Talking about menstrual cups and stepmoms who mother with Chloe Caldwell
And why Chloe doesn't follow momfluencers
Hello! If you’ve found my work through Virginia Sole-Smith’s newsletter and pod, Burnt Toast, welcome! I’m working on a newsletter for next week about how my profile of Daphne Oz for Romper (which went live yesterday) started out as a full throated cultural critique of diet culture and ended up being something . . . less full-throated. Which is why newsletters are so great because they allow writers to be as passionately pissed off about stuff like diet books dressed in wellness books’ clothing as they like!
If you aren’t a Virginia-effect subscriber, feel free to mosey on over to Virginia’s Substack (one of my absolute faves) to check out our conversation about gentle parenting, beef liver gummies, and our general feeling that parenting advice often feels overly generalized and unhelpful for specific people dealing with specific kids in specific contexts! It was very cathartic.
I first encountered Chloe Caldwell’s writing when I fell in love with essay collections after reading Heidi Julavits’ The Folded Clock which made me ravenous for any book that similarly probed the specifics of a woman’s interior life. Embarrassingly, I think it was the Amazon algorithm that recommended Chloe’s book, I’ll Tell You In Person, which I promptly bought and immediately love love loved so I guess Amazon did exactly one thing right.
Chloe is my favorite kind of writer because her work brings you in, makes you feel privy to a delicious secret; when I read her work I feel like I’m spending time with a friend who can express some of the murkier parts of my brain and soul that I didn’t even know needed expressing. Her writing is funny, unflinching, relatable, and always seeks greater understanding. After finishing I’ll Tell You In Person, I eagerly pushed my copy into the hands of anyone who showed the slightest interest and bought a few additional copies to give as birthday presents.
A few years later I found myself trying to write, not least because of influences like Chloe, and I signed up for one of Chloe’s online classes. I think it was Six Essays in Six Weeks. Chloe’s writing classes will cause you to write about things you haven’t thought about in years. Things you’ve forgotten you forgot. I ended up writing about an eggplant-purple velvet couch in my great aunt’s Midtown apartment in New York City. I wrote about ants in my college dorm room. I wrote about starring in a Russian love triangle play in Boston and getting caught in my own love triangle and listening to Bright Eyes incessantly. Chloe suggested I submit the Bright Eyes love triangle piece to The Rumpus for a column that features music-centric essays, and much to my surprise and delight, The Rumpus published it. To this day, it remains one of the prices I’m most proud of because it reflects a vulnerable truth, and without Chloe, it might still be residing somewhere between my ribs, unknown by me or anyone else.
A couple years after that, I attended one of Chloe’s magical writing workshops in Hudson, NY, and experienced the Chloe effect all over again, writing a piece about why my reasons for pursuing motherhood have always been fraught, were always wrapped up in the performance of an identity I struggled to fully inhabit. This essay might have been one of the first seeds of Momfluenced. This is all to say, I wouldn’t be the writer (or person) I am today without having met Chloe or having had experienced her beautiful work, so I’m ecstatic to scream about how good her new book, The Red Zone, is. It’s an essay collection about love, about creating one’s chosen family, and about periods. Please savor every word of this pitch perfect paragraph from The Red Zone about the girl in high school who had to hide a period stain with a shirt tied around her waist.
Is my blood-on-your-butt fuzzy memory something I saw passively, or was I part of the incident? Was I the girl who tied the sweatshirt around her waist, or was I the girl who laughed at her? I will never know. It’s more of a feeling, the memory. We are all every girl in high school. The girl who shames, the girl who gets shamed, and the girl who watches from the bleachers.
WE ARE ALL EVERY GIRL IN HIGH SCHOOL.
And now, without further ado, Chloe’s thoughts about step-momfluencers, talking to our kids about menstruation, and mothering.
Tell me a bit about your own relationship to motherhood, and how that relationship is featured in your new book.
My relationship to (step)motherhood is unique, from what I've learned. My SD is probably my favorite person in the world. When my husband is out of town, she will occasionally live with me full time for a few weeks. From what I hear from my stepmom community, this is not common! Many of them tell me their stepchild's BM (biological mother) won't even allow that. That's wild! I've been taking care of her part time on my own since 2017, when she was six. Her mom buoys and supports our relationship.
So, parenting is one of the best parts of my life. People don't really believe me and I often feel misunderstood about this. You're supposed to resent your step-kids, which is so bizarre to me. You chose to marry someone with kids! That's your chosen family. If you hate the kids so much, don't marry that person.
But every stepparent relationship is, of course, unique to that family. I’m a more involved stepparent and there isn’t really a hierarchy (anymore, there was probably more of one in the beginning) or parents. The other helpful thing I’ve heard said about being a stepparent is to think of it as a relationship, rather than a role.
Have you ever/do you currently consume any momfluencer content? For my purposes, I'm interested in both monetized momfluencers (who post sponsored content, have brand partnerships, etc), and anyone who uses social media to perform and interrogate her own motherhood. If you don't follow any momfluencers, why not?
When I wrote about the perks of being a stepmom and then coparenting a puppy for The New York Times, a few people pointed out the stepmom influencer Jamie Scrimgeour, to me. She runs the Kickass Stepmom membership and has a great podcast which I've gone on twice. I also worked for her for a few months and wrote some step-parenting content for her, like, What I Wish I’d Known My First Christmas As A Stepmom.
Other than Jamie, nope, I don't. I definitely chat with and follow a bunch of stepmoms. But I don't care about momfluencers. My life is already too busy and I don't want to let that shit in. Maybe this is a perk of not having a biological child.
In The Red Zone, you do such a beautiful job of interrogating the hold that the idealization of the nuclear family still has on many of us. If our families don't look a certain way, I think many of us struggle to lay claim to feelings of "success" as both caregivers and partners. I'd love to hear your thoughts about this. Would also love to hear your thoughts about how momfluencer culture might add to the complexity.
I’m not sure about the momfluencers, since, like I said, I avoid them. My family doesn’t look a certain way (though in the book I talk about how we ‘pass’ as a nuclear family) and I feel totally successful as a caregiver. I feel like I shine as a stepmom. I’ve always loved kids and was a career babysitter/nanny, and have no problem connecting with them or letting them into my life. We also are best friends with a family that looks like ours — two dads, one who is a stepdad, the other an adoptive dad, and an 11 year-old who goes back and forth from their home to her other dad’s home in Brooklyn. They feel like our twin family and we have more in common with their family dynamic than say, my friends who have toddlers with their husbands in their first marriage.
Many spheres of momfluencer culture seem to exist almost entirely to perpetuate and uphold a family structure that simply isn't possible or desirable for many of us. A white, thin, marketably attractive, non-disabled, cis-het mom at home with her biological children in a beautiful home. Her husband "out at work." This ideal of family also tends to be quite insular. Mentions of external help (house cleaners, nannies, family support, friend networks) are rare (and sometimes nonexistent), which supports a narrative of family that thrives and exists alone in a bubble. This strikes me as harmful! Would love your thoughts on the importance of building community around family.
My stepdaughter has “two families” I’ve heard her refer to it by. Her bio mom is also remarried, so she’s got two sets of parents. And here’s the looney part — we are ALL artists! She doesn’t have one parent with a “regular” job. She also has an important relationship with my mom, her step-grandma, who she calls her grandma, and sleeps at her house one (sometimes two) nights a week. Intergenerational blending that way is so incredibly meaningful and it’s so heartwarming to see their relationship blossom and how close they are. We also rely a lot on the above mentioned couple, Joe and Marty, who host “family” dinners often, bringing the girls to plays and concerts, sleepovers, and just hangouts. We help each other out with favors, giving rides, bringing kids to COVID tests. They’re both artists too and they know the coparenting grind so we all have one another to talk to about that stuff. I don’t know what we would do without so many people helping. We’d get by, of course, but this way is such a rich life.
A friend of mine is marrying someone with three kids, and she has LOTS of feelings about the term "stepmom." One central feeling being: "I mother these kids, and the term stepmom is so loaded, so laden with ‘less-than’ connotations." Would love your thoughts! She also has complained frequently about lack of representation (on social media and off), which adds to her feeling that a large portion of society look at step-parents as little more than glorified babysitters. I know you have thoughts :)
There are some great shows with blended families; the show Bonus Family, which is in Swedish, is probably my favorite show ever. I relate to your friend though — some of my friends with a nuclear family just literally lack the language to talk to me about step-parenting. Since they're a biological mom, they still see the hierarchy, and I think they even imagine me as their hypothetical stepmom; meaning, the thought of their kid going and sleeping at / being raised by another woman is so threatening to them. I’d advise your friend to seek out other stepparents to talk to. I’m in a stepmom group on Discord, and there’s also Jamie Scrimgeour’s “Exclusive Stepmom Community.”
It's not radical to say that only a certain type of mother can reap benefits from our culture's worship of the "ideal mom," while the rest of us who don't fit that ideal mold are failed on systemic levels at almost every turn (lack of paid family leave, no subsidized quality childcare, lack of universal preschool, inequality in the workplace, etc). Do you want to share how this gaslit paradox between the "ideal mom" and the person doing the labor of mothering has impacted your relationship with motherhood?
I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that some of my aforementioned friends in nuclear families aren’t able to see me for what I am. That hurts. I’m lucky that some do. But others just see the hierarchy, whereas I’m the stepmom and so I’m lowest on the totem pole. This is not true in our blended family, where I am with my stepdaughter just as much, if not more, than her biological mom. Sometimes I feel rage and sadness about not being seen. But my husband always reminds me that he sees me, and my own mom sees it, and that is helpful.
My daughter casually asked me how I got my menstrual cup "out" the other day and I immediately thought of you. I also took a minute to pat myself on the back for being super transparent about my period from day one (we need to pat ourselves on the back sometimes!!!) Do you want to share how you've approached menstruation with your step-daughter, or how you see the tides turning on how parents talk to their kids about menstruation? One of my favorite parts of the book is the chapter of interviews from women in different generations about their first periods, and while I felt so angry for much of the chapter, I ended the chapter feeling super hopeful about how young kids today will experience their "firsts."
I've totally normalized periods in my house. Recently my stepdaughter was trying to remember which movie we watched last weekend and she said, "Remember, you really wanted to watch it because you had your period?" She hears me talk about my book and has read small excerpts of it. She thinks the PMS Reddit thread is super funny in it. In the beginning of sixth grade, her teacher announced to the class that she had menstrual products and to come to her if they needed any help/products. We’ve also watched the film “Girl Flu” together. I don’t think everyone needs to be period-positive, but I’m striving for period-neutral and want to allow each person; especially kids, have their own unique experience without putting my own projections onto it.
This might be totally non-applicable, but have you noticed any exploration of menstruation in influencer/momfluencer culture? I feel like this is something that needs to happen, like, yesterday? Enough with the fucking bento box lunch inspo. Give us the "how to best help kids with their first tampon or pad or whatever" content.
Since I don't watch momfluencer culture I don't see much of this, but I do know there's this amazing board game which was released in 2018, The Period Game.
Last one! Mother as a marker of identity is fucking fraught for so many reasons, and I think we'd all be so much better off if we talked less about "good moms" and more about the realities and nuances of "mothering." Like - toss the noun and embrace the verb, you know? Do you have thoughts?
It's tough, because I still think it's okay if someone identifies with and loves calling themselves a "mom" or a "mother" and they should get to have that. I think my husband might already do what you're saying though. Though I'm technically a "Stepmom" he lately will text me (he's been on tour and my stepdaughter's bio mom asked me to take my SD on my own for a few weeks because she had a work thing) “You’re the best mom.” It’s really amazing to hear, because it shows he sees me. I pack lunch, I instinctively know when she’s getting sick, sometimes my husband tells me he feels left out of our dynamic. I’m a mother. Technically step, sure, but like your friend said, I am a mother because I mother. Once my stepdaughter’s mom said something wonderful to me that she’d read in that book, Women who Run with The Wolves, which was something like (and I’m paraphrasing), “I want my daughter to have all of the mothers she can.”