Opinion: What do I really want for Mother’s Day? To be more than ‘mom.’

(Anthony Russo / For The Times)

I love my daughter and the joy she’s brought me and my husband. She’s taught me things about myself and the world that I never expected to learn. But just like my husband isn’t “just a dad,” I’m not “just a mother.” Being a mom is certainly a large and important part of my identity, but it’s certainly not the only part. So why is it that women are expected to believe that once we have children, the rest of our identities fall away? And that if it we don’t prioritize being mom first and foremost, we aren’t good parents?

We are often told that being a mom is the “toughest” and by implication most important job in the world. This was the takeaway from a recent greeting card commercial that went viral online. The commercial was cute and sentimental, but it’s message was demeaning.

Yes, parenting in the United States -- mothering specifically -- is absolutely undervalued. Just take a look at the lack of family-friendly work and life policies we have to contend with. Some of the lack of political will to improve these kinds of policies stems from the idea that a woman’s place is at home, not in the workplace.


But saying motherhood is the most important and the toughest job props up the sexist idea that the most valuable contribution women can make is having and raising kids. Never mind that this sentiment ignores people who can’t or don’t want to have children. Will they miss out on the “most fulfilling” thing a person can do because they don’t have kids? And what about dads, parents who adopt or legal guardians? Surely they also have important and tough jobs as well?

Women who reject the pressure to be mommy first and everything else second are seen as selfish or un-nurturing. Remember how Wendy Davis was slammed as a “bad mom” for leaving her kids with their father while she attended Harvard Law School? Or the backlash author Ayelet Waldman faced when she wrote in the New York Times’ Modern Love column that she loved her husband more than her children? Apparently, there’s no room in a mother’s life for a complicated spectrum of feelings, needs or ambitions. If mom doesn’t put the kids first, she’s got her priorities totally wrong.

What we have here are double standards for moms and dads. Fathers are allowed to have multifaceted identities, and are even patted on the back for being involved parents. Post a picture of yourself wearing your infant while you do your toddler’s hair, as blogger Doyin Richards did, and you’ll be branded a super dad. We’ve never heard President Obama say his most important job is “daddy in chief,” like the first lady did. But unlike dads, moms are caught in a vicious push and pull where we’re judged if we do -- work or stay at home full time to care for children -- and judged if we don’t.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with women seeing themselves as mothers first. For many people (myself included) being a parent touches all aspects of our lives and personalities. Many people do see being a parent as the most important job they have, and that’s awesome. But when we don’t give women the choice to be many things at once, or require that being caregivers is the primary source of their fulfillment, we rob them of the chance to be complex people with a variety of experiences and needs.

I can certainly talk all day about my daughter and her eating quirks, but I’d rather not. Don’t ask me if she’s sleeping through the night before you ask me about the latest article I’ve written. Being a parent is wonderful and challenging, complex and tedious all at once, but it’s certainly not the only thing I am or do.

Susan Rohwer is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @susanrohwer.