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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.




5 Responses to “Can a childfree woman be a hero, too?”

  1. Lorraine Tomek
    Twitter: lormek

    Why in the world would there be a Single Mothers Day? A Mother is a Mother, single, married, lesbian, black, white, spotted. Yes, we can take a pat on the back when our children turn out well (Thank God!).
    I think Mothers Day was created for the mothers who do not get any love or respect from their children in the first place. At least these mothers get something out of it. A day to honor them for trying. Giving birth.
    Is a woman selfish for choosing a career? No, at least she realizes want she wants in life, else, getting married and having the obligatory child/children and not being a “good” mother because she resents them.
    Does being divorced make you a failure? HELL NO! Granted there are people who just do not really try to make it work, but on the other hand, there are those of us who got married, had children, and believed in the institution enough to make it through, even if part of it was a farce.
    This year I will be married for 36 years, however, my husband left me almost 3 yrs ago. Failure? No, just two completely different people, when all was said and done. We have 3 wonderful children, a successful business, which the two older children now run, built our own house and generally just did the best we could, but when it came to the two of us…? I wish he would have left when I was 45 not 55. We are both much happier and still function as a family at family functions. Am I pissed? Yes, but that’s life.
    Not all mothers deserve to be honored on Mothers Day, for true, and it does put a lot of pressure on … families, and I guess after all is said and done, yeah, it’s a farce.

    • OMGchronicles
      Twitter: OMGchronicles

      Lorraine, thanks for commenting. It’s funny you say that you wish your hubby left when you were 45, not 55; I, too, felt like — couldn’t you have messed up when I was in my 30s and still young and “cute” instead of my mid-40s?!?! But, of course, that wouldn’t have made a difference — we must find a place of acceptance or change what doesn’t work for us, if we can. I hope you can get past being pissed and embrace what is. As you say, that’s life.
      I hope you have a happy Mother’s Day, farce or not. If no one else will honor you, honor yourself — I’m pretty sure you deserve it! 😉

  2. anon says:

    I don’t think being a mother is being heroic per se, it is not really accomplishing anything outside of a need that the mother and father has created. That said I think it is incredibly hard, but if you choose to reproduce and spend your days tending to the fruits of your choice it is technically indulging a need created from yourself, which could be seen as selfish or vain. However once the child arrives it is a seperate entity and caring for it seems to require a great deal of selflessness, and I think my own parents are quite selfless, it’s a confusing one in terms of selfishness, but I think I would have to conclude that to create a child is selfish and self-indulgent (though is it wrong to be selfish anyway? what grounds have we to conclude so, just because an action is selfish doesn;t mean it harms anyone, and if it doesn’t harm anyone then it shouldn’t matter – though with overpopulation I might be inclined to argue that having children is potentially harmful to others and other future peoples) but to care for a child from day 1 requires and usually is selfless. And I would of course conclude that to not have children is not selfish, as child rearing is to spend your days tending to a thing that you created, it’s needs are needs you created out of yourself etc.

    I can’t think of any logical selfless and un-indulgent reason to have children, yet also I feel my own mother sacrificed much for me and possibly to her detriment? I see the temptation to label mothers heroes too. One thing to consider is that so many people are mothers, while heroes are supposed to be rare. But the meaning of hero could be debated of course, I might be overly caught up with logical exactness but hey I study philosophy, just thinking things through….though these might not be popular opinions they seem to have some logical standing. Though “hero” and “selfish” are both things that are debatable anyway

  3. anon says:

    A little more to ad, the labour of women is largely undervalued (because women are I suppose), so whether or not we want to apply “hero” they are certainly undervalued, and under-appreciated for the successes, their unpaid and unrecognised labour etc.

    The word hero has certain connotations, generally of people who accomplished an extraordinary feat – which lines up with the Greek hero, this would cover sports heros who have not really contributed to society (lets face it). More often hero implies they have also done a great deed that is morally exemplary, such as saving people from a burning building, knight kills the dragon and saves the princess etc. When we think of heroes we think of brave war heroes, people acting in moments of adrenalin to save others etc. these might be national or community wide heroes
    We also use the word hero to mean someone we hold in extremely high esteem and look up to for any reason we see fit. When we say someone is MY hero, we could be talking about any kind of hero, and certainly could be talking about our mother. I think mothers are not going to be national/community level heroes just for being a mum when there are billions of mums, some admittedly do much better than others I suppose, but most try their best no doubt. A mother can easily be seen as a personal hero though, in fact most people with a good relationship with the parents might see them in some way as a hero, even if they don’t put that label to it….
    Okay I’m done now haha

    • OMGchronicles
      Twitter: OMGchronicles

      Thanks for commenting. While parenting often feels like one “extraordinary feat” after another, it is the job we signed up for.

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