Last month, after nearly two years of parenting in a pandemic, Morgan Burke was angry.
Since then, she said, her quest for any return to normalcy has proved elusive. Her return to work as a part-time home organizer, planned for the beginning of January, has been delayed following her husband’s recent bout with covid-19 and her 20-month-old son’s belated return to day care after a classmate contracted the virus, she said.
So when her friend Sarah Harmon, a 39-year-old therapist who also lives in Charlestown, invited her to join a group of local moms that planned to scream their pandemic-induced frustrations into the frigid evening air last month, Burke reluctantly agreed to join.
On Jan. 13, Burke, Harmon and more than a dozen other mothers met on the 50-yard line of a local football field. Harmon opened the event with a greeting and prompted the women to check in with how their stress felt in their bodies.
Then, they screamed.
For Burke, it was exactly what she didn’t know she needed.
“It felt good to be able to be out of control,” she said. “We have been holding this tight leash on everything we could possibly control during these two years.”
That was exactly the point, Harmon said.
Two years of working with mothers struggling with their mental health — through both her private practice and her company the School of Mom, which offers mindfulness programs for mothers — had shown her that many mothers were at their breaking points, and that people and institutions around them often weren’t offering enough support, she said.
Harmon hosted her first primal scream event in March 2021. While that one passed without much fanfare, word of last month’s event spread quickly. As a result, primal scream events — many hashtagged #MomScream — soon popped up in New Orleans, Alaska and New Jersey. More are planned in the weeks to come, in Virginia and New Jersey. The events started becoming so popular that Harmon released a guide with tips on how moms can plan their own scream events.
Moms have a lot to be angry about: More than 1 million women who have left the labor force since February 2020 have yet to return, and Black and Latina women have been hit hardest with job losses over the course of the pandemic. Some of those were mothers who stopped doing paid work — in part to manage child care in the wake of mass school and day-care closures — and many have faced hurdles as they’ve tried to rejoin the labor force.
Experts say the proliferation of primal scream events highlights the paradoxical position mothers occupy in American society, particularly during the pandemic: They’re overburdened and undersupported when it comes to domestic and care work, but left without many models of how to express their anger about those inequities. When they do express anger, they’re often seen as reinforcing sexist and racist stereotypes — particularly if they’re women of color, experts say.
“Historically, our society has not done a good job of giving women space for their anger,” said Pooja Lakshmin, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at George Washington University School of Medicine and the founder of Gemma, a digital education platform focused on women’s mental health.
“From what we’ve learned growing up, anger is a dangerous emotion … you’re a ‘bad woman’ if you’re angry, especially if you’re a woman of color or a Black woman,” she added.
The stereotype of the “angry Black woman” is still pervasive. It stretches back to slavery and can lead to misdiagnoses, less effective mental health treatment and cyberaggression toward Black women, according to Soraya Chemaly, the author of “Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger.” Latinas who express anger tend to be sexually objectified in response, Chemaly added, noting that Asian women who show anger are often stereotyped as “sad.” And angry White women, Chemaly said, are often stereotyped as “crazy” in light of the structural privileges they hold as a group compared with women of color.
Attendees to the primal scream events — who appear to be overwhelmingly White women in photos — were met with similar critiques from some commenters on social media, who noted that the women had the privilege to attend the events without their kids and likely had the option to work from home during the pandemic.
But for Burke, critiques implying that the screaming women had nothing to be angry about have the effect of invalidating the unique struggles she and other stay-at-home mothers face, she said.
“Stay-at-home moms did not sign up to be trapped in their house all day long,” she said. “Everyone’s hard is different, but everyone’s hard is hard.”
Some women who attended the events said collectively screaming helped them reframe their views about the validity of their anger, as well as the power of expressing it alongside others in similar circumstances.
“I have always seen anger as a negative, and I’ve learned that it’s not a negative, it’s healthy, and it’s how you respond and how you react” to it, said Jessica Kline, 38, publisher of the family-focused website Macaroni Kid Clifton-Montclair. Kline organized a Feb. 6 #MomScream event in Verona, N.J., that drew a dozen moms.
“I think this is something that I definitely could’ve used maybe even monthly for the past two years,” Kline said of the event. (She has a second scream event planned for March 13.)
In Anchorage, 43-year-old Calisa Kastning, co-founder of Moms Matter Now, an online community focusing on maternal mental health, screamed alone in her yard for a few days before she and more than a dozen other local moms gathered in a parking lot to scream together Jan. 22, surrounded by the flashing lights of their minivans, she said.
There was no comparing the two screams, she said: “It just feels so much better to do it with other moms.”
The communal aspect of the events make them “a very healthy and appropriate way to get your anger out,” according to Lakshmin.
But unless moms act on their anger in a responsible way — by articulating the support they need from others, or mobilizing to change stressful circumstances within their control — they won’t be putting that anger to its full potential, Lakshmin added: “There’s a lot of energy that comes with rage and with anger — so how do we channel the rage that’s coming to the forefront, rightly so, and actually move to take action?”
Efforts are already underway among some moms who are using their anger to advocate for the Senate to pass the stalled Build Back Better legislation, which some Democrats hope will include funding for child care and expanded child tax credits, among other measures that would help parents.
Last month, the grass-roots group MomsRising launched a rage line for parents to call in to leave messages venting their frustrations about the lack of child care and paid family and medical leave while they wait for the legislation to move along. (The group is assessing whether to keep the line open, according to chief executive and co-founder Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner.)
Others — including some who led the primal scream events — are trying to confront inequities at home, where women do the majority of unpaid domestic labor, research shows. Harmon and her husband are working to more equally share the burden of household chores, which she has traditionally done most of, she said. Kastning said she and her husband are trying to do the same.
Chemaly sees such negotiations as key ways for women to more effectively express their anger beyond #MomScream events.
“A first step for a lot of these people out there screaming in the fields is [to ask], do you actually express your need and expect your family members to understand that, or respond to it, or to say, ‘Okay, what can we do?’ ” she said.
Struggling moms who don’t have access to a primal scream event should reach out to friends and other mothers via social media to express their anger in environments in which they’ll be supported, as well as take care to not be critical of themselves, Lakshmin said.
And “if you’re noticing that that rage is getting in the way of your ability to function, then it’s a sign that you should reach out to a mental health professional,” Lakshmin added, directing parents to the resources offered by Postpartum Support International as one place to start.
Burke is back to managing her stress through her preferred methods, including therapy and daily exercise. But she has no regrets about unleashing her primal scream.
As she put it: “We as women have carried so much of the load, and we are allowed to be mad.”