Why Did People Freak Out About A Comic About Peaches?
A conversation with momlife_comics' Mary Catherine Starr.
It all started a week and a half ago, when a comic named Rachel Jane Andelman posted on Twitter that she had found her “new favorite webcomic”:
This was, of course, a joke. Andelman had found a comic by Mary Catherine Starr, the writer and illustrator behind @momlife_comics on Instagram, whose feed often highlights the emotional and mental load of being a mom; since launching last July, it’s gained nearly 225,000 followers. (I published one of Starr’s comics, about moms feeling like they’re drowning, in the first issue of my newsletter.) Andelman’s tweet quickly went viral, as people analyzed Starr’s marriage and her parenting via this comic and the others on her feed. There were many parodies, and there were way too many people who rewrote the words to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Many of them were, in a word, mean.
I was horrified but also fascinated by the internet pile-on. Yes, Starr’s comics can sometimes feel a bit retrograde; there’s a through-line of “husbands, AMIRITE?” running through a lot of them. And yet, I was also confused why it went so viral, and why people seemed to respond so viscerally to it. After all, it’s just a slightly different version of the discussions around the mental load that have been happening in the last few years. But perhaps it’s because she persistently highlights what is, still, a very real discrepancy between men and women in cis, heterosexual partnerships — mothers take more on when it comes to parenting — and she did it in such a digestible format (a comic that did the work of the countless books and articles that have been written on the subject, most of which it seems her critics have not read) that it went so viral. Yes, it’s 2022. Yes, we are feminists. Yes, AND BUT: I see it in my marriage; I see it in the marriages of most other women I know. (And yes, of course there are exceptions.) We make the doctor’s appointments, we plan the meals, we sign the kids up for aftercare, and the list goes on, and on, and on.
I think it’s this dichotomy that many of Starr’s critics don’t actually want to wrestle with; they want to believe that we have, as a society, moved past the heteronormative, traditional gender role breakdown, but the reality is we have not, and that holds true across the socioeconomic spectrum. Much of the criticism of Starr on Twitter seemed to be coming from people without kids who could not fathom that this would actually be the nature of a heterosexual marriage, and so Starr must hate her husband and be a miserable person, because why else would she choose to portray him in that way? And there seemed to be a certain amount of sexist schadenfreude, from both men and women, about the state of her marriage and why she hasn’t fixed it. But that also seems, to me, to put the onus back on Starr, as the woman, to fix the problem, when instead what we should be trying to fix is our broken society that doesn’t support parents.
I spoke to Starr to hear about how she’s been faring in the wake of peach-gate, why she thinks this comic made people so angry, and what her husband really thinks about her comics. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Doree: Why did you start Mom Life Comics?
Mary Catherine: It started very organically. It wasn’t like I started these comics with any purpose — it was just my personal feed. I just started making these little drawings that captured little moments, but I saw very quickly that response was very different from my other normal Instagram posts. People were connecting over them in a way I’d never really connected with people online before. I could see from the analytics that they were shared so much, and so widely. So for about a year I was making them on my personal feed. All throughout the pandemic, it became a little therapeutic thing I did to express my frustrations. It was a creative outlet during the challenging thing of the pandemic — I’d put myself in the office, close the door, and make a little cartoon. After doing it for about a year it had taken on a whole mind of its own, but it was still living on my personal feed and it felt kind of strange.
So last July I thought I’d make a separate feed for it and create a community of moms. From there it really grew quickly but really went viral in January, and then it really went berserk. Huffington Post picked up my “double standards of parenting” comic, which became by far the most shared of any of the content I made. Then different news outlets picked it up. So what started as a therapeutic outlet for me started to become a place where I’m trying to teach about the inequalities in relationships, to teach moms and other people. I’m trying to educate and explain things that moms feel but don’t always express, that our culture has encouraged us not to express, with the goal of connecting us and making moms feel less alone.
Doree: The reaction to your most recent comic went beyond the community of moms. And I think that kind of shared understanding of moms got lost, and so I was wondering if you could just speak to that a little bit.
Mary Catherine: Yeah. What I think is so actually bizarre, just backtracking, is that the post that started all this, the peach post, is actually one of my much tamer comics. It’s not one of the kinds of comics that I would expect to be trolled for, like my comics about reproductive justice and all these other really hot button issues, and posting about all my political beliefs. So I was expecting to be trolled for that or talking about the patriarchy or misogyny.
To me, the fact that this little post that really was made about the way in which I put my children first and my husband puts himself first, which is not a criticism of him. I think it's the way society teaches parents to be. That little post... Part of that post is actually talking about how moms need to put themselves first more. And how moms need to not be martyrs. I want moms to eat the peach, even if they were saving it for the kids, right? Any mom has this issue. And it's not about fruit, but you have something that you don't do because you're saving it for the kids, you want to be there for the kids and not always, but often fathers are not taught that their worth as a father is based on their sacrifices. Right? And that's what mothers are taught. Our worth is based on our sacrifices. The more we sacrifice for our kids, the better mother we are. And so for me, that's what the post is about. It's not about just my husband's a jerk for eating the peach, right?
And that's why the post said, one of the many differences between me and my husband. I'm not saying I'm better than him. And so anyways, just the fact that this post became the one that the trolls went after is just so crazy to me, and that context was completely lost.
Mary Catherine: It's crazy to me that this post has become this thing about how my husband is being emotionally abused by me, we should be divorced, whereas my husband laughs at it and it's become a joke in our house. I mean, I made this comic in 2020. We still know when we have fruit, he's like, can I put this in my smoothie? And I'm like, don't you dare! It's like a joke.
The fact that I think it's just, for me, it's so crazy that this is the thing that set the misogynists on fire. It's like, this is nothing.
Doree: Well, why do you think it kind of set people on fire? Why do you think it struck such a chord with people? I mean, to the point where I'm seeing people parodying it, like it's become a meme.
Mary Catherine: It's bizarre to me. All I can say, and again, I haven't read any of the Twitter on purpose. I stayed off of Twitter. I am getting, I mean, people are sending me drawings of me shooting myself.
Doree: Oh my God.
“We can love being mothers and also get really frustrated at some of the things we have to do as mothers.”
Mary Catherine: And blood coming out of my husband. It's like people are telling you, my children would be better off with me dead. Right. I don't know how you get from that comic to speaking to an emotionally abusive person, and I'm a horrible mother. Here's my take: our culture doesn't like women to express anything negative about the role that we have determined makes women important and necessary. So I feel like our culture's decided that mothers are either good mothers or bad mothers. It's the people on the internet who already don't like women speaking up who have decided that I am a bad mother, because I have something to say about how this is really hard and unfair. And I think in our, like you said, in our mom community, in this space we've created for ourselves on the internet, we know that we're multidimensional people. We know that we can hold many emotions at once.
We can love being mothers and also get really frustrated at some of the things we have to do as mothers. And so I think that this, the broader picture, the people who have now seen my work are people who have never seen this motherhood community and what we all hold already to be true.
Doree: I was wondering if you could speak to another sort of strain of pushback that I was seeing, because this was one that I thought was really interesting. And it was one that was almost like taking issue with the idea that these sort of like heteronormative stereotypes still exist. Like they almost wanted to believe this woman's really retrograde, like this isn't what's happening in most houses, because we've become more enlightened people.
Mary Catherine: Yes, which was so funny to me.
Doree: Yeah. So I'm wondering if you could speak to that a little bit.
“When you have kids, for the majority of us, not all of us, the cultural standards and the expectations of parents are so strong that a lot of us have slipped back into the roles we never thought we'd be in.”
Mary Catherine: Definitely. I think that was something that was the most shocking to me, is how many people kept calling me a boomer, like "Wow! Your household must be such a sad place. That's not the real world."
Which was funny to me, because the whole reason my comics have gone viral or that they did and that it keeps growing, is because every mom who follows me, which of course is not every relationship, but everyone who does says, "No one's talking about how this is still a problem."
I think we are talking about it, but no one outside of the mom community is talking about it. I think there is this idea, and especially it seems like the really young generation of people who are in their twenties, or early twenties, or even late teens, think we've fixed all this. And maybe in their generation we have. They're not parents yet, so they don't really know what they've fixed.
But we know that we had hoped. And that's what so much of my work is about. Before we had kids, my husband and I were equal; everything was split. And I'm a feminist, and so he and I felt so good about that. But something happened after we had kids that caused that dynamic to turn on his head.
And so that's what I think that the younger generation doesn't know and what we millennial moms or older, do know. When you have kids, for the majority of us, not all of us, the cultural standards and the expectations of parents are so strong that a lot of us have slipped back into the roles we never thought we'd be in.
And/or, we don't even know how we got here, but somehow we are. The moms are finding themselves doing 10 times more. There's plenty of statistics out there right now. But moms now do a percentage, more housework than women in the sixties did. The statistics don't lie. If you read Fair Play by Eve Rodsky, you'll see the statistics show that in our generation, nothing has changed since the sixties, in terms of the mental load. I think that's where this generational gap comes. All these 20-year-old boys want to come tell me that I'm a boomer and my husband must be a loser, and that's not how it is anymore. But they have no idea.
Unless they make some secret changes, the same thing’s going to happen to them. It's hard to be trolled by people who aren't parents and aren't mothers. Because if you're a mom and you want to have a conversation about this with me, I would love that. But if you don't have kids and are not a woman in our society, you're just never going to understand my comics. And that's okay, you don't have to.
Doree: So you said that the Peach comic was written in 2020, you and your husband have jokes about it, it's become an inside joke between the two of you. So I'm just wondering, what is your husband's reaction, in general, to your comics, and I guess the second part of that question is, do you feel like your comics have changed anything in your relationship?
Mary Catherine: I really do. What my husband thinks about my comics is, he's okay with them. I think this is another part of this that's so weird. I would never post anything he wasn't comfortable with. And in fact, there have been comics I've made where he's been like, "I don't know, that feels a little too personal." And I said, "Okay." And I take it out. And the comics that, again, the ones that most people are taking or having issue with, are some of the ones that he thinks are the funniest.
I'll text him and he'll write me back being like, "Oh my gosh! I was laughing out loud at this, because it's so true." This is where I actually think that all these people who are telling me that he's such an idiot or that he should divorce me, I actually think he’s way more evolved than that. He knows that this is an issue in our society. He knows it's an issue in our relationship and in so many others. Of course, these are major frustrations that we're working on in our relationship. This is not passive-aggressive. These are things we've already talked about. These are long discussed issues in our marriage. We've been together almost 18 years. This is a loop for us; these dynamics. And so this idea that he is some emotionally abused partner, is just so ridiculous because he's in on all of this with me.
It's funny because before all this happened, we were planning on doing an Instagram Live, where he came on and talked to everybody about what it's like to be the husband of Mom Comics. Now I don't really want him to be in the public eye. I don't feel like that's fair to him. He's going to be criticized, no matter what he does. And I feel like he's already gotten dragged through the mud enough without ever even speaking a word about this. I think he sees that this is important work, and that's what he cares more about. And I think, frankly, he's confident enough himself that he doesn’t mind being portrayed as this example of what not to do.
I've said, like, "You should make a comic, you should write a comic for me to illustrate about the things I do that piss you off." Because part of all of this, too, is just that marriage is hard, right?
And being in a relationship is hard and your partner drives you crazy. I want to make all of that feel more normalized. It's okay to get really pissed off about stupid stuff, because that's part of living with someone. I guess that the short answer is, he's okay with it. But I think now that it's grown so big and that it's become something that, evidently, men of the internet really hate, I think I'm going to have to rethink a little bit about how some of the personal stuff is shared. Because I don't want to put my husband in a position where the world is belittling him. I don't think that's fair to him. That's not who he is.
Doree: So you alluded to this, but I just want to make clear, do you show your husband the comics before you publish them?
Mary Catherine: Absolutely, yeah. I've never put up a single comic that he's involved in without him seeing any. He proofreads them for me. He's like, “Add this, it would make it funnier." Or he said like, "Wait, is that what I said? I think I said this." Something that's even more ridiculous. He's a hundred percent in on this with me. And I think that's the other part that was so frustrating for me, is everyone saying it's passive aggressive and that I'm just bashing him on the internet. And I'm like, "He's a complete part of all this." He'll pose for pictures for me to use as references.
Doree: We discussed how so much of the criticism seemed to be coming from people without kids. Could we just sort of unpack a little bit more? What do you think people without kids don't understand about having kids, and how it changes a relationship?
“I think there's this idea among people who never had kids that being a stay-at-home mom is a joke, and you just sit on the couch watching TV.”
Mary Catherine: I think before you have kids, you have no idea how all-consuming parenthood is. And you have no idea how much it kind of wears on you. Again, this is all coming in place of loving being a mother. It's my favorite thing I've ever done. But I think that there's this idea in our society that if you say anything negative about parenting, then you don't deserve to have your kids. Whereas I think anybody who's an actual parent knows that parenting is all of the most intense emotions all at once, all the time. Whether you're a mother or a father — doesn't matter, it's just all-consuming and intense and it changes everything.
There's so many dads who follow my account too, I should say, who have written to me over the past couple days saying, like, "Your comics make me laugh. My wife and I read them together. We have conversations about our marriage after reading them, you bring up all these ways." So I think if you're a parent and you get it, and if you have a partner who gets it and who perhaps you're working with on trying to be more equal, in the household, then my comics... They help to kind of explain some of why that can happen, or how it happens, or how it feels, or what it looks like.
But I think if you have never experienced the mental load, or the physical load, or the exhaustion mode of parenthood, it's not going to make sense to you. Again, there's like, all these people who call me a good-for-nothing who sits at home on the couch while my husband works and I'm just a stay-at-home mom. First off, I'm not. But also if I was, there's no problem with that cause it's still a crazy hard job.
I think there's this idea among people who never had kids that being a stay-at-home mom is a joke, and you just sit on the couch watching TV. And so I think it's all of that — it's all that same misogynistic stuff about being a mom isn't a real job. Or being a parent isn't that hard, and what's wrong with you? Why can't you do it, right? Because everyone else is doing it without complaining. I don't know if that really answered your question, but I feel like the missing puzzle piece between people who don't have kids and people who do is just how emotionally exhausting it is, and how much goes into just raising another human being. I mean, I just think that can never be explained. And my comics certainly don't do it justice, but I don't think anything can.
Doree: Yeah, what you said is so true — the all-encompassing nature of it. Even when you're not physically with your kids, let's say they're at school or wherever, you're still thinking about them. It just occupies so much of your mental space and it's all-encompassing in a way that I think is really just hard to describe if you haven't experienced it.
Mary Catherine: Like if you've never had to figure out the logistics of parenthood, that's another huge exhausting part of it. I just feel like a good era. It's why it's invisible, right? And that's what we all talk about all the time. But because it's invisible, people still don't believe that it's real. It's ridiculous to me that there are all these people in our culture who still just think it's easy.
Doree: Yeah. I think that's not to take away from any of the very real struggles that people without kids have.
Mary Catherine: Absolutely.
Doree: It's just a different thing.
Mary Catherine: I would never go to someone who had a different lifestyle than me, or lived in a different country or a different culture, and tell them that their feelings about what they're experiencing aren't valid because I know everybody else in their culture is fine, right? I would never do that. And that's kind of how it feels — it almost feels like it's a completely different culture that they don't understand, and they're attacking it as if they understand it and live there.
I think that's where it feels really bad.
Doree: I just wanted to go back to something that you said in the beginning about martyrdom and motherhood. And I'd love if we could just kind of talk about that a little bit, because I think that was at the root of some of the critiques of the peach comic, like, “Oh, this mom just wants to be a martyr.” First of all, where do you think the mom martyrdom trope comes from? And second of all, how can we kind of break free of this? Because I also find this trope to be very oppressive.
Mary Catherine: Well, I don't know culturally where it comes from. But I know that personally, I don't believe in it, but I saw my mom, and I'm sure she saw her mom. When I was growing up, we were her entire world, and she never ate the proverbial peach. She was always giving up the last piece of everything. She was always giving up the stuff she wanted to do for us. We took precedence, which I think made us feel very loved and important, but I think made her lose herself.
I was very aware of that. I was so determined to never kind of give up the stuff I love for my kids. I really wanted to show my kids that you can do everything you love and still be a parent. But I think it's so ingrained in me that because I'm doing things I love, like my work or teaching yoga or spending time with friends, I have guilt about that. So it manifests by martyring in other ways. But I feel like I believe deep down, because it was modeled for me, that you have to give up things to be a good mother. And so, because I'm quote-unquote “selfishly” holding on to some of the things that really feed me, I feel like I have to give up in other ways, maybe?
And because mothers are the primary caregivers in the majority of families still, I think when you are the person who feels like it is your job to raise this child, there is an inherent part of you that just without even thinking about it gives things — I don't know if it's biological, but you just give up the last resources to your child as opposed to keeping them for yourself. And I think, I don't know if that's something we've just evolved to do, or if it's something about being the primary caregiver as so many of us are, but that's another dynamic of it, but I'm sure some people much smarter than me have researched this and know exactly why we do this, but I don't.
Doree: I was just talking about this with a friend who was like, "I find it really annoying." And I was like, "I do too." But I do try to see it in the context of the patriarchy.
Mary Catherine: I think when you say that about the patriarchy, I do think that in everything we've seen culturally, the idea of the mom who just does everything for everyone is just everywhere. Right? I don't know, in my family, even though my parents were hippies and they're very different. They weren't raised in a traditional household necessarily. My grandfather was still the patriarch. Everyone still got up after the meals and cleaned up around him. Everyone was still giving him his favorite pie for the holidays. There is this sense still that among so many families I think, where the women are in charge of just making sure everything runs smoothly for everyone.
And I think with that comes an unintentional martyrdom because you can't possibly make everything go well for everybody else and make it go well for you. Something's got to give. We're trying to be good mothers, we are inherently giving up a part of ourselves to try to keep everyone else happy.
Doree: I feel like we've covered a lot, but was there anything else on your mind about this or stuff that you want people to know that we didn't touch on?
Mary Catherine: I think what's been the most disheartening about it for me is just the way in which people can be, not that we didn't already all know this, but how truly cruel people can be to someone they don't know and they know nothing about. And it's one thing to say, they're all trolls, which, yeah, there is a certain nastiness that we all know about with trolls, but there have also been women who have taken the time to find my email address and write me five paragraph emails saying really hurtful things, knowing very little about me. It's been sad — one of the things I love so much about Instagram is this amazing community and the way I've been able to connect with people, but this whole thing has been a really sad reminder of just how much hate there is in the world and anger.
It just feels very sad to me that we're in this place where all it takes is something like that to make people as angry. I feel like, to make someone fan art of you killing yourself — that's really disturbing. So, it's made me feel very sad about where the state of our community right now.
Doree: I'm sorry that you've been going through that and I hope it doesn't stop you from producing your work.
Mary Catherine: Thank you.