05/13/2012 11:40 am ET Updated Jul 13, 2012

Unsex Mother's Day

Mother's Day. Of course it's a day to appreciate one's mother, and I am extremely lucky in that regard. If we stop and think, though, we realize that "mothering" is basically committed caretaking. We're not thanking our mothers for the biological functions of gestation, birth and lactation. We are thanking them for loving us.

That love of a mother has no sex. Someone of any sex can mother a child. Let me share a story: some time ago, I was in a taxi with my daughter, riding to a law school event at Grand Central Terminal. She fussed a bit and the driver said, "Where's the mother? Only the mother knows how to do this." Avoiding a complex explanation that I view myself as both mother and father, I said she has two dads. He still seemed perplexed that a man could know how to care for a child. I left the taxi and wiped a saliva-soaked Cheerio from my daughter's chin, feeling less of a parent because I was perceived as only a father, and not the primary parent -- a mother. It is a feeling constantly reinforced for gay male parents I know who report that when in public -- at markets, stores, and restaurants--they get asked by women: "Is it mommy's day off?"

Behind the confusion in faces of people like the taxi driver, whom I tell about our family structure, I can see that they are thinking that a child without a mother is akin to an orphan -- taken care of, but not supported and nurtured the way only a "mother" can. Again, "[o]nly the mother knows how to do this." But my husband and I are "mothers," "fathers" and "parents" to our child.

"Mothering" and "fathering" have been inappropriately tethered to biological sex. "Mothering" should be unsexed as the primary parental relationship. "Fathering," correspondingly, should be unsexed from its breadwinner status. In an ideal world, people now considered "mothers" and "fathers" would be "parents" first, a category that includes all forms of caretaking.

Liberated from biosex roles, a parent could define herself as "parent," "mother," or "father" with some fluidity.

Yet our society makes women into "mothers" and men into "fathers," burdening women with intense parenting responsibilities without compensation, while men are presumed incapable or uninterested in performing these caretaking duties. Even as women take on new leadership positions in politics and the marketplace, their core identities remain centered on their presumed-innate mothering skill set. Whether a "tiger mom" or a "mama grizzly," the role doesn't leave much room for personal and professional satisfaction apart from mothering.
Although the term "unsexed" has not been widely used in this regard, our legal architecture avows support for sex neutrality and equality. As the Supreme Court said in Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan, there should be no "fixed notions concerning the roles and abilities of males and females" embodied in the application of the law. This ideal permeates civil society: either sex should be allowed to perform every role in society.

We need to "unsex" mothering so that people of all sexes can choose the parenting roles they desire, not those imposed on them because of biology. Given that anyone can be a mother to his or her child, the best way to celebrate "mothers" is to be one.