On Monday, Jan. 10, Boston Public Schools announced that classes would be closed the following day due to cold temperatures. For parents who were already overwhelmed by Covid-19, Omicron, changing CDC guidelines, the lack of available PCR tests and a temporary return to remote learning, the school closure was the last straw.
After fielding requests from her clients and friends, Sarah Harmon, therapist and founder of The School of MOM (Mothering Oneself Mindfully), casually posted an Instagram video of herself wearing her daughter’s hair bow and receiving the school closure news via a banana she was using as a phone. She added the caption: “How am I doing? Probably about as good as you’re doing? #timetoscream Thursday, 1/13. 7:45 pm. Charlestown track.”
Harmon, who has two young daughters, followed up with a post to a Charlestown moms’ Facebook group inviting members to participate in a primal scream on the high school football field.
That invitation was shared in a neighboring moms’ group, and Lucy Huber, a group member, composed a tweet about the event that read: “If you’re wondering what things are like for parents right now, someone in my online moms group invited everyone to a Facebook event that is just going to an empty field and screaming and a LOT of people RSVPed yes.” The tweet was reposted by gigantic mom influencer accounts like Motherly and Ramblin Mama. Harmon only became aware of the attention when friends and community members started tagging her in the posts and asking, “Hey, isn’t this your event?”
Eventually the tweet—and the primal scream movement—went viral.
The “small” event that Harmon thought she was planning was attended by The Boston Globe and Boston’s NPR news station, and it was featured in The New York Times and The Atlantic. Harmon herself has since made appearances on TODAY and CNN.
Harmon laughed about the event going viral: “I’m like a social media nursery school student. I don’t even know what I’m doing online.”
But as a therapist, she certainly knew the stress that moms were experiencing and the desperate need to release that stress from their bodies.
“I think it's striking a chord with people because they're feeling seen and heard, and we're giving permission to people to actually let [frustration] out. It’s normalizing an emotion that is traditionally very taboo,” Harmon said. “We're taught that there's no place for anger. Then we internalize it, and it's toxic for our bodies. This scream gave the opposite message. Anger is healthy. But it’s only healthy when you figure out how to manage it and how to release it.”
Screaming for sanity
The group event that Harmon hosted on Jan. 13 wasn’t the first time she gathered moms to release stress.
She planned her first group scream on an extremely cold night in March 2021; she knew moms were struggling and wanted to support them. Harmon said that going outside to scream “was something we could do in pandemic that was OK. So let's go outside and socially distance—and let’s give our body the gift of this release that it desperately craves, as well as a little community moment, which we haven't had.”
About 12 Charlestown moms gathered for the first event that got absolutely no media attention. But one of the participants, Alice Rouse, a local photographer and a member of The School of MOM community, felt so inspired by the event that she created a series of photos of moms screaming silently in their homes.
After that first event, participants requested additional group screams. But with the rollout of vaccines, the return to in-person school and the ability to move summer activities outdoors, moms ended up finding release elsewhere and the group didn’t gather to scream again.
And then came Omicron.
“For parents, January 2022 has been so defeating. And parents are pissed. They’re just at a different level of anger. It’s not ‘fear-based’ anger. It’s like a ‘defeat anger’,” Harmon said.
Harmon was personally angry. She had been planning to attend a week-long silent retreat for months but due to Covid-related concerns, the retreat she was looking forward to—and needed—was canceled.
“There was a nudge for my community members who wanted to do a primal scream, and my own personal rage: my kids had school cancellations and we're in the middle of winter in the northeast. So that was that was the perfect combination.”
At the event, Harmon, clutching two of her daughters’ light-up toys, led 20 women in five group screams. To cover all bases, she notified the police in advance. “I told them that a bunch of moms would be letting their rage out. But we’ll be super efficient. We’ll be in and out in 15 minutes,” Harmon recounted.
Why screaming helps you feel better
Harmon said that the physical process of screaming when you are enraged is a very intuitive thing to do, like yelling when a driver cuts you off in traffic.
Colette Ingrid Brown, a psychotherapist at A Good Place Therapy, detailed the process by which screaming releases negative emotions and stress: “When we draw in a deep breath from the diaphragm to perform the scream, the vagus nerve…activates the parasympathetic nervous system known as the relaxation response thus calming the brain's stress response.”
In the case of this group scream, Brown said that the pandemic has amplified “the onslaught of stressors” mothers faced before the pandemic—like juggling childcare, work, relationships and the mental load. Brown said, “These women are at the breaking point because relief does appear to be coming any time soon for them, their families or their communities. In fact, the stressors keep ramping up with every passing day.”
Screaming together with other humans who have the same frustrations and challenges provides the connection we so crave.
Dr. Pooja Lakshmin is a psychiatrist founder of Gemma, a digital education platform focused on women's mental health, said, “There is power in seeing that you are not the only person who is suffering in this particular way. You see that you're not the only one suffering, that this isn't a fault of your own, but that this is our culture that has made the decision to betray mothers and families.”
The screaming continues…
Lakshmin is not at all surprised that Harmon’s group scream went viral: “When a woman sees that a group of mothers has given voice to the deepest feelings and thoughts that she's been holding inside for the past two years, of course she wants to scream it from the rooftops.”
In fact, this particular group scream may have sparked a movement.
Harmon has been contacted by several groups who are planning group screams in the Boston area…but frustrated moms are not limited to the northeast. Groups from New Orleans, Louisiana, Roanoke, Virginia and Anchorage, Alaska have also planned primal screams. In fact, Harmon was fielding so many requests for information that she created a tip sheet for planning a pandemic scream event in your community.
In addition to hearing from organizations, Harmon has also heard from individuals. “The most remarkable piece for me is the outreach I've had from a cohort of women in their 60s who has have reached out to say, ‘This has sparked something in me because it's bringing me back to when I had young kids and I would come home and I would scream in my pillow in a closet,’” said Harmon. Hearing about mom rage made these women feel validated for decades-old behavior.
A primal scream can be one tool for your emotional regulation toolbox, Harmon said: “In a week from now, the movement may have completely blown over. But for now I’m glad we’re talking about it because I think there will be times when people just need to scream, and now they’ll know that they can do that.”