Mothers are back in the news again, thanks to Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen whose comment about stay-at-home-mom of five Ann Romney, wife of presidential candidate Mitt Romney, as a woman who “has actually never worked a day in her life” reignited the so-called Mommy Wars.
No one really knows what to do with the state of motherhood today, not even mothers ourselves. We are constantly hand-wringing and second-guessing ourselves even as we approach our big day — Mother’s Day.
Still, whether we’re the “good mommy” that Ayelet Waldman wrote about in Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace — the mom who “remembers to serve fruit at breakfast, is always cheerful and never yells, manages not to project her own neuroses and inadequacies onto her children … and enjoys all their games” — or just a good-enough mommy, we all know what being a mom involves. Mothers are all about selflessness and sacrifice.
OK, fine, but does that make us heroes?
Many people think so. MSNBC TODAY Moms is soliciting essays to “celebrate mom heroes,” one of dozens of contests as we approach Mother’s Day this year offering spa treatments, getaways, jewelry and, ironically, an Xbox 360.
“Motherhood is a thing that can be terribly underappreciated,” actress Uma Thurman said a few years ago when the divorced mom of two was touting her movie “Motherhood.” “You don’t hear that much about the successes of mothers.”
That’s not to say that we moms don’t know of our own success on an individual basis; all I have to do is look at the fine young men my two sons have become to see the results (although I co-parent plus there’s that whole nature versus nurture thing). Yet, with all this hero talk, it’s hard not to want to puff up my Wonderbra-enhanced chest and declare, “Yes, damn it! I am a hero!”
Still, I’m uncomfortable calling myself a hero — I signed up for this, after all — just as I am uncomfortable in my post-divorced state being placed in the “single mother as hero” category. A few years ago, former White House and Pentagon official Douglas MacKinnon even suggested a Single Mother’s Day because “these true American heroes have nothing and will never have anything.”
That was nice of him I suppose, although anyone who has a kid or two certainly has a lot more than “nothing” and I’d hate to think I was doomed to “never have anything.” Plus, let’s not forget that a Pew survey last year indicated an overwhelming number of people still believe single motherhood is bad for society, so I’m guessing they’re not going to pinning hero badges on us any time soon.
But if mothers and singles mothers are considered to be heroes by at least some people, what are we to make of women who choose to be childfree? What do we call a woman like, say, “Eat, Pray, Love” author Elizabeth Gilbert? Can a woman who doesn’t want kids be a hero?
Gilbert did not want kids, and she detailed the agonizing reality of that decision in the best-seller that catapulted her into near-goddess stature for legions of middle-aged divorcees. Gilbert described how she wept and prayed on the bathroom floor as her then-husband slept in the next room, blissfully unaware that she had no intention of ever having babies with him — or anyone else, for that matter. That’s how she ended up divorced, and we all know how people feel about divorce — it’s a “failure.” Can you be a failure and a hero?
It’s interesting that no one called her a hero for making that decision — a decision many women make and a certain percentage regret not making. Not everyone is cut out for motherhood, and that’s OK.
Nor is every man cut out for fatherhood, either. Can a man who doesn’t want kids be a hero? Yes; in fact, our idea of the classic American masculine hero is a man without any romantic or sexual notions, as Gilbert notes in The Last American Man, her brilliantly written biography of Eustace Conway, a self-styled man of destiny, a modern-day Jason of the Argonauts. The male heroes we celebrate tend to be loners although they sometimes have a sidekick — a male sidekick. Kids and wives just get in the way of men of destiny.
But mothers who choose whatever classic heroic journeys might be available to us are seen as selfish, especially if we choose ambition, career or passionate causes over our family.
By that logic, childfree women should have it easier, but they don’t — well, not unless they’re Mother Teresa. A woman who doesn’t have children is still seen as a suspect and somewhat tragic figure; something must be wrong with her if she doesn’t want kids. Women who don’t have kids are considered selfish, although how can those who choose to be mothers and those who choose to be childfree both be selfish? We really do need to make up our minds!
Being a mom (or a dad) isn’t an easy job; often it’s a thankless job. But does that make us heroes? Should there be a day set aside just for being a mother, should there be contests for being heroic — aka, just doing our job? Why should we be considered heroes when we’re just taking care of the babies we brought into the world? How do we honor those who chose not be a mother? Are they not worthy of our respect and admiration?
We all have the opportunity to become heroes, the late mythologist Joseph Campbell has said. Anyone who is willing to sacrifice, to go through life with courage and strength, anyone willing to slay personal dragons, can be a hero.
It takes a certain amount of sacrifice, courage and strength to be a mother, just as it takes a certain amount of sacrifice, courage and strength to be brave enough to admit that being a mom just isn’t your thing. But, like anything else, you have to earn the hero part.
- Do you believe mothers are heroes?
- Can childfree women be heroes, too?
A version of this column previously appeared on Mommy Tracked.