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.

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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.

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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.

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