Discover more from In Pursuit of Clean Countertops
Unsubscribing from motherhood scams with Raena Boston
Plus a deep dive on America's fight for paid leave
I can’t remember when I first started following Raena Boston on Instagram, but I do know that almost everything she shares makes me nod in solidarity, laugh in recognition, or feel inspired to do something with my seemingly bottomless font of rage about the state of maternity in America.
As one of the founding members of Chamber of Mothers, Raena is committed to advocating for systemic change to systems which have been harming mothers and care givers for far too long. In addition to her work for Chamber of Mothers, Raena is also the creator of the Working Momtras blog (and Instagram account), where she celebrates individual stories of mothering and offers support and community for mothers are sick and tired of trying to chase unattainable ideals. (🙋)
Whether she’s revealing the hidden (and not so hidden!) costs of breastfeeding, tirelessly fighting for federal paid leave, or underscoring the shocking misogyny behind so many of our maternal healthcare policies, Raena Boston is the exact type of person I love to be momfluenced by. She’s truly the best, and I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.
Raena: Like many millennials, I came up in the “lean in” “girl boss” culture of feminism. I felt very empowered by it all at one point and very empowered by the idea that I can create the life I want if I just have the right mindset, right? I just need to achieve and everything's gonna be great. And then, of course, I became disillusioned. I really started to wonder what it would be like if instead of leaning in we started from a belief that we’re already worthy. There's nothing more that we need to create or do or be or have to be worthy. And thinking in this way made me feel so much more free as a working parent.
I read this article in The Cut about Meghan Markel that was like, like a lot of millennials, Meghan turned her hardships into content. I think I started The Working Momtras for similar reasons, but now I’m all about leaning out and revealing that mom guilt is a scam. We don’t need to do it all. Doing it all is a scam as well! We need to do less. And we need to save our time for the things that matter. And that's completely up to us. There's no guru who can tell you what it is that you should value. It's up to you. And for me, that's just been very freeing.
Sara: Do you remember where you were in your mothering journey when you started to sort of question the Sheryl Sandberg-esque feminist ideology?
Raena: I think it was probably 2020. I mean, who didn’t start to question things then, right? Because the wheels fell off everything. I had just gotten promoted at work, which I was really excited about. And then a month later, COVID happened. My husband works in direct patient care at a hospital and everything started to feel very unsustainable; it felt like the walls were closing in on me. But I also felt like I was expected to achieve at a certain level in my job, as if I did not also have to care for a two-year-old and a four-year-old. And as if I didn't have a husband who was exposed to COVID multiple times a day all day every day. Oh and by the way, the new job was really stressful on its own.
It took me having to take a mental health leave from work to really understand that hustle culture is a lie, and to get my shit together and start to question some of the harmful narratives and the pressure that I had put on myself to finally decide to opt out of it all.
Sara: Totally. I want to talk about needing to create your own priorities and value systems without the help of a guru. One thing I find really dangerous about some aspects of momfluencer culture is that so many people hold themselves up as gurus. Like, I'm going to tell you the best way to birth your child. I'm going to tell you the best way to feed your child. I'm going to tell you the best way to educate your child. Do you have any thoughts about these narrow definitions of “best” when it comes to mothering.
Raena: It is also a scam and it is also bullshit. [editoral note from Sara: the decisiveness and speed with which Raena answered this question was chef’s kiss perfection] And the question we need to be asking about guru and momfluencer culture is, Who profits from that notion of what’s best? Who profits from being a guru? Because often there’s a direct line from influence to profit. There’s a capitalist thread running through this whole thing. Being a working parent (and particularly being a working mom) is just so unsustainable and stupid in our culture. You're constantly seeking escape from it, right? I think that's what momfluencer culture can be, an escape. For both consumers and creators. Creators create these businesses in order to escape from the drudgery of having to do it all. They create an ideal, and the way you sell any sort of ideal is to convince consumers that you can do it too.
It's so easy to see the cracks in these ideals if you look closely enough. I’m thinking about Rachel Hollis. So many people followed her as an ideal, as a guru to aspire to. And the minute the façade slips, you realize it was always bullshit. And that she is an actual person and she doesn't have it all figured out. There's no course you need to buy. There's no IG live you need to watch. You're not one step closer to getting to that one thing. You need to figure shit out on your own, but that concept doesn’t sell, right?
So much of momfluencer culture is performative. It’s performative marriage. Performative parenting. And I just unsubscribe.
Sara: I think the word “escape” is a good one, because I think one of the reasons a lot of people consume influencer culture is to feel a sense of escape, right? Like we want to believe that if we buy X, Y and Z workshop, or baby sling or whatever, that our experience of motherhood might be less stifling.
Raena: Yeah, and I think it’s also that our culture hinges on a belief that we’re just one purchase away from figuring out our lives. If we can just pay or outsource to fix ____, we’ll be good. But the truth is, sometimes parenting is just all joy, no fun. Sometimes marriage sucks. And it’s really hard to sell that; it’s really hard to sell the truth.
Also, we need to think about how many of these successful momfluencers have wealthy spouses or generational wealth propping them up. I mean, they sell you on a myth that they’re just like you, but sometimes that’s just not true. If you’re a momfluencer with a rich husband, just be honest about it so I’m not thinking there’s something wrong with me for failing to figure stuff out. For thinking I’m unable to crack the code, when the code was just, like, to marry up. Ha.
I think people aren’t forthcoming about access to wealth because, a) we don't talk about money in this country, and b) it destroys the ethos of “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps” and rugged individualism. That's bullshit too, right? There’s also a reticence to talk about having help. And here’s the thing: we should talk about having help! And people should seek help in whatever forms they can as long as it’s ethical and feels good to them as individuals.
Sara: Right? Yes. What really defines the Ideal Mother™ is the fact that she does it all herself and loves doing it all herself. I think that's so corrosive for our culture of parenting.
Raena: So corrosive, so toxic. It’s making us unwell.
Sara: I want to talk about scams of motherhood because I think there are so many. I mean, obviously sometimes mothering sucks because your toddler is being a whiny little shit. But sometimes mothering sucks because this country is set up to make mothering difficult for parents, right?
Sara: I do think recently there’s more focus on demanding structural change. What do you think? Do you think that people are getting angry and energized enough to demand change? Or do you think there's still a long way to go?
Raena: I think people are getting angry and energized, but I also think they need a channel for it. I think they need to see that there's power in coalition building and coming together. And that their voices have power. Our culture is so individualistic, and people can often feel like advocacy is impossible on an individual level. But there's somebody already doing the work. You just need to just get behind them or direct resources to them. And this is another example of how doing it all is a scam.
If you think a “good mom” is a mom who does everything, you won't have time to engage in political advocacy because you're doing all this other shit. And some of this stuff doesn't matter. If you access joy from making your kid cute lunches in cute bento boxes, that’s awesome, but if you don’t, don’t do it. Choose what matters to you and what doesn’t.
As mothers, we’re encouraged to become consumed by all of these little things that ultimately don’t really matter, and it almost feels like it's by design. Because when moms attempt to numb their rage with momfluencer culture, or buying shit, or trying to fit the mold of the perfect mom, they won’t have time to engage in advocacy. They won’t have time to get mad. I also think rage is scary, right? Because women are not supposed to get angry. Black women are not supposed to be angry. Good vibes only! But really, we need to tap into our rage in order to create any kind of change. And that’s how Chamber of Mothers was born.
There was a moment when we all felt such hope, like, Oh shit, Joe Biden is going to deliver on paid family leave! We're going to have universal pre K! It's going to be amazing. Like, I can maybe be proud to be an American. And we watched paid leave go from 12 weeks to four weeks to no weeks. I have never felt so disgusted, angry, and sad. Especially after moms carried this country on their backs during the pandemic to keep the economy going. It just felt like the biggest fuck you ever. And that’s why I co-founded Chamber of Mothers. I was like, I'm really sick of this shit. Somebody needs to do something. As moms, we don't need to accept this. We don't have to let this be the standard.
Sara: I saw one of your reels about the politics behind companies offering paid leave. Can you talk about some of the misconceptions surrounding paid leave? And maybe the history of the fight for paid leave in the US?
Raena: So we currently have FMLA, which is 12 weeks of unpaid job protection. It just ensures that your company has to hold your job for 12 weeks so you can take care of yourself after you have a baby. FMLA passed in the early 1990s and it was never meant to be a permanent solution. It was meant to be built upon. And here we are in 2022, and we've made no traction. Also, if you work for a company with less than fifty people, FMLA doesn’t apply to you. There are various loopholes and levels of nonsense embedded within FMLA.
Sara: Wow, I had no idea about the whole less than 50 employees loophole. That’s infuriating.
Raena: The law is extremely complicated and it varies by state. So this is why we push for federal paid leave because there needs to be something across the board that assures all people get paid no matter what so long as they're employed. Certain states (like California) have robust paid leave programs. I live in Florida, which has absolutely nothing (which will surprise no one). And from my standpoint as an HR professional (I work in HR for my day job), paid leave is viewed as a perk. So companies can give and they can take away this thing which is absolutely essential.
And it’s so ridiculous - maybe a company will say like, Okay, well, you get six weeks of short term disability through the state and we will give you six weeks paid leave, so that equals 12 weeks paid leave. It's all very convoluted and very confusing. If we had a federal system that mandated a certain baseline, then states could choose to give more, or companies could choose to give more.
I find it fascinating when women (referring to their companies’ paid leave policies), say things like, My company is very generous. I fucking hate it. No, they're not generous. They’re doing what they need to do to retain talent. You would never say that, Oh, my company is so generous because they have a 401 K program. No, our country doesn't have any state funded retirement so they need to offer it.
I think even the way we talk about paid leave will help move the needle. And I really think we need to start looking at paid leave as an expectation not a privilege. And if you have the privilege to do so, don’t work for organizations that do not provide paid leave, even if you are not planning on having children. I think that's the only way we move the needle in the absence of federal legislation. I do think that we will get there someday, but it's going to take us playing the long game. The far right have made a concerted effort to erode abortion rights, and they’ve been playing the long game. We need to play the long game too. And our long game needs to support having a country that is functional and that provides basic supports for citizens. And we need to keep that pressure on our elected officials. If an elected official is not talking about paid leave or access to childcare, we need to pressure them to either include those issues in their platform or support another candidate who already is.
Sara: For sure. How do you stay energized? I mean, that anecdote about being so excited and hopeful about paid leave when Biden was elected, and then to have all those hopes be dashed. How do you keep fighting the good fight when shit like that happens? When you feel depressed and demoralized.
Raena: For The Working Momtras, I've asked people about their paid leave situations (or lack of paid leave situations) and simply collected their stories. And I did the same thing with childcare costs. And it all felt very heavy and it felt like a lot to carry. But at the same time, other people's stories buoy me in my belief that we cannot allow this to continue.
For example, same sex couples who are teachers have told me about strategizing about when to get pregnant so it coincides with their summer vacations. We’re making all of these huge life choices (some of which are out of our control) to conform to policies and legislations created by people in power. By the way, it’s not just elementary and high school teachers who are struggling. By and large, university and colleges have horrible paid leave policies, and you can clearly see that their policies were set up for white men who had wives at home. These policies have not evolved to reflect the needs of most families.
So I think a lot about the many people who have been completely abandoned by the system. When it comes to discussions about childcare, I shared a bunch of responses in my Instagram stories about what people are paying for childcare. Some people have maxed out their credit cards to pay for childcare. Some have taken out a HELOC on their homes to pay for childcare. And these are people that have enough privilege to leverage their homes, right? What is happening to the people who don't have those housing privileges? Whose rents have risen astronomically?
Stories like these keep me going. We just can’t leave each other behind. Community care is the way forward. And I think people sharing their abortion stories, or their paid leave stories, these stories are for us, right? Our legislators really don't give a shit. They only give a shit about the economy and about money. But I think if we can hold onto each other’s stories, we can figure out how to speak to legislators in the language of capitalism (the only language they understand) and explain why these things matter.
Sara: It’s so dystopian to consider how we’re making these choices about our bodies and our day-to-day experiences based on someone else’s bottom line. It's just so dark when you start to consider how many of our choices are dictated by huge companies and billionaires.
Raena: With my first two pregnancies, I didn’t have paid leave and I also dealt with PPD and PPA. And not having to worry about money and being able to take six months off largely paid with my third kid, I did not experience any mental health challenges. People should be financially supported when they're going through these types of things! I don't think paid leave would cure all PPD and PPA or mood disorders, but I do think money is the answer to a lot of our problems.
Sara: How do you feel about hinging an argument in favor for paid leave on worker productivity? Like, explaining to legislators and companies that if workers are supported, they will be better workers (and help make more money). The intersection of human rights and capitalism is so thorny.
Raena: Here's the bottom line. They don't give a damn about you personally. They care about the money. Companies that offer paid leave know retaining someone is far cheaper than trying to find a new employee because the market is unpredictable and it decreases productivity. Again, this is why I hate calling companies generous for offering paid leave. These are strictly business decisions. It’s the right thing for the business, and the person getting the paid leave is just, like, a happy beneficiary of a business decision. But the case for business has been exhaustively demonstrated with both childcare subsidization and paid leave. All the data is there. I’m speaking through capitalism because I give a damn about the actual people impacted by the decisions businesses make on behalf of capitalism.
Sara: Can we talk more about the myth of motherhood as it’s packaged and sold to us in America?
Raena: I really think we need to release ourselves from the expectation that parenting should make us happy. Kids are not here to fulfill us. They’re not here to make us happy. They're not here to fulfill any of our dreams. They are not here to be our mini-mes. They're here to live their own lives and we're here to support them being their most authentic selves.
Sara: Did you go into motherhood thinking it would be a certain way?
Raena: I went in thinking that if you just do everything “right,” if you breastfeed for a year, if you send your kid to Montessori preschool, if you live in the right neighborhood, whatever, everything's gonna be perfect. I also fully bought into the myth that kids are here to make us happy and fulfill our dreams, which is gross! It’s not good for anyone.
I think about all the expectations we have of our kids, and I really feel like, Oh, it's so that they succeed under capitalism because we think capitalist success will make them happy. I’ve done some personal introspection about what (and why) I’m signing my kids up for. I really should be sending my kids to the city aftercare because it's the cheaper option, but for whatever reason, I felt like I need to expose them to certain opportunities that will make them “successful” or eligible for “the right schools” later in life. I really think that's a byproduct of living under capitalism and raising kids who can succeed under that model, as opposed to teaching kids how to be their own people.
Sara: Yeah. For sure. And like, who is creating and upholding these supposed standards?
Raena: I think the answer to surviving as a parent in America is to deliberately divest from whatever we thought we knew about parenting culture and examine where it’s coming from. Where's this belief coming from? Where is this idea coming from? Why do I feel like I have to do ___ this way? Why do I feel like I need to stretch myself to live in this neighborhood that's too expensive? Why do I think a certain school is the “right” school? I think interrogating our beliefs and where they stem from can make parenting so much more enjoyable, and help us stop sacrificing so much of our time for stuff that maybe isn’t even worth it.
Sara: YES. You posted once about free-birthing on your Instagram. Can you share your thoughts? I am endlessly fascinated by free-birth not as a personal choice but as an ideology.
Raena: I chose to give birth outside of a hospital setting twice, and one of the big reasons for doing so was to avoid experiencing medical racism. I wanted to be treated like a person, not like a bunch of statistics or demographic assumptions. But when “free-birthers” advocate against vaccines or whatever, I think it's really irresponsible.
Sara: I also think white women who co-opt free birth as this ideological, political statement about “natural” motherhood (often also super anti-trans), distract from serious issues in maternal healthcare. Like medical racism! That’s a real issue that deserves serious attention, and when privileged woo-woo white ladies co-opt free birth as an expression of divine femininity or maternal power or whatever, I feel like it distracts from where our focus should really be as a culture.
Raena: I think it’s also indicative of the hyper-individualism we see so much in parenting culture. The answer can’t be to just homeschool and just breastfeed and just free-birth. No, the institutions need to be reformed. Why are we placing so much responsibility on individuals when we should be demanding more from our systems?
Sara: Right, and when we place so much onus on individuals to “do motherhood right,” that means certain individuals will rise to the top because they have various privileges that allow them to dedicate everything to self, self, self. And other individuals are not going to have those same resources or privileges. So a laser focus on individuals having the tools (or not) to succeed as parents is essentially just upholding inequality.
Sara: Anything else you want to touch on?
Raena: It's just been wild to have been on the internet when blogs were a thing. And to have witnessed so many shifts in the social media landscape since then. You featured an interview recently with someone saying Instagram is dead, and like, how now Tiktok is the only relevant platform. And you know, I grew up on The Real World. I actually auditioned for it too! And I just feel like we’ve created so many variations on The Real World in our social media lives and it just makes me want to opt out of the entire system.
Sara: You auditioned for The Real World? Which season? Amazing.
Raena: I think it was in 2005, but I was too boring. I was 18 or 19 and thought I could be cast as “the virgin” because purity culture was so big. And like, maybe my virginity would make me interesting. Ha. I could be “the Black woman” and “the virgin.” But someone went in before me and she was like a 20-something year old virgin, and I was like, Well, there it goes. I can see this opportunity passing me by!
Sara: Your virginity just wasn't as special.
Raena: Ha - yeah. I needed to wait a little longer.
Thank you Raena!
We held ground in Arizona, with the state house at 29 D - 31 R and the state senate at 14 D - 16 R. It is worth noting that of 3 election-denying R candidates running for the Senate, we beat two of them; in the House, 5 election deniers were running, and we beat all 5. There is no longer a Republican Trifecta in Arizona because of Katie Hobbs’s gubernatorial victory — and there is no doubt we helped get out the vote in such a tight race!
Wins are built on held ground. Thank you for being with us, and ensuring this ground was held.