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To Hear America’s Mothers, We Let Them Scream

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If a mother screams in an empty field, does it make a sound? What about hundreds of mothers? Thousands? More than a million? That’s how many left the American work force while countless others picked up new child care and domestic duties on top of their jobs.

Last summer, a group of Times journalists wanted to explore the strain and frustration that these parents have experienced during the coronavirus pandemic. “Nothing I had read really captured how full-to-bursting every single minute was,” said Jessica Grose, a Parenting editor and columnist at The Times. So Ms. Grose and two colleagues — Farah Miller, the director of content strategy for Parenting; and Jessica Bennett, an editor at large who covers gender and culture — decided to produce a special report on how mothers were faring.

In a meeting, Ms. Miller mentioned a group of mothers in her New Jersey community who were going to a field on the first day of the school year to scream out their emotions.

“We were like, ‘That’s it. That’s what this is,’” Ms. Bennett said.

Welcome to the Primal Scream, a multimedia report that was published online on Friday and will appear in print this Sunday. Articles from Times writers, including Ms. Grose and Ms. Bennett, lay out exactly what mothers are facing and what needs to be done to support them. The project’s interactive design online is supported by playful illustrations, glaring statistics and a special kind of audio feature: Editors set up a hotline for mothers to call in and scream it out.

The Primal Scream Line opened in December. Readers were invited to call in and leave any kind of message, even if it was just to yell — whatever helped them to vent.

“We really wanted this to be a multimedia extravaganza,” Ms. Grose said. And with several members of the team being mothers themselves, they wanted to have a little fun. “Hundreds of folks called in, many of them screaming; guttural yells; a lot of expletives,” she added.

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Readers of the special report can hear some of the (clean) submissions online, and read transcripts of them in print.

Ms. Bennett’s article followed three mothers — Dekeda Brown, Liz Halfhill and Mercedes Quintana — as they kept their households afloat. She connected with her subjects in September. The women wrote detailed logs of their grinds through daily life, and stayed in close contact with Ms. Bennett through calls, texts and emails. Their stories are told in seven chapters: Chaos, Resignation, Drowning, Exhaustion, Resentment, Perseverance and Hope.

The photographer Brenda Ann Kenneally spent two days with each family. Pictures show the gritty work: Ms. Quintana on her laptop in the closet, or “cloffice,” with her 3-year-old Mila; Ms. Brown helping her daughter Leilani, who has autism, through virtual gym class. Tiffanie Graham, the Parenting photo editor, said she and Ms. Kenneally were looking for photographs “that weren’t overly glossy” to capture “the struggle of everyday life.”

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    All the while, during the six-month project, many of these reporters and editors were balancing work with their own child care. Melonyce McAfee, an editor who worked on the project, had her first child in June.

    “It’s in my wheelhouse right now and really fits in with my concerns as a new parent and as a professional trying to fit all of those pieces together,” she said.

    But even after the reporting has been published, there’s no foreseeable end to the challenges that the women in these articles, and throughout the United States, have to overcome every day.

    “There’s not exactly a narrative arc to this story because we’re still in it,” Ms. Bennett said.

    That is why editors of the Primal Scream decided to not only acknowledge the burden of these parents, but to also share resources for parents in need. In an essay, Pooja Lakshmin, a psychiatrist, suggests methods that mothers can use to fight back against a system stacked against them. And Jancee Dunn, a freelance journalist, tackles women’s rights in the workplace.

    “We really wanted to make sure there was a service component to this,” Ms. Grose said. “Because there’s a lot of stories about what the problem is and not a lot of solution-driven content.”

    Screaming helps, but it’s just a start.

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