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The Question of Exhaustion in Motherhood

Professor Elizabeth Velez and Kathleen Felli comment on the juxtaposition of two articles printed on the December 31, 2022 issue of The Washington Post. The following is an introduction written by Elizabeth, followed by a short response from her and Kathleen.




On the morning of December 31, 2022, the Washington Post printed an essay and an opinion piece side by side in the Style section. (Welcome to 2023!)

In "This was the year of always being tired," Monica Hesse shares her lived experience of a year of both working and mothering a toddler--and never sleeping! Her daughter wakes at 5 o'clock every morning in spite of the fact that she has tried sleep consultants, "later bedtimes, earlier bedtimes, night logs, blackout curtains, wake windows, sleep cycles, dream feeds (and) Woolino sacks." (Hesse writes in the first person; we don't know if a spouse or partner has been involved in these efforts; we do know that the essay focuses on motherhood, no mention of "parenthood.")

As Hesse tells us what she has learned during her own year of motherhood, she also makes it clear that this was a difficult year to be any kind of woman: "Forget about being a working woman. This was an exhausting year to be any kind of woman, or any kind of person who cared about any kind of woman." She tells us that "the year 2022 had whole dystopian side plots related to targeting womanhood."


Elizabeth: I have no argument with this essay; Hesse makes crucial and important points about the current state of motherhood and womanhood in the United States in the year of

2022, but to the left of Hesse's essay, we find another headline: "Whitney and exhausted Black Women." The author, Helena Andrews-Dyer tells us that "Black girls must die exhausted" in her review of the biopic, Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody. Houston's life as a mother is not even mentioned, and yet we know that raising Black children in this country is not just an exhausting enterprise, but a dangerous and frightening as well.

Both of these pieces are important, but their juxtaposition raises some questions that I cannot answer. Do they complement one another? Do they, perhaps, work together in an intersectional kind of way? What do you think, Kathleen?

Kathleen: I definitely think that there's a lot to say about the universal stance that Hesse takes on the lives of American women in comparison to Andrews-Dyer's focus on a singular Black woman. When looking at the two, it's clear that the article about Whitney Houston is describing an exhaustion that goes beyond what Hesse discusses.

Hesse is completely valid in talking about all of the current political turmoil that makes it so hard to be a mother above all of it. That being said, she doesn’t describe feelings of being exploited. Exploitation is a big part of Andrews-Dyer’s piece, especially since she is talking about a Black woman who was the subject of tabloid fodder for the majority of her career. Whitney Houston, while also a mother, will not be remembered as one in the world of pop culture because that role is not of value to those who profited off of her talents.


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