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.
Accepting this role without argument or critique also reinforces political inequity, assuring the powers that be that women can be satiated with political table scraps. If raising children is “reward enough,” there’s no need for paid parental leave or subsidized child care. “Fulfillment” becomes a stand in for structural support, parental joy for actual change.
Even the attempted rollbacks of women’s reproductive rights—from debates over contraception to legislation that seeks to grant fetuses “personhood”—are linked to the cult of motherhood.
In an instructional publication for their supporters, the anti-abortion group National Right to Life writes that “women have to stop apologizing for the fact that they bear children.” If you believe that women’s natural and most important role is motherhood then it’s easy to justify limiting access to birth control and abortion—you’re just making sure women fulfill their true purpose. The strategic targeting of marginalized women for sterilization  or long term birth control is based on dehumanization and the idea of a particular kind of perfect motherhood. And seeing women as mothers before people is what paves the way for legislation like last year’s ironically named Protect Life Act, which would have allowed hospitals to deny women abortions even if they needed one to save their life. Mothers first, remember?
It’s understandable that some women would embrace motherhood as their primary and most important identity. When you have little power, you take it where you can. Trumpeting the supremacy of motherhood and domesticity is instant access to cultural approval. But the veneer of importance is not power. How can any American mother truly believe that her work is valued when every policy, every mocking magazine cover, every pat-on-the-head Mother’s Day sentiment tells them different?
The truth is right in front of us. When Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan was at the Democratic National Convention, reporters asked about her possible run against Governor Pat Quinn. Specifically, they wanted to know whether she could be a good governor while raising her two young daughters. “Wow, does anybody ever ask that question?” she responded . Well, not to men.
Fathers are never expected to subsume their identity into parenthood the way that mothers are. If President Obama were to tell us that he is ’father-in-chief’ first, America would balk. How could a man be an effective president if he put the needs of his children above the needs of his country?
Yes, we are mothers and sisters and daughters and wives. We’re also much more. And declaring our individual importance as people and citizens does not diminish the depth of love we have for our children or the central role parenthood plays in our lives.
When we tout ourselves mothers first, women give those who would enshrine their dehumanization more firepower and assure that their domestic work will only ever be paid in thanks, not in policy or power. Until that changes, I’m a mother second.
For more of Jessica’s writing on parenthood, check out her new book, Why Have Kids?: A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness .
And for more Nation coverage of gender politics, read Bryce Covert on the absence of women’s rights discussion in the Denver debate.