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Morra Aarons-Mele Headshot

It's the Cult of Mom

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How many women didn't tear up a bit when Procter & Gamble aired their Olympics-themed commercials featuring tireless moms sacrificing all to raise Olympian athletes? Being a mom is the "best job" in the world, the ads said. Those ads were incredible and they made me proud to be a mother. Notably, fathers seem to be completely absent from the parenting, perhaps because they are irrelevant, but also because they only purchase 15 percent of household goods.

It is commercially advantageous for marketers to "mystify" moms. When I aspired to be a mother my fantasies included hosting beautiful holidays, keeping a lovely home, always going that extra mile for my family. Many women host deeply ingrained messages to be beautiful, provide a beautiful home, and devote all our time to care for our family, even if we are breadwinners. Marketers have worked incredibly hard to convince mothers we are powerful simply because we buy. Women have largely internalized these messages. A study by Real Simple magazine and Families and Work Institute found that 32 percent of married/partnered women often feel that if they did less around the house, they would not be properly taking care of it.

Now politicians are taking a page from marketers, hoping that if they flatter our inner "momliness," we will forget many of them have tried to strip our rights as humans and as women, or at the very least that women are far from equally represented in government, given that Congress is 17 percent women while the population at large is 51 percent women.

"In the automobile of life, mom was the driver," said Governor Christie at the GOP Convention. His sentiment reminds me of the old feminist yarn: A very successful businessman is at a dinner party, and he can't stop raving about his wife who's "the real brains behind the operation": her skill, her efficiency, her ruthless business sense. When asked why his wife doesn't run the business for which he is so well-known, he scoffs and says, "She could never do that -- we needed her at home."

Chris Christie is a momma's boy; Mitt's beloved Ann is far superior to him in every way, he insists: "I knew that her job as a mom was harder than mine. And I knew, without question, that her job as a mom was a lot more important than mine." But there's no way Mitt would advocate Ann run for president (or entrust her make her own reproductive choices). She's mom, and we are supposed to believe that's where the power is. We are supposed to believe that men see women as smarter and more capable than themselves -- so smart and so capable that they shouldn't lead anything that isn't a home or family.

Even Michelle Obama, successful lawyer and executive, insisted in her Convention address that her strength lay in her role as Mom in Chief.

In the current political discourse, if you're a mom you're a little better than other mere humans.
To hear our political leaders, moms are a sainted class, immune from the foibles that affect others. To hear Joe Biden, Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney and even President Obama, the mothers in their lives never put a foot wrong. They didn't drink too much, swear, cheat, or ignore their kids. They were perfect.

All of this glorification puts actual mothers in a difficult spot.

What about us mothers who do swear, who drink an extra cocktail on a particularly hairy day, who travel and leave our kids with Grandma or the babysitter (or any babysitter we can find), who sometimes think about what life would be like without kids? Do we still belong to this sainted class? Do we still have this motherly power our leaders are so fond of praising?

It's one thing to question whether you would be satisfied without a sparkling clean bathroom, or if you didn't have to wake up at 4 am every day to drive your kid to swim practice. But when our political leaders aim to convince us that the very future of our country lies in its mothers, it begs the question: What does being a mom actually mean? If we're so great, why do mothers earn less than men? UC Hastings law professor and author Joan Williams describes this phenomena as the "maternal wall":

While the wages of young women without children are close to those of men, mothers' wages are only 60 percent of those of fathers... The maternal wall typically arises at one of three points: when a woman gets pregnant; when she becomes a mother; or when she begins working either part-time or on a flexible work arrangement.

If we are so powerful, where is all our power?