President Obama displayed quick damage-control reflexes last week when he called out Democratic pundit Hilary Rosen for claiming that Ann Romney, mother of five, had "never worked a day in her life." It was "the wrong thing to say" and "not something I subscribe to," the president said. He also rolled out the old chestnut that almost always gets invoked amid ugly battles over motherhood and women's career choices. "There is no tougher job than being a mom," he said.
Might we possibly consider retiring that idea?
Look, I would never suggest that being a mom — or a dad — isn't very difficult at times (and when severe disabilities or illness are involved, it can be unfathomably difficult just about all of the time). I would even make the argument that parenting may in fact be the most important job in the world, given that it involves overseeing the physical, intellectual, social and moral development of small humans who will eventually grow up and take charge of the planet. But off the top of my head I can think of several other jobs that are tougher than being a mom. For instance, president of the United States. Or coal miner. Or teacher in an underfunded urban public school. Or Amish farmer.
You might even make the case that being first lady and/or the wife of a presidential candidate might be tougher than being a mom, since raising kids in and of itself doesn't generally involve having your every choice pounced on by the media and your every outfit scrutinized by vicious bloggers. Unless of course you are Angelina Jolie, who endures all of that but also makes motherhood look not only like the easiest job in the world but also the most glamorous, lucrative and weight-loss-inducing.
In any case, it's hard to say which was more disingenuous, the Romney camp using Rosen's words as an opportunity to suggest that Democrats don't value stay-at-home moms, or the Obama camp rushing to distance itself from a statement that, while perhaps poorly worded, wasn't exactly false. "I could not disagree with Hilary Rosen any more strongly," tweeted Obama campaign manager Jim Messina. Meanwhile, Obama's chief campaign strategist, David Axelrod, sent a tweet calling Rosen's comments "inappropriate and offensive."
Never mind that Rosen wasn't dissing stay-at-home moms as much as pointing out the hypocrisy of Romney using his very wealthy wife as a spokesperson for the economic anxieties of American women who've lost their jobs. And never mind that no less than four months ago, Romney was telling a crowd in New Hampshire that government assistance should be provided for child care so that poor women can participate in the job market and have "the dignity of work."
A lot of this, of course, is the usual bluster of an election season, the tempests that get brewed up in campaign teapots, only to subside as quickly as they erupted. But this latest storm points not only to Americans' seemingly endless appetite for flimsy controversy but to the incredible sensitivity we have around the issue of work.
To put it bluntly, we're obsessed with work — with who's doing it and not doing it, with how many hours are being spent at it and how much money is being paid for it. And we're not just obsessed in the sense that we rely on work to survive (and, these days, are suffering for lack of it). We're obsessed with work because our identities are defined by it. We work, therefore we are.
Case in point: the way the formerly quotidian institution known as "parenthood" has lately seen its job description ratcheted up to include not just age-old duties like the feeding, clothing and chauffeuring of children but, in some circles, a downright competitive approach to co-sleeping, organic food shopping, baby-sign-language-teaching, protracted breast-feeding and sometimes even home-schooling. With our self-worth so intrinsically connected to our professional status, we've extended the values of corporate ladder climbing on to family life. And some mothers, in the process of taking charge of the home front — or sometimes letting their children take charge — have imposed a greater tyranny on themselves than their office supervisors ever did.
No wonder, then, that so many women bristle at the implication that raising a family isn't work. But the toughest job in the world? It all depends on the boss.