In recent days, a popular Instagram account posting humorous mommy content has come under close scrutiny among Twitter users who have taken issue with the illustrator’s portrayal of motherhood in general, and her household in particular.
In her cartoons, Mary Catherine Starr, a mother of two in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, shares a familiar perspective of motherhood: that it’s a struggle and a burden, and that fathers are at best useless, and at worst, another child under the roof. A recent comic about taking in the groceries is an example of the tropes Starr trots out.
Starr has been taken aback at the deluge of negativity about her cartoons on Twitter and on Instagram. On Wednesday she posted a distraught open letter to her “community” in which she explained, “What began as hundreds of ‘get a divorce’ comments has now devolved into scary threats, images of me killing myself, release of my private information, and online harassment towards me + my husband on all of our platforms.”
As someone who has been on the receiving end of countless “cancellations,” I can relate; but there is something to learn from the more level-headed and rational critiques of Starr’s work.
Take, for example, the cartoon in which she berates her husband for carrying one bag of groceries in the house while she carries a dozen.
She posted it with a disclaimer of sorts:
“And (because) people always jump down my throat when I put up comics like this, here’s a disclaimer: I love my husband very much and he’s amazing in lots of ways but this is not one of them. We are actively working on it. And yes I have his permission to post this — he died laughing when I sent it to him!!!”
Still, there is something deeply uncomfortable about seeing a marital issue like this, no matter how minor, to be used for public laughs. In the cartoons, she is inviting the world to laugh at her husband. But it’s not just the public shaming of Starr’s husband that throws up a red flag, It’s what seems to be her feelings of contempt for her husband — or at least his role in the family — in the first place.
John Gottman, an expert on marriage and divorce, talks about the four apocalyptic horsemen that are predictors of divorce. When we publicly mock our spouses, we summon two of them: criticism and contempt.
“Contempt,” an article on Gottman’s website says, “is the most destructive of the Four Horsemen because it conveys, ‘I’m better than you. I don’t respect you.’ It’s so destructive, in fact, that couples who are contemptuous of each other are more likely to suffer from infectious illness than couples who are not contemptuous of each other. The target of contempt is made to feel despised and worthless.”
The article goes on: “Treating others with disrespect and mocking them with sarcasm are forms of contempt. So are hostile humor, name-calling, mimicking, and/or body language such as eye-rolling and sneering.”
All this is illustrative of one of the biggest relationship mistakes that millennial women make in marriage thanks to the scourge of social media: the feeling that grievances can and should be aired publicly, and that doing so is somehow therapeutic enough to justify the betrayal of one’s partner and the cone of privacy that should surround a relationship.
But this public venting achieves the opposite of its intended purpose: It creates a cycle of disrespect and the constant positive reinforcement of negativity creates its own destructive cycle, with women feeling validation and gratification in the form of positive “likes” and comments for degrading their partner publicly. Starr has built an entire brand on the practice, and it’s sending a message to hundreds of thousands of other women that this is an appropriate way to discuss and litigate spousal disagreements and frustrations.
In Starr’s post about the online response to her work, she explained, “I don’t go on and on about the amazing parts of being a wife and a mother because among us moms, those are a given. … Many of us also feel unsupported, unseen, and/or under-appreciated by our society and in some cases, our partners.” But she’s wrong about that. It’s not “a given” that motherhood and marriage, and our children and partners, are a blessing. Just look at the increasing number of young adults who say they don’t want to have children.
How do we build a household where we feel supported and seen? We model what we want to see. If you want to feel appreciated by someone, show them your appreciation.
Recently my husband, Seth, asked me how he could be more helpful around the house after I said that the mental load of taking care of our household of seven was weighing on me. I thanked him and told him I’m too much of a control freak to relinquish total control of the paperwork, but that I’d love to delegate tasks to him like “pack all of the bags for camp” or “fill out this registration or waiver form” that were time-consuming and mindless.
He happily took those on when asked, and when I filled out a mountain of paperwork recently, he said, “Nice job for finding that and taking care of it. Thank you, it’s huge.”
That little sign of appreciation meant a lot, and it created a cycle of its own, where I am reminded to cheer his household contributions as well. It’s especially important to do this in front of our kids, because they see that’s how our household runs: with respect and appreciation, instead of resentment and discontent.
Most internet outrages of the day are pointless, but sometimes, ever so infrequently, there’s a larger lesson to be gleaned from the visceral response of the public to online content. This is one of those rare times, and it’s a learning opportunity not just for Starr, but for those who feel drawn to like and share her content on their own social media.
Bethany Mandel is a contributing writer for Deseret News. She is a home-schooling mother of five and a widely published writer on politics, culture and Judaism. She is an editor for the children’s book series “Heroes of Liberty.”