Stop telling me I’m intuitive. Stop telling me I’m nurturing. Stop telling me I’m tireless. You don’t know that I’d do anything for my kids, that I’m selfless, patient, or affectionate. All you know is that I’m a mother and it’s Mother’s Day.
That’s the one day every year that people feel perfectly entitled—even obligated—to tell me who I am based on my sex. Sure, some would argue that it’s valid to ascribe these virtues to mothers. They’re not innate—goes the argument—they just arise naturally from the experience of carrying a child to term, giving birth, breastfeeding, and cutting up cream cheese sandwiches into animal shapes.
But still I have to object. There are simply too many counterexamples: women who hate being pregnant; women who can’t breastfeed; women who adopt; women who find early childcare teeth-grindingly boring; and, of course, men who take on the burdens of homework checking, hair braiding, and dinner. And what about all the patient and loving people who don’t have children?
So the idea that every mother, because she’s a mother, is patient and nurturing and selfless is really just a stereotype. And though it seems like a pleasant, harmless one, accepting it bears substantial costs. I can think of three right off the bat.
For one, it puts a heavy burden on mothers who don’t measure up. Since regular mothers are supposedly perfect, we imperfect mothers must be unusually, abnormally awful. Oh, sure, regular mothers are allowed a few cute imperfections like mismatching socks or serving chocolate pudding for breakfast or using Blues Clues to babysit their children while they shower. But I mean serious imperfections like regularly preferring to be by yourself than with your children and often preferring to be with one child than another; like thinking your kids are terrific only when they’re sound asleep. Like reserving the right to bring a novel to your kid’s baseball game or to take somebody else’s kid’s side in a dispute. And that’s just me, and that’s just for starters.
I’m actually ok with falling short of some standard-issue maternal virtues because I’m not convinced they are virtues. Focusing on your children to the exclusion of the rest of your world is not admirable; at the least, it’s bad parenting. On the other hand, I do want to be someone who can express love, show affection, and listen with an open heart (really, kids, I do).
Which brings me to the second cost of the mother stereotype: the cost to men. Men who exhibit the supposedly maternal virtues of warmth, openheartedness, and empathy are either ignored or treated like adorable freaks. Men who don’t are excused because they are men. I’m sorry, but if you can’t manage to hug your children and tell them out loud that you love them, you are not a boy-who-will-be-a-boy, you are not an average guy, you are a person who needs help. You should expect more of yourself—and so should we all.
Sex stereotypes let men off the hook and they let society off the hook, too. That’s the third cost: to our political will. As long as women are supposed to be naturally suited to raising children, we won’t expect men to pull equal weight. As long as women are supposed to have vast internal resources for raising children, we won’t demand more resources from our bosses or our government. Sex stereotypes support the status quo, and as far as I’m concerned, the status could stand considerable improvement.
It would be nice if we could claim superior virtues merely by virtue of having vaginas. But we can’t. Sorry, ladies. Buy one gender stereotype, buy them all. If you’re not content with your image as a nagging shopaholic who takes too long in the bathroom and doesn’t like sex, then you must not accept the assumption that you are a selfless and patient listener who can express her emotions and write legibly. It’s the price you pay for being judged not by your anatomy, but by your merits as a human being.
This essay just aired on WAMC’s the Roundtable (thank you, Sarah LaDuke!). You can listen to it here.