In her speech introducing her husband at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama told the audience that, during her first term as First Lady, her most important title was “mom-in-chief.” This statement was met with extended applause.
I love Michelle Obama. I love the causes she stands for, from fighting against childhood obesity to supporting women’s rights abroad to addressing poverty. When I go for runs around DC, I often jog past the White House and imagine Michelle Obama doing 50 push-ups and then rewarding herself with a homemade bowl of lobster mac and cheese, and this image inspires me for another two miles. I simply adore her. There’s no question that Michelle Obama’s work is a significant force in the fight for equality.
I know that Mrs. Obama loves and cares about her family, but her nod to “mom-in-chief” is a familiar move, one I’ve found myself making. Many successful professional women feel constantly inclined to say, “but of course my kids come first” or “first and foremost, I’m a mother.” When you look at the Twitter profiles of some of the world’s most successful women, their bio often follows this formula “I’m a mother, a wife, and also a [insert incredible, globally significant accomplishment and title here].”
Listen, being a mother is an important (and difficult) job. At this very moment, I am listening to Elmo sing a song about tricycles for the fourth time in three days. This morning my son walked into the kitchen with a box of tampons and demanded to know their purpose. And there are times, particularly when I’m reading Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site for the fourth consecutive time, when the gravity of my maternal responsibilities—the fact that I am responsible for turning this person into a productive member of society who will raise a family of his own—consumes me. Being a parent makes you learn about yourself and your morals and your definition of success and happiness.
But my role as a mother is not always my most important role. And certainly saying that other roles and responsibilities are important does not diminish the importance of parenting. Unfortunately, many working parents—both mothers and fathers—feel inclined to constantly qualify their accomplishments, saying that, of course, nothing is as satisfying or rewarding as being a parent. Sure, my Saturday mornings with my son are much more enjoyable and rewarding than a four-hour conference call. But a brand workshop with a client I love that leads to a creative breakthrough? Hands-down more satisfying than pushing my son on the swing. And that doesn’t make me a bad mom.
When we refuse to speak honestly about how much we value our work, or when we downplay our love for our work for fear of being judged, we reinforce the incorrect assumption that career-driven women would stop working if they could afford it. And for many women (like me), that’s just not true. Furthermore, requiring constant assurance from a working woman that she loves her children (she shouldn’t have to demonstrate that to anyone except her family) also reinforces the assumption that women can’t be both loving mothers and capable leaders, employees, and colleagues.
The good news is that a number of women in the media are abandoning outdated cultural conceptions of what it means to be a working mother. By doing so, they’re defying the expectation that working mothers must always be assuring the people around them that they do, in fact, care about their children. For example:
1. Leslie Knope
Leslie Knope (played by Amy Poehler) from Parks and Recreation has been one of my favorite characters on television for years. When she and her fictitious husband got pregnant at the end of last season, I was worried that, like so many sitcoms of the past, the show would completely change directions and focus exclusively on her life as a mother. But, to my pleasant surprise, it didn’t. In fact, the final season of Parks and Recreation continued to center on the heart of the show—Knope’s dedication to public service, her relationships with her friends and co-workers, and her deep love for her city.
Her children are part of the story, but they’re not the main event. And by showing that a woman can continue to be a productive, high-achieving professional while having children (a totally common occurrence), Parks and Recreation refuses to cater to misogynist stereotypes.
Beyoncé began recording songs for her self-titled album just a few months after she had her daughter and released the album around her first birthday. I was already a Beyoncé fan, but what I love about this album is that songs that we’d expect from Beyoncé—sexy, catchy, edgy—co-exist on the album with songs about being a mother. There’s no contradiction between having “Partition” (a song that uses the verb “Monica Lewinskied”) alongside “Blue,” which features Beyoncé’s daughter’s little voice. It’s a perfectly packaged demonstration that women can pursue their personal passions, celebrate their sexuality and successes, and be mothers all at the same time.
3 and 4. Maria and Gina of Sesame Street
Maria (played by Sonia Manzano) has been on Sesame Street since 1971. She co-owns the fix-it shop with her husband Luis and spends quite a bit of time on the show being a handywoman. In fact, in the episode I watched this morning, she exclaimed to two needy child-monster-puppets, “I’m sorry, but I only have time for work today.” She has a daughter, Gabi, who also helps out in the shop. Over the years, her character has evolved from a teenager to a librarian to a business owner and a mother, and she’s never had to sacrifice her personality or her caring relationships with the monsters of Sesame Street. Except for that bit about being a maternal figure to magical puppets, it’s a pretty realistic—and normal—storyline.
Gina (played by Alison Bartlett O’Reilly) is another working mom on the show. She’s a veterinarian and single mom who adopted a son from Guatemala a few seasons ago. Again, like Maria, much of her time on the show is spent in her veterinary practice, giving advice to the animals of Sesame Street.
Sesame Street is a show exclusively designed for children—the demographic group that is most “at risk” or influenced by the policies and expectations that seek to govern the behavior of parents. And yet none of Gina or Maria’s lines are dedicated to explaining how they prioritize their families over work or how they handle work-life balance. It’s simply a given that they do both.
So, while these portrayals of working mothers and their successes at normalizing a co-existing love for work and family—without the need to defend or justify—have us heading in the right direction, we need to translate this movement into our everyday lives. Women, if you stay at home with your children, you should not feel the need to explain to anyone that you are still smart or that you still have hobbies or that you plan to go back to work. Women, if you are a working mother and love your job and couldn’t dream of giving up your career, then you shouldn’t have to justify your choice, either. We need to stop making these categories mutually exclusive.