I’m a Mom, Not a Hero

If motherhood is the only way women can be seen as heroes, something is very wrong

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We’re coming up on Mother’s Day, and that means the “mother as hero” rhetoric typically heats up.

I have the utmost respect and compassion for parents. As a mom, a co-parenting divorced mom, I know how hard a job parenting is. It’s harder than anything I have ever done and probably ever will do. That said, I am not a hero. My kids, now young men, may think I’m pretty cool as far as moms go, and have been generally kind about the ways in which I failed them — and fail I did. I don’t expect them to consider me a hero, but they can if they want. But no one else should.

Parents, moms or dads, single or married, are not heroes; we’re just people who decided to have children no matter what — our age, our health, our relationships status, our education, our income, our race, our religion, our gender. And once you make that decision, whether by birth or surrogacy or adoption or fostering, we are just doing the job we signed up for, and doing the job we signed up for does not necessarily make you a hero.

Mixed messages about single moms

A few months ago, GOP presidential hopeful Ohio Gov. John Kasich said, “single women with children are the real heroes in America.” A tweet from Bernie Sanders from last October proclaims: “When you talk about heroes and heroines, at the top of that list is the single moms of America.” Meanwhile, former GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush found himself backpedaling about his hurtful comments about publicly shaming single moms in the 1990s.

Single moms are both reviled and worshiped. This is a bit of a problem.

According to a 2011 Pew Research Center study, nearly seven out of 10 people polled said the trend toward “more single women deciding to have children without a male partner to help raise them” is bad for society. But, it’s happening anyway. About a third of children in the U.S. live with an unmarried parent,according to the Pew Research Center. While many of those parents are single,59 percent of all births outside of marriage occur to parents who are cohabiting. Still, more than 40 percent of births today are to single moms, and many of them are living in poverty.

Then we have politicos calling us heroes while proposing extreme measures to hurt them. Despite what Kasich says about single moms, he has approved measures that restrict reproductive rights among other things important to all women since taking office in in 2011. Hey, thanks for supporting your “heroes.”

I think most single moms would happily forego being called a hero if they had the right to govern their own body and lived in a country where their elected officials created policies that allowed them to raise their kids in healthier, happier ways — from affordable childcare to universal preK to paid sick leave to equal pay.

What about dads?

Calling out moms, single or not, as heroes is hurtful because it ignores single dads and dads in general. There are 2.6 million single dads — they’re doing what they need to do, too. Why aren’t they called heroes?

Granted, while they may not get the title, they do tend to get a lot more praise for being out and about doing “dad things” with their kids — it’s a real double standard, according to studies — which upsets some single moms.

When Richard Johnson posted on Life of Dad’s Facebook page about the struggles of raising his daughter by himself after Mom skipped out, he got all sorts of kudos and media attention, from Cosmo to Today.

Writing in Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams, somewhat incorrectly, notes “you don’t see a whole lot of viral posts using the word ‘hero’ repeatedly to describe mothers,” but later states:

imagine if we extended the same the awe and respect for mothers raising their children alone that we do to guys like Johnson. Imagine if we supported families of all different configurations, and applauded the hard work of both men and women who show up for their kids every day.

Yes, we should support families in all sorts of configurations, because that’s what we look like nowadays. Regardless, dads seem to get praise for doing when they should be doing — caring for their kids. As Monica Bielanko writes at Babble: “A dad wearing his baby on his chest isn’t cause for celebration, and it doesn’t mean he’s the BEST. DAD. EVER. It just means he’s doing his job.”

Maria Mora writes on SheKnows:

From characterizing watching kids as “babysitting” to acting like changing a diaper is grounds for Parent of the Year, our culture tells dads they’re superheroes for doing … normal stuff. It’s worse with single dads, who elicit the sympathy factor and project some kind of powerful allure simply by managing to feed, bathe, clothe and hang out with their children. Single dads, don’t get me wrong. You’re doing a great job. This stuff is hard. Every parent deserves to be praised, and every parent deserves to be supported. But I’ll hold the confetti next time a single dad takes his child to dance class or bakes cupcakes for a birthday party. That’s called getting it done. That’s what we do.

So … if moms don’t want dads to be celebrated for “getting it done” and “doing … normal stuff,” why is it OK if we call moms heroes? Calling one parent a hero to the exclusion of the other sets up an unhealthy and unnecessary divisiveness exactly at a time when more men are hands-on dads, when we’re talking about more egalitarian partnerships and when even so-called poor “deadbeat dads” are actually finding meaningful ways to be involved in their children’s lives. The “moms are heroes” label is divisive and ignores what men do.

What about the childfree?

And it’s not just divisive between moms and dads; it basically excludes women who don’t have children, whether by choice or by chance.

If motherhood allows women to become heroes, how can women without kids become heroes? I pondered this a few years ago, noting that Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert did not want kids, which she detailed in the best-seller that catapulted her into near-goddess stature. Yet, no one called her a hero for making that decision — a decision an increasing number of women make. Aren’t women who know that they’re not cut out for motherhood and avoid it — thus saving their children from potentially unhappy childhoods — heroic? That’s a brave choice considering the stigma and shaming childfree women face.

If motherhood is the only way women can be seen as heroes, something is very wrong.

Idealizing motherhood

My last objection to calling moms heroes is because it idealizes motherhood and thus perpetuates the myth of what a “perfect” mother is and does, and then punishes her when she can’t, or doesn’t, live up to the ideal. Haven’t we moms had enough of that?

I remember when author Ayelet Waldman wrote an essay in the New York Times about loving her husband, author Michael Chabon, more than their four kids, which led to maternal outrage — and her 2009 book Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace.

“If you work, you’re neglectful; if you stay home, you’re smothering. If you discipline, you’re buying them a spot on the shrink’s couch; if you let them run wild, they will be into drugs by seventh grade. If you buy organic, you’re spending their college fund; if you don’t, you’re risking all sorts of allergies and illnesses,” she writes about the struggles of being a good mom — albeit a privileged mom.

What about mothers from the Philippines, Mexico, Guatemala and elsewhere who leave their children behind to raise the children of America’s middle- and upper-classes; are they good mothers?

As for dads? The requirements for being a good dad are a lot less — or at least very different — than what’s required of moms. Except, as she told me, we moms have fabricated our own requirements, which has done nothing but stress us out. Amazingly enough, we have not progressed very far from then.

Putting moms on the hero pedestal sets up all moms for failure — even when we’re not failing.

My potential heroes

Despite all that, I thought if anyone could be called a hero, it would be parents who go over and above — foster parents, those who adopt special-needs kids. So I was surprised to read that they don’t want the moniker either.

“Foster parenting is hard work and it isn’t for everyone, but mostly we’re just typical people doing our best to love our children and raise them right,” writes foster mom Jasmine Schmidt. “Pushing us up onto a pedestal distances us and makes fostering appear out of reach to the average everyday Joe.”

Same for adoptive parents. “Adoptive parents are not heroes. We are parents, just like any other parents,” writes Tracy Hahn-Burkett.

Same for moms of special-needs kids. “(S)omewhere along the line ‘we are equal’ became ‘we are better.’ We toil more, we mother more, we are superhuman,”writes Mary Evelyn, who has a son with spina bifida. “It’s a myth — and it sends a dangerous message. Dangerous because it tells the world that only a special kind of person can raise a son or daughter who is different. Dangerous because it increases our loneliness when we remove ourselves from the world of everyday motherhood — a world we still live in, even if it sometimes seems far away.”

I wish all moms a happy Mother’s Day this Sunday just like I’ll wish all dads a happy Father’s Day next month. Parenting’s tough, tough work no matter what; it’s often rewarding, too, and I hope it’s a joyful. Maybe your kids will call you their hero one day; their opinion is the only one that matters

Written by

Award-winning journalist, coauthor of “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels,” mom, changing the narrative about older women

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