The Special Misogyny Reserved for Mothers
I’m one of the lucky ones in radio. Nobody called my voice whiny (at least not that I heard). Nobody accused me of uptalk or vocal fry — all the insults people tend to hurl at women in broadcasting. No editor told me my ideas were unrelatable. Sure, I had pieces killed, but my editors always explained the reason, and the reason made sense to me.
If you’d asked me back then if I was a feminist, I might’ve shrugged and said, “I don’t know.” To be honest, I thought the word was a bit of an insult.
In 2010, my luck changed. That’s the year I became a mother.
My daughter arrived healthy, but I was injured so severely that I was unable to walk for two months. I spent eight solid weeks on an air mattress because I couldn’t handle the stairs to the bedroom. Here I was with a baby — one I’d wanted very much — but I felt completely unable to care for her. The worst part was, I barely had anybody to talk to about it. Most of my friends hadn’t had babies yet and I didn’t want to scare them.
This is, in part, what led me to start working on a podcast about parenting called “The Longest Shortest Time.” I’ve been making it for eight years now.
I have learned a lot. That parents can be civil with one another on the internet. That naming an episode “Boobs” will make it your most popular one ever. And that there is a special kind of misogyny reserved for mothers.
When I started the show, you couldn’t make a living making a podcast, so I needed to get some episodes on the radio. I sent a sampling to my longtime editor at a big public radio station. He said he was into it but couldn’t get the higher-ups to bite. “It’s weird,” he said sheepishly. “One of them said you sound like a little girl.”
Even when I was a little girl, I didn’t sound like a little girl. I listened to the clips again, trying to figure out what seemed little-girlish. The only answer I could come up with, the thing that set this work apart from my previous work, is that I — and the other women I was interviewing — sounded a little emotional. A little angry. A little raw. These are the qualities that supposedly make radio powerful. Was it being mothers that made us sound weak?
I met rejection after rejection. “We’re just not sure there’s enough of an audience for this kind of thing,” an editor said. “This is just too … small,” another said. One guy put it more bluntly: “Who would want to listen to this except for moms?”
So this bias was definitely about moms. But it’s a really ignorant bias to have.
Let’s just imagine it’s true that only moms would ever want to listen to stories about moms. Hooray, you’re in business. Moms are one of the most coveted demographics for advertisers.
But it’s also nonsense to say that stories about moms are not relatable. I don’t hear anyone fretting over whether “99 Percent Invisible” listeners are all architects or “Radiolab” listeners are all scientists. In story-based reporting, this is what we do: We take the specific and we present it in a compelling way, to make other humans connect with it.
I made the show for three years — and raised tens of thousands of dollars on Kickstarter — before big shops got interested. Eventually I was picked up by WNYC and then Stitcher. In the past few years, motherhood has become a boom market, with publishers churning out books on the complicated realities of pregnancy, life with kids, or choosing not to have them at all. But back then, many of the concerns of motherhood still seemed unpopular, if not downright taboo.
In 2015, I wanted to do an episode about childbirth injuries that I could also pitch to a network radio show. Most of these injuries can be remedied by pelvic floor physical therapy, but doctors rarely recommend it, or even know about it. I wanted to investigate why so many moms were living with pelvic pain for months — years, even — after giving birth, resigned to painful sex or no sex at all.
When I pitched a public radio editor, she told me it was an interesting topic but that you just can’t talk about something that sexually explicit on the air. I brought the story to another radio editor, this time with an economic peg. I told him the question I wanted to ask was: What is the cost of saving a mom’s sex life?
He told me he wouldn’t commission the story because the answer to why we don’t prioritize pain-free sex is that sex is extra. It’s not essential.
And yet, if you type “erectile” into the search bar on NPR’s website, you get a plethora of results. In 1998, we learned about the new popularity of Viagra, the “magic pill for impotence.” In 2008, NPR assessed a decade of Viagra. And in 2014, we got “Love and Sex in the Time of Viagra — 16 Years On.” In between, dozens of pieces mention erectile dysfunction.
When you talk about male sexual dysfunction, you’re talking about problems with arousal. When you talk about childbirth injuries, you’re talking about problems with chronic pain. From a health perspective, one talk seems much more essential than the other. And it doesn’t involve discussing boners.
NPR. It has driven me to feminism.
Motherhood is the biggest, most complex topic I have ever reported on. I’ve had the honor of interviewing a pregnant transgender man, a mixed-race kid who schools her white mom on what it means to be black via freestyle rap, and Terry Gross of “Fresh Air” on why she chose not to have children. And yet it has been treated as small, niche and unimportant, and covering it has changed how I am treated by my colleagues.
The only time I’ve been sexually harassed at work happened a few years ago, when an award-winning producer I had never met drunkenly approached me at a hotel bar during a conference.
“I know you,” he said. “You’re the baby lady.”
“I guess,” I said.
He shouted gleefully, “I’m going to give you a baby!”
“I already have one of those,” I said, backing away.
“No,” he yelled in my face, “I’m going to give you a baby tonight! I’m going to take you upstairs and give you a baby tonight!”
Fortunately, a few of his co-workers pulled him off me and I ran away.
In this guy’s eyes, I wasn’t a radio maker; I was a baby maker.
A while back, I was interviewed for another podcast. When I declined to answer some personal questions about my parenting life, the host challenged me. He suggested that people might expect to hear from me about why I had only one child, for example, because I was one of the most prominent moms out there.
What I wish I’d said back is, “No, I’m one of the most prominent podcasters.”
Hillary Frank is the creator of the podcast “The Longest Shortest Time” and the author, most recently of “Weird Parenting Wins: Bathtub Dining, Family Screams, and Other Hacks From the Parenting Trenches.”
This opinion was first published in the New York Times Opinion section on December 31, 2018.