The Anti-Mother's Day: How My Parent Taught Me to Subvert the 'Mom' Stereotype
My mom loves being a parent, but she has always hated being a "mom." I don't blame her. No matter how many tokens of appreciation America's offspring ship off to our mothers every Mother's Day, we don't always treat them very well every other day of the year.
We love our mothers, of course, but we don't really love "moms." We stereotype them as nagging or cold, overprotective or delinquent, embarrassingly out-of-touch or painfully on-trend. We expect them to take care of everything, then blame them when anything goes wrong. We speak with horror about "turning into our mothers." We ridicule "mom jeans" and objectify MILFs. We appoint them animalistic nicknames like "Tiger Mother" or "Mama Grizzly," then pit competing tribes against one another. After all, moms don't parent—they fight "Mommy Wars." This week's Time is ostensibly about attachment "parenting," but the cover blares: "ARE YOU MOM ENOUGH?"
Of course, no woman is ever "mom enough." The most oppressive expectation we assign to moms is that their role as mother must encompass all else. Beneath the weight of motherhood, the wild individuality of our mothers—my mom is a daughter, social worker, sister, teacher, partner, Trekkie, technophile, advanced hippie, and voracious reader, too—can be lost. Meanwhile, the dads of the world are quietly raising their children, pursuing their careers, watching television, doing some light hiking—being human.
This divide of expectations—dads are parents, but moms are moms—asserts itself over the lives of women in very real ways. Though American households have made advances toward shared parenting since the '60s, we still see mothers as chiefly responsible for raising children. Today, married mothers spend twice as much time raising kids than do their husbands. Men perform just a third of household chores. Parenting has been inching toward equity over the last century—in the '20s, male contributions to child-rearing were not even worth measuring. But parenting has also gotten a lot more intense—the average mother's time commitment to her children has doubled in the last hundred years. And it's not that moms are just happy to hang around with kids. One study of maternal happiness found that women rated "taking care of my children" as 12th on a list of 16 life activities that caused them joy, far below socializing and sex. This dynamic both robs fathers recognition for their contributions, and lets them off the hook when they don't pitch in. No wonder not much has really changed.
The gender disparity holds true even in my family, where I was practically swaddled in the pages of Ms. Magazine. One of the greatest gifts my mother gave me was her dogged pursuit of her career, even if it meant a non-traditional home life for my brother and I. As kids growing up in eastern Washington, my mom headed to Cleveland to earn her Ph.D., then later decamped to Phoenix to pursue a tenured teaching position at Arizona State. When my brother and I moved down to join her a year later, my dad stayed behind. My dad was an excellent parent—he flew down to visit every couple of weeks, engaged me intellectually as an adult, and taught me to descend 100-degree desert canyons and traverse Black Diamond ski runs featuring moguls taller than me. But if I counted up the hours, my mom simply parented more.
I've always admired my mom for what she did—she raised me to be my own person by making sure she lived her own life, too. But I recognize now that in order to pull that off, she wasn't so much making sacrifices as she was working to do more and more and more. As a daughter, this is all hard to watch. I want to be a lot of things in my life, too—journalist, sister, friend, joke-teller, dress-wearer, enthusiast of the varied roles of James Spader—but if I decide to be a mom, I fear that I could end up being just that one thing.
That fear only encourages us to keep building up—and denigrating—the all-encompassing role of the "mom." We know that women are so many things, and so we resist seeing ourselves slip into a role as limiting as motherhood—until we're in it. This Mother's Day, I'm grateful to my mom for working to make sure that one day, we can all just be parents.