The Prairie Woman of Shame
and how I'm trying to buck her off my shoulder
This letter is free for you to read, but it wasn’t free for me to produce. If you’re interested in reading more longform essays by me + other guest posters, I would be honored if you would prayerfully consider upgrading your subscription. Full subscribers get access to our entire archives, (at least) two extra essays a month, our summer read along, our monthly booklists, my serialized book FOLLOW, and more.
A couple of months ago, I had the honor of being a bridesmaid in my sister-in-law’s wedding. Weddings are always a great excuse to spend the weekend drinking too many mimosas with college friends you don’t see often enough and we did just that, lounging about an AirBNB in flannels with too much makeup on. One of my friends offhandedly mentioned an influencer that was driving her nuts, and I breezed over to her profile to judge-scroll. (This is not a good habit, I steadfastly admit).
Who the influencer is1 doesn’t matter, because there are a thousand of her and I’m sure you can name at least six. She has one able-bodied child, a husband with a large paycheck, and a beautiful home. She is, of course, in an MLM. I’m sure she has struggles + sufferings of her own but she doesn’t share them on the internet, which is her choice and perfectly fine. She is proud to let everyone know—over and over and over again—that she hasn’t gone on a date night without her child in eighteen months and is 100% of the time the parent who puts the child to bed. This is not said in a here’s-what-works-for-me-as-I-share-my-life-in-an-online-journal sort of way, it’s said in a if-you-don’t-do-it-like-this-you’re-traumatizing-your-children sort of way and we all know the difference. She accuses other moms of “whining”, reminds them how selfish “me time” is, and accuses anyone who doesn’t follow her very particular brand of co-sleeping to be one step away from a phone call to CPS.2
I couldn’t look away from her page.
I find being triggered on the internet to be like running into someone else’s knife over and over. Sure, they’re not actively stabbing you, and you could turn and walk away at anytime. But there’s something morbidly addicting to just impaling yourself on their bullshit until you’re seeing red.
Our parenting styles are wildly different but that isn’t what makes her knife so sharp. There’s not a single person in my life with whom I align 110% on parenting decisions; my own sisters do things like sleep training and mealtimes differently than I do. My best friend thinks I’m giving my kids cancer for using Banana Boat and I think she’s an overly-academic maniac for making her kids do an occasional summer worksheet; we laugh about these things together. We’re all a myriad of parenting quirks and values.
It’s her casual insistence that her answers are the correct ones and that she isn’t here to “make friends” or coddle your feelings. She is the Catholic parenting expert, you are creating an ill-attached child, and if you’d just listen to her, everything would work out fine.
The thing that I found most teeth-grinding? Her constant reminders that you should never “outsource motherhood”. I chuckled particularly hard at this one, since I first saw it after dropping my daughter at her very safe and pleasant daycare she goes to 3 mornings a week. She ranted against so much as letting your mother in law babysit your child so you can go to the dentist. As if motherhood is a job that you can give away by being more than 50 meters away from your child.
I’m at a place where I can chuckle, because of my own pile of privilege and ironically, just the opposite: because I have *actual* problems. But I know that many women aren’t in a chuckle-at-it place. And even for me, with my cushy job and my health insurance and my supportive extended family, I can feel myself getting triggered when she talks about giving her entire identity to her child, handing over pieces of herself proudly until all she is is Mom.
Most of all, she unlocks in me She Who Must Not Be Named: the Prairie Woman of Shame.
I first admitted the Prairie Woman of Shame to a counselor, then to my best friend, then to a few other close friends, then to my own mother.
I watched as each of them made the uh, what? face, and I heard my own voice making no sense whatsoever.
The Prairie Woman of Shame is the imaginary badass prairie woman who lives in my mind. Think Caroline Ingalls + Kirsten from American Girl’s mom rolled into one superhuman. She helps on the farm all day while sewing diapers and losing her children left and right to cholera. Her life is hard! Her life is a struggle. She barks at me to roll my sleeves up and fold the damn laundry; in her day, she had to hang everything from a clothesline! Oh, boo hoo, you little whiner crying in your car because you’re so exhausted from solo parenting this week. Her husband had to trek into town last week in a blizzard and nobody’s seen him since! Therapy? A drive through coffee? She has to can vegetables so her children don’t literally starve, idiot!
The Prairie Woman of Shame would never use paper plates for dinner three nights in a row just because she’s too tired to do dishes. The Prairie Woman of Shame clucks her tongue at my inability to muster up the energy to tidy the basement. The Prairie Woman of Shame rides around on my shoulder and whispers how Gen Z I am when I claim emotional exhaustion and take a nap in the middle of the day. The Prairie Woman of Shame rolls her eyes at moms who need to run through the Chick-fil-a drive through or hire a cleaning service.
“Caroline Ingalls was in, like, the late 1800s,” my friend kindly reminded me when I exposed this little issue to her. “She’s not exactly the goal. I would hope we’ve improved things for mothers since then.”
Wait. Why didn’t I think of that?
God put me here, in 2023. My needs and problems and struggles and crosses and resources are different than Caroline Ingalls’ were. This seems—well, extremely obvious. But it wasn’t. Not to me.
Complaining is bad for your soul. But there’s a difference between complaining and explaining; a difference between bitching and asking someone to help you process the excruciating glory of mothering. And this, this, is why uninterrupted conversations with fellow mothers are so damn essential. Because who was it who gently pointed out to me how insane I was being? Other mothers.
This brand of you’re-not-doing-enough influencer just pours fuel onto the Prairie Woman of Shame fire. You aren’t spending enough time with your kids, you aren’t baking their birthday cake from scratch, you had the audacity to go on a date night or a weekend away. For shame!
I think of the nights where I have straight up sobbed to dear college friends about mothering and vocational struggles, and how they’ve been there for me in such an intimate way, supporting me and loving me and reminding me who and whose I am. Nights that simply wouldn’t have been the same if I was using one hand to feed a toddler fruit snacks. And then I realize this girl literally considers that whine culture, insisting that a night off from the three children I have birthed and sheltered and formed is detrimental to their self-esteem and self-awareness.
It’s so exhausting to live as if you’re in some kind of eternal race. The feeling of always having something to prove presses down on you like a boulder that you weren’t made to carry. The pressure and expectations and demands that nobody is putting on you, but you feel them there just the same. It’s a comparison game we all voluntarily play when we scroll Instagram, watching someone else mother.
One of my friends’ husbands is going back to school for his college degree. He frequently works nights and weekends to make ends meet in the meantime, leaving her to mother alone often. She handed her three kids a tablet in a pediatrician’s waiting room the other day and said she could literally feel the other moms rolling their eyes at her, as if she couldn’t make it ten minutes without giving her kids a screen. They had no idea, she told me through tears, that she’d just put them to bed by herself for the 12th night in a row, that one of them threw up this morning and she didn’t want them touching the waiting room toys, that she is near her breaking point. All they see is some lazy modern mom with an iPad.
They don’t see her heart, but they delight in judging it.3
Sister: you are not “outsourcing motherhood”4 if you let your village help you raise your children, which is what women have been doing for legitimately thousands of years.
Sister: you are not “whining” if you occasionally indulge in a girls night to feed your soul and leave your children with their capable fathers or—le gasp—a responsible teenager that you paid via Venmo!
Sister: you are not “selfish” if you need time by your very own holy self. Time to breathe and pray and sleep and eat drive through cheeseburgers and stare at a lake.
Sister: you are not “deprioritizing your baby’s precious mental health” if you’re also concerned about your mental health and are aware of how things like sleep and constantly being touched affect it.
Rarely do I give into the internet’s obsessive delight over labeling every wayward Instagram caption “dangerous” or “harmful”. I don’t think words cause harm, and I’m damn near a free speech absolutist. But that doesn’t mean I can’t call what you’re saying thoughtless, cruel, and scientifically baseless.
The only person who can tell the Prairie Woman of Shame to eff off is me. And the only person who can unfollow that Instagram chick is you.
The bravest, boldest, most badass thing I did in 2022 was ask for help. The holiest thing I can do in 2023 is receive it.
Motherhood is not some kind of test on who can be the most self-sacrificial. Who can give, give, give until there’s nothing left, until your identity as mother has fully usurped your identity as daughter of Christ. It is an honor, it is a joy, it is a cross. It is not a noose around your neck.
So this, here, is my parenting advice: Pray. If your mom was a good mom, do what she did. Learn how to say sorry to your kids and mean it. Teach them how to say sorry and mean it. Remind your kids that Jesus loves them because that’s the hardest lesson any of us have to learn, one I am still learning at 31 and will have to relearn every day for the rest of my life.
Kick the Prairie Woman of Shame to the curb. And unfollow the mom influencers.
They’re sticking out the knife, but you’re the one choosing to run into it.
Just a heads up, we had a last-minute cancellation for Poland, meaning we still have ONE SPOT left on our pilgrimage! Sign up ASAP to join us from October 15-25 in Krakow and Warsaw. Register here. And PS: I’m leaving my three children at home with absolutely zero guilt and a whole lot of gratitude for the village I have that’s making it possible.
On My Nightstand
The Whalebone Theatre by Joanna Quinn: A flawless novel about a family in England, stretching from World War 1 to World War 2. Beautiful prose, well paced plot, incredible characters. 8 billion stars.
The NCAA Has a ‘Hot Girl’ Problem: I called this the *day* the NCAA relaxed their rules on allowing athletes to make money off of their own image and likeness. When there’s money to be made, women will be objectified, every single time. Full stop.
Selling Friends: I’m kind of surprised that in the Year of Our Lord 2023 we’re still discussing MLMs…but c’est la vie!
In case you missed these Letters:
Shiny Happy All of Us - for subscribers
The Narcissism of Small Differences - for subscribers
What Does God Want? - for everyone
Would you consider sharing this newsletter?
Almost 100% of my newsletter growth comes from recommendations from readers. This includes people sharing both the newsletter itself and the individual articles I write. Chances are that if you’ve made it this far, you care about women and the church and know others who would enjoy Letters From a Catholic Feminist. Taking just a few seconds to forward or share on Instagram/Twitter/Facebook can make a huge difference.
I struggle with this because I take a lot of pride in signing my name to everything and saying it with my chest, so to speak. But truly—it does not matter. I guarantee you if you scroll Catholic instagram for five minutes you will find someone exactly like her and my intent isn’t to gossip or shame or ruin someone’s digital footprint, it’s to remind us all to use our brains.
I do not give a single ounce of a crap if you sleep train or not. Your baby, your rules on things like sleep. But multiple studies have been proven that gentle sleep training does not have a negative impact on attachment, and all the aesthetically pleasing Instagram reels in the world don’t change that fact. (One example)
I am trying very, very hard to not do that same thing to this or any other mom influencer. I don’t doubt for an instant that this girl honestly believes she’s doing the right thing by spreading her version of the mothering gospel, and that it works well for her individual family.
This one in particular is a doozy because…was St. Zelie outsourcing motherhood? Was St. Gianna? Were the thousands of women for generations before us who relied on their extended family and community for help? Shaming women for needing help is classic misogyny in action; I don’t care if it’s put out by another woman.