My search history from five years ago, when I was a new mom, is full of questions about babies. There are over 1.1 billion results when you ask Google how to get one to sleep. But for the bigger questions about being a mother, there’s no algorithm to help you find the answers. The women who volunteer to record their conversations with reproductive psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks on Gimlet’s Motherhood Sessions talk about everything from an ex-husband’s addiction issues to how giving birth made them question their own adoptive parents. In opening up about their struggles, these women face the questions common to every mother: Is the version of love I have to give enough? What assumptions about what a mother should be are messing with me? How can I reckon with the imperfect or idyllic version of motherhood I grew up with, keeping the good parts and rejecting the bad?
As with Esther Perel’s podcast Where Should We Begin, which records her therapy sessions with couples, most of the conversations on Motherhood Sessions are anonymous. And like Perel, Dr. Sacks balances empathy with toughness and humor, and pauses when she senses there’s more to a story. She questions the narratives these women have been telling themselves with a quiet, assured compassion that every mother I know needs so much more of. I love Motherhood Sessions for the heartbreaking specificity of each conversation and for the ways that these brave women’s stories reflect the lonely contradictions, crippling joys, and impossible pressures that all mothers experience.
Leigh, in “Can I Handle A Second Child,” is the mother of a toddler. She’s also about to give birth again, and she begins the conversation processing what a second child will mean for her relationship with her older daughter. Being a mother has given her a sense of identity, but she confesses the fear she recently felt when coming home to two hours of rare, uninterrupted time alone. The conversation pushes further, and you can hear a pause of silence as Leigh makes the connection between her own fears as a mother and the guilt she felt as a daughter who couldn’t solve her parents’ problems when they were getting a divorce.
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In “Not Cut Out For Motherhood,” Anne struggles to admit that she never wanted to be a mother in the first place. She still sees caring for her one-year-old as a chore and a never-ending checklist. Anne’s single immigrant mother sacrificed constantly to give her a good life, and measuring up to that version of motherhood feels impossible to her. Every parenting decision feels fraught, a soon-to-be failure. “I just want her to throw me a bone,” Anne says, while admitting her frustration when her baby won’t eat new foods. “It’s not her job to throw you a bone,” Dr. Sacks responds. “It’s her job to grow.”
There’s no simple solution for Anne, no sudden turnaround that makes her love the monotonous aspects of raising children or abandon the all-or-nothing idea that if she’s not doing it like her mother, then she’s failing. Instead Dr. Sacks meets Anne where she is, acknowledging all the contradictions in her life: that she loves her baby but loves time apart from her just as much, that she reveres her mother but enjoys the comfort and security she has attained — a life her mother could never have imagined – and that her daughter will never be perfect, but instead her messy, lovable self. Ultimately, Dr. Sacks helps Anne envision a path forward that rejects the misery of martyrdom and calls for a new model of good-enough.
“No human can do that,” Dr. Sacks insists in “Co-Parenting With Your Ex,” when Zoe tells her she feels like a failure every single night that she can’t simultaneously play on the floor with her son and cook a healthy dinner. Zoe’s ex is immature and thoughtless at best, an abusive alcoholic at worst. She keeps hoping he will change with every text about drop offs and pick-ups. Dr. Sacks tempers the truth that he probably won’t by pointing out all that Zoe is doing to show her son love and make a good life for him. You can hear in Zoe’s voice that she’s been so mired in shame and guilt, and in the day-to-day dealings with her ex, that she’s rarely thought about what she’s doing right.
We encounter the cruel, say-anything anonymity of online comments sections all the time, but stripping away these mothers’ real names gives them a unique kind of freedom to tell the truth and reveal their secrets. These conversations are different from the let’s-see-where-this-goes-style talks on Chris Gethard’s Beautiful/Anonymous podcast, but both shows share a common faith that every single person is fascinating if you give them the chance to be. In both shows, the opportunity to tell an uninterrupted, unfiltered story proves to be a rare gift. In Motherhood Sessions, it’s also a necessary antidote to the performance of social media parenting, which only ever presents a small, staged fraction of the story.
I know this show will find women like me, in the throes of post-partum chaos or years later, but Motherhood Sessions is no more only a show for new mothers than Serial is only a show for lawyers who specialize in criminal justice. I hope this podcast does for new parents what The Longest Shortest Time did for me five years ago, telling complex, taboo-breaking stories about parenting as I wondered whether I would make it through the next few hours with a newborn. But I also hope this show will move beyond the parenting podcast charts and find its place among the best shows asking difficult questions about all of our embedded assumptions, impossible comparisons, and complicated lives.
Katie Runde (@khrunde) writes about podcasts for her blog, thepodcastmom.com. She lives in Iowa City.