Last week, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said it was better for children to have a parent at home. “To have one parent to stay closely connected and at home during those early years of education can be very very important,” he said. It’s not hard to imagine which parent he’s talking about.
Romney’s statement didn’t elicit much in the way of outrage, a sign that American women have one more hurdle to overcome on the way to equality: the sexism of mom-ism. It’s no longer enough that women love their children. To be a truly committed parent, women are expected to be mothers above all else—we’re “moms first.”
Michelle Obama says that despite all her accomplishments, her “most important title is still ‘mom-in-chief’.” Ann Romney told the crowd at the Republican National Convention that it’s mothers “who really hold this country together.”
“We’re the mothers, we’re the wives, we’re the grandmothers, we’re the big sisters, we’re the little sisters, we’re the daughters.”
The sentiment may seem innocuous, but there’s a danger in returning to an ideal where women’s most important identity is relational rather than individual. If we want equality, women with children would be better served calling themselves people first, moms second.
After all, this is not the first time American women have been down this road. “Republican motherhood”—a term coined to describe women’s roles around the American Revolution—encouraged women to be part of the political process by raising good citizens. Do we really want to go back to a time where women’s most important political contributions are caring for the children who will go on to make the real decisions, have the real power?
And this venerated new mom-ism is the very identity crisis that Betty Friedan skewered in The Feminine Mystique almost fifty years ago—a culture where women “answer the question ‘Who am I’ by saying ‘Tom’s wife…Mary’s mother.’”
What makes this “moms first” identification so insidious is that for parents, motherhood is a tremendous part of who we are. We love our kids more than anything and our relationships with them are our most treasured. Declaring that loudly and proudly seems like a given. And for those who have been historically undervalued as parents—women of color, in particular—seeing women like Michelle Obama calling attention to her motherhood can be a powerful moment.
But still, identifying as a mom first in a culture that pays lip service to parenthood without actually supporting it has consequences. It means that women are expected to be everything—and give up anything—for their children. Whatever women do that seems to separate them from “true” motherhood is seen as misguided, or at worst, selfish. If we formula-feed we’re not giving our babies the best start in life. If we work outside the home, we must do it with tremendous guilt and anxiety. Time away from our children in the form of an occasional movie or hobby is seen as a treat rather than an expected part of living a full life.