We Need To Stop the “Just-A-Mom” Routine

Why do leaders like Michelle Obama need to resort to "momism" in order to appeal to women?

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Callie Shell for TIME

First Lady Michelle Obama speaks to the delegation during the first night of the Democratic Convention at the Time Warner Arena in Charlotte, N.C., Sept. 4, 2012.

Are you someone’s Mom, or are you a “ma-a-h-h-m”?

That is to say: are you the addressee of a specific form of respectful greeting from one or more people you actually gave birth to (someone who would have been called “Mother” some generations back), or are you a member of that social and political category most bleatingly invoked by Sarah Palin in 2008 (“Ho-o-ckey Ma-a-h-h-m”), and that now has taken on a permanently nasal-inflected life of its own?

I always would have put Michelle Obama in the first category. After all, she’s a mother, yes — and a fiercely devoted one, too, it would seem — but she is and has long been a whole lot of other things, as well: a top student, lawyer, daughter, sister, girlfriend and wife, a highly influential anti-child obesity activist and — let’s not forget — the first African American First Lady in our country’s history.

(MORE: The Meaning of Michelle: A Once-Wary First Lady Fights to Keep Her Job)

Watching her at the Democratic National Convention, many words came to mind to describe her — elegant, passionate, powerful, and on-point, for example — but (and I’m dragging and flattening out that vowel for effect again) “ma-a-h-h-m” wasn’t among them. Or shouldn’t have been among them. Because that worn-out appellation, with its familiar-old-shoe-like tones, that word that still echoes with the “just a” prefix that in other political seasons always accompanied it, is so unsuited for her. It’s so belittling, so minimizing. It’s such a least-common-denominator sort of a way of establishing her connection to the female voting electorate.

And yet, being ma-a-h-h-m clearly was deemed politically expedient this week in order for Obama to help her husband to sew up the all-important female vote, the just-a-mom-specific part of which, bizarrely, appears to be less ardently pro-Democratic than does all the rest. The self-deprecating “military mom” Elaine Brye (“Wow! What’s a mom like me doing in a place like this?”) made sure to introduce Obama as a “fellow mom,” as she squeezed in as many mom-utterances into her short remarks as time would allow. And Obama made sure to take on a mega-mom tone, particularly as her speech rose to its crescendo. The fresh funniness of her remembrance of how she’d conk out on rare nights out with pre-President Obama — “a date night for Barack and me was either dinner or a movie, because as an exhausted mom, I couldn’t stay awake for both” — wore down by the end into what sounded, uncharacteristically, like scripted bombast as she declared, “my most important title is still ’mom-in-chief.’”  It was the only false note in what was otherwise a virtuoso performance.

(MORE: How to Make Political Conventions Less Dull)

Obama, who worked hard in her pre-First Lady days to provide and make a home for her daughters just as her parents had for her, who strove, once her husband was elected, to provide calm and continuity for the girls and who, for the past four years, has worked to better nourish the nation’s children, really doesn’t have to prove her credentials as caregiver. She doesn’t, unlike Ann Romney, need to faux-sighingly convince women that she knows “how it is.” So why is it necessary for her to take her place alongside all the rest of us — that is to say, alongside a put-upon, beleaguered, insecure, self-effacing, long-suffering construct of “us” in a way that reduces us all? Why can’t she more overtly own the identity she built through her unique intelligence and her accomplishments? Why can’t we all delight more fully in the stature that speaks through those confidently squared shoulders?

(MOREMarissa Mayer: Irrelevant “Superwoman” or Agent of Change?)

There is so much work to be done in this country for mothers (and fathers and children, as well). Everything from securing paid sick days and family leave to restoring faith in our public education system to making sure we don’t lose the progress on health care reform we’ve so narrowly achieved. Mothers are a meaningful political category because they tend still to a greater extent than fathers to be on the front lines of day-to-day engagement with these everyday life issues. As a result, they do undoubtedly have a special role to play in moving America forward so it can finally take its place among other advanced industrialized nations in embracing the realities of modern family life. But that kind of work can’t be done by a corps of exhausted, beleaguered, put-upon women — the “ma-a-h-h-ms” who, I guess we’re supposed to believe, epitomize the truth of the female condition. We can’t afford to identify with that image. And Michelle Obama shouldn’t have to even try.

MORE: Smother Mother: Why Intensive Child-Rearing Hurts Parents and Kids

17 comments
OhEvolve
OhEvolve

It is a shame that society basically forces Michelle Obama into Mom-in-Chief mode. 

 When a significant percentage of the population thinks that women should be forced to bear the child of their rapist, endure government mandated vaginal probe ultrasounds to be able to exercise their right to control their own bodies, make birth control as difficult to get as possible (while insurance pays for Viagra-go figure!) and generally send women back to the 1950's, the lack of critical thinking skills of this dumbed-down and misogynistic part of the population can only relate to such sophomoric pablum.

HDS26234
HDS26234

Unless the American home stops going down the drain as it is the case this very moment and has been the case for many, many decades already, America will continue going down the drain faster and faster. When mothers leave their little babies, sometimes only a few month old, and pack a gun to go and shoot mothers on the other side, that is diabolic indeed. Is this not happening over and over and greeted with great pride and accomplishement? There is now even a woman training soldiers! And yearly close to a million of American children end up homeless, if my information is correct as to this number! Besides, than we have thousands of men pedhophiles, loose in our neighboorhoods, right? America, the Founding Fathers are and have been shaking in their graves for over a century seen their America in action at home and abroad; this in a figure of speech. Yes, motherhood is one of the most powerful "jobs", in the world, for a better word, along that of fatherhood, but in some very important ways motherhood tops, in as much as a baby is brought into the world by a woman, where a father's part is very minor! America, lets wake up and do the right thing as ordained by Almighty God, the God that is constantly asked to bless America. However, how can God bless America unless America obeys God? Question: As you read my comment are you sure that America is obeying its God?

Moronee
Moronee

It was funny.  The day after the convention the Romney people were paying all these journalists to write about the monthly jobs report instead of Obama's speech.  He still got the bounce.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...

 

Jeffrey Geez Glavick
Jeffrey Geez Glavick

Itch, Itch, Itch, always a reason for it even when your a female talking about another female. It's in the dna. Why? why not? blah blah blah, put a lid on it, she made a great speech and you have to voice a negative opinion coming from your viewpoint.? if she had not mentioned it then you would find fault with that. Go away

bcatherine42
bcatherine42

Michelle Obama is every bit as qualified to run this country as her husband (as is Dr. Jill Biden)--no one should look at her and see "just a mom."  But those of us who are intelligent, accomplished, talented and kick ass feminists who are also moms know that, while we are so much more than "just" moms, being a mom is the most important role we will ever have.  And we cherish and relish it.

NE_Heights_Elitist
NE_Heights_Elitist

'

progress on health care reform we’ve so narrowly achieved'.

Yeah, who cares if the majority doesn't want it.  This author is just another Obama sycophant.  Pathetic.

Nathaniel M. Campbell
Nathaniel M. Campbell

I thought feminism was all about giving women the freedom to choose their own paths, freed from the constraints of men choosing for them.  Yet here we have Judith Warner, "feminist", declaring that Michelle Obama's choice to focus on raising her children in the difficult environment of the White House rather than politics is the "wrong" choice (do we really think for one second that if she wanted to be more of a politico, her husband would be stepping in to say, "No, I want you to stay at home with the kids"?).  Why?  Why can't women be free to choose motherhood as well as any other career?  Why can't women who want to, be "just a mom"?

TheAmused
TheAmused

Then you have missed the entire point, "instructor". What Ms. Warner is decrying is the quaint notion that Ms. Obama has to downplay all her other accomplishments to pander to the SAHM crowd. Had she gotten up there and made a speech about her work and her education, the Republicans would have been screaming that she indeed was putting down the SAHMs out here.

Personally, I hate that SAHMs are being held up as an ideal that we all should still strive for to the exclusion of all other accomplishments. Warner isn't saying what she did was wrong, but rather that what she is expected to say/do to make herself another one of the "just a mom" crowd is wrong.

I hate hearing those "just a mom" types telling those of us who work AND raise our kids that we're depriving our children or aren't as good as they are--especially when you look at women like Ann Romney who had a houseful of people to do the actual "heavy lifting" while she did the surface glossing.

Jasmine Clark
Jasmine Clark

you know nothing about ann romney and everything she has accomplished and been thorough in her personal life.  you're just making assumptions about her based on her socioeconomic status.

TheAmused
TheAmused

It is obvious YOU don't know, that's for sure. The woman has had money all of her life, even during that "poor" period in college where they "had" to live on some of WIllard's stock. The minute they got out of college, her dad "loaned" them money to buy a better starter house than most people end up with after decades of work. She has had servants to do the dirty work when raising the kids and will never have to panic about whether or not she can afford her medical treatment. One of my friends just received a preliminary diagnosis of MS and she and her husband are thinking of divorce so she can move back to her home country to get the medical care she needs. Ann, on the other hand, can afford the best of care in place and gets to write off her horses at $77K EACH because there is that huge gap.

You think she has been through all that much in the way of hardship? Not even! And if you think she would care for your support? Nope to that as well! In fact, she would look at you as one of those she considers "you people", spoken in the same tone she uses for the help.

Of course, you missed the whole point of this story and of my comment, but reading comprehension seems to be lacking on the (R) side of most debates.

AlbinoWino
AlbinoWino

Women do have a choice. I think the point more is that when you are in the role of wife to a leader we tend to focus on you as mom and wife and that those things HAVE to be number one to every woman.  Of course these are important but they shouldn't have to so glorified that women's other roles and accomplishments are diminished.  You can still be an amazing wife and mother while focusing on bigger pursuits in your personal life, interests, and career. I get it.

Lindsay Sampson
Lindsay Sampson

same for those of us that want to "not be a mom,ever."

FutureTimes
FutureTimes

She likes a wild monkey to lead USA as Africa?

Does USA have White Leaders?

It is true that USA's quality is down now.

Being One President is Not about quantity but Quality.

USA will regret about obama.

TheAmused
TheAmused

 I wish there was a "report" button for this kind of post. Your post is beyond inappropriate!

happydayfortennis
happydayfortennis

If you hover your mouse just to the right of the "2 Likes" then there's a flag shaped button for marking it as inappropriate. I definitely agree.

Educatio
Educatio

Talk too much for showing ego 'i' but forget to develop Human Quality.

That is the default for obama.