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Embodied: Radical Mothering And Pushing Back Against The Mental Load

Animated hands with words like 'calm, friendly, curious, inviting, attentive' frame an animated image of a toddler throwing a tantrum.


Parents in the United States typically have very little institutional support when it comes to raising children. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 guarantees workers 12 weeks of parental leave — but that leave is unpaid.

Some states have required employers to provide paid parental leave, but in North Carolina it is optional. Parents are left on their own when it comes to covering the costs of childcare, finding summertime activities and finding ways to socialize their little ones.

In addition to the responsibility of raising a child with little support, parents face social pressures about the right and wrong way to do things. Society encourages two-parent households, lots of extracurricular activities and breastfeeding, among other things. But where does that leave parents? And who takes on the mental load required for those things?

As American mothers and women, we've often been sold a bill of goods that the ideal family structure is the nuclear family structure. But that is very grounded in capitalism, and it's very grounded in a lot of dominant white ideas about what is success. - Katherine Goldstein

For the next episode of Embodied, our series about sex, relationships and your health, host Anita Rao talks to several guests about the social expectations and systemic forces in American culture, how those pressures impact parents and how we can push back. Katherine Goldstein is a journalist and the host and creator of “The Double Shift,” a podcast about a new generation of working mothers. She explains the concept of the mental load and talks about why it often falls to women to handle it.

"Usually in a two-parent family, people are always looking to the mother, and there's a lot of judgment on mothers about how they’re parenting and how they’re mothering," Goldstein says.

Angela Garbes also joins the conversation to talk about how social expectations and moral judgments about parenting begin as soon as a woman becomes pregnant. Garbes is the author of “Like A Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy” (Harper Wave/2018). She explains some of her research about the science of pregnancy and talks about how access to straightforward information can empower women.

"If you don't have a full understanding of your body … then I think it's easy to have rights, choices and freedoms taken away from you," Garbes argues.

As a parent, your life is made up of small things ... but I think that the hope is to be able to transcend that and see the bigger picture, which is that if everyone was supported and had the support that they needed, we would really care much less about the cup you have or what natural bath soap you're using. - Angela Garbes

And Dani McClain shares the additional fear and anxiety that black communities experience raising children in a white supremacist culture.

"Pregnancy and birth can feel like this overwhelming, complex set of experiences when you're going through it for the first time. Add to it that you know that your health and safety and life is at risk when you go into the process. [It] adds even more that you have to think about and manage and negotiate," she explains.

I think one thing that gets overlooked in the conversation about black family structure is the role that the extended family plays and how good we are at building — really leaning into — kinship structures beyond the nuclear family. - Dani McClain

McClain is a journalist, a fellow at Type Media Center and the author of “We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood” (Bold Type Books/2019). All three guests talk about raising children in different family structures, the myth that there is a “right way” to parent and the challenges parents face in American culture.

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Amanda Magnus grew up in Maryland and went to high school in Baltimore. She became interested in radio after an elective course in the NYU journalism department. She got her start at Sirius XM Satellite Radio, but she knew public radio was for her when she interned at WNYC. She later moved to Madison, where she worked at Wisconsin Public Radio for six years. In her time there, she helped create an afternoon drive news magazine show, called Central Time. She also produced several series, including one on Native American life in Wisconsin. She spends her free time running, hiking, and roller skating. She also loves scary movies.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist and the host and creator of "Embodied," a live, weekly radio show and seasonal podcast about sex, relationships & health. She's also the managing editor of WUNC's on-demand content.