Love this piece by Jessica Valenti on the harm of the “I’m a MOM FIRST!” rhetoric:
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.
The whole thing is quite excellent and you should read it. Jessica is clear that she’s not saying women shouldn’t identify as moms; just that putting “mom” before everything else is not great, any more than putting “wife” or another relationship would be. She gets to the heart of the problem here:
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 “motherhood is the most important job in the world” line only works because we clearly don’t value or support motherhood beyond platitudes. It’s condescending head-patting. I suspect most mothers would rather have things like maternity leave and affordable childcare.
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?
To clarify Jessica’s point: They aren’t caring for the children who will go on to make real decisions and have the real power. They’re caring for the children, but the downside to modeling “I’m a mom first and that’s the most important thing in the world!” is that it’s the boys who will go on to make the real decisions and have the real power. That isn’t to say that stay-at-home moms, as individuals, are making a bad choice. It is to say that a culture where 99% of stay-at-home parents are women, where women are still largely assumed to be in charge of childcare, and where everyone from the president of the United States on down emphasizes that the most valuable place a woman can be is in the home is not a good culture for raising powerful girls. It is a culture where, duh, girls are going to internalize the idea that their most important role is caring for someone else — not learning, not pursuing an intellectually fulfilling career, but making sure that someone else’s needs are always met before their own. Boys, on the flip side, will understand that women exist to care for them and for their future children so that they can go do whatever it is that drives them.
Do I think that care-taking and parenthood is valuable and important? Yes, of course. But I’d certainly like it a lot more if we actually valued parenting instead of just talking about how much we value mothering. And I’m not sure why we say that the true value in mothering is raising the next generation. Obviously that’s what parents do. But… why is it The Most Valuable Thing to raise the next generation if the most valuable thing that generation can do is raise the next generation and so on and so on? Of course raising the next generation well is valuable — incredibly valuable. But the most valuable thing? That model is a hamster wheel. At what point is it valuable (I’d argue even more valuable) to contribute something else to society? At what point do we get to say to women, “Actually, your contributions to science or art or literature or politics are more important than raising the next generation”? Because if raising the next generation were really all that mattered, we could basically go live in caves and reproduce for all of eternity and call it a day.
But human beings typically want something else. We crave knowledge and development and impact. We want better, more efficient societies. We want institutions that help us to organize ourselves and our lives. We want art that expands our imaginations and pushes our boundaries and takes us to new places. We want to create things; we want to benefit from what’s created. There are many things that motivate us. I want to see women able to fully partake a whole range of them. And “I’m a mom first” doesn’t allow that, from women themselves and from the girls who are growing up seeing a “I’m a mom first” model.