations. (It’s a technique that researchers often call “snowballing.”)
Usually, when I invite people to fill out a form or get in touch if they’re willing to talk about a particular issue, I get somewhere between 200 and 500 responses. For this topic, I heard from at least 800 people, all of whom told me a few things about their lives and expressed willingness to do a longer interview. It was honestly a bit surprising, given how tired people are of the pandemic in general, but, as I talk about in the piece, I think people are still very much in the process of, well, processing what’s happened over the last two and a half years.
From that pool of 800, I conducted longer interviews of around an hour (for people who wanted to talk by phone or video) or gave a list of detailed but open-ended questions (for those who felt more comfortable writing their answers), and wound up with around 50 transcripts, which were edited for length and clarity. The 33 stories you see here are the result of picking those that felt representative yet unique, compelling, and relatable. It was really hard to make those final decisions; I really feel like I could have included 100!
Some of these stories sound like confessionals — the moms are so brutally honest. Do you feel like you tapped a vein?
Anne Helen Petersen: I think that a lot of moms had some form of venting community during the pandemic — for many, it was a text chain — but they didn’t necessarily have a place where they could process things that had already happened, or think more deeply about changes in their own families or, most poignantly, themselves. That’s the question that gave most women pause, and that brought on a lot of tears of relief, sadness, and catharsis: “How have you changed over the last three years?”
Did any stories in particular move you?
Anne Helen Petersen: I chose the first story in the collection pretty purposefully. First, because I’m from Idaho, and my mom still lives there, so I know what the environment was like and the particular fears people had about the overloaded healthcare system, but also because I thought the situation the mother describes with her parents, and not being able to let them hold the baby, even when they’d followed all the rules and taken all the precautions — it’s a small thing, but it’s a massive thing, too, you know? A thing that no one will ever be able to forget, like a scar that you trace with your finger that might look small or insignificant to someone from the outside, but is from a wound that was incredibly, maybe even inexpressibly, painful at the time. I think everyone has one of those.
You seem to have a sixth sense of the shifting zeitgeist. In your book Can’t Even, you examine burnout among millennials. In your most recent book, Out of Office, you look at big changes happening in the working world, thanks to the pandemic. Do you anticipate a similar seismic shift among parents?
Anne Helen Petersen: Whew. Well, I’ll say that I have had a lot of people tell me that my next book should be on women and work, broadly — and the intersection with parenting is absolutely there, of course. I think that the pandemic has forced a pretty interesting amount of reflection, and a lot of radicalization. Parents I talk to feel strongly that we have allowed organizational structures and safety nets to fail, that individualist or nuclear-family-focused strategies cannot save us, that everyone is just barely keeping their heads above water. We have to find a different and better way forward. We have to rebuild an infrastructure of care. And the person who’s already written that book, and who I think is absolutely the smartest on these ideas (and how they involve everyone, not just parents of young kids), is Angela Garbes. Go check out Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change. It’s revolutionary and incredibly readable, and I can’t recommend it enough.
“I’m tired and scared and anxious and unmotivated and proud and grateful and desperately sad and hopeless,” says one of the many mothers interviewed by culture writer Petersen (Can’t Even) for this Scribd Original. The raw stories these moms share about their experiences raising children during the chaos of the pandemic and more are eye-opening, moving, and reassuring.
About the Author: Laura Hohnhold
Laura Hohnhold is a longtime magazine and book editor. She was deputy editor of Outside and executive editor of Play: The New York Times Sports Magazine and the digital book publisher Byliner. She is currently a nonfiction editor for Scribd Originals.