Being Us First

October 11, 2012

I read an article I just haven’t been able to stop thinking about. “I’m Not a ‘Mother First” is an article written by Jessica Valenti for The Nation‘s online magazine. To be upfront, part of what I liked so much about this article was that I agree with it and have voiced my own personal concern for this idea; the idea that now that I am a mother, I must somehow give up my Individual Identity Card and pick up my Just a Mom Card. I never liked the future image of people asking me who I am and responding, “Her mom or His wife.” As a “stay-at-home” parent, I worked hard to get to know people at Husband’s job, mainly because I’m social, but also so that people knew me as me – first and last name – and not as Husband’s wife or Mrs. Wife and only that. I like my first and last name. I’ve always liked, that’s why I didn’t change it when I got married. I always wanted to be someone’s mom and wife. I just never wanted to be only that.

But what has kept me meditating on this article wasn’t just that I liked reading someone else’s view of what I already thought, but rather that what she was saying was realistically dangerous. “…there’s a danger in returning to an ideal where women’s most important identity is relational rather than individual.” By “most important identity” being “relational” Valenti refers to our most important identity being wives, mothers, daughters, etc. and if our most important identity is relational than what does that mean? Does that mean that my identity must be attached to someone else in order to make sense… in order to matter?

By attaching our identity to that of another person, as noble as it may seem, makes us vulnerable: politically and personally.

Politically, as Valenti so beautifully puts it, “identifying as a mom first in a culture that pays lip service to parenthood without actually supporting it has consequence.” We say that being a mom is the hardest, most important job, yet what do we really do to encourage that? In Germany, Parliament was debating a law that would pay mothers to stay home with their infants. In France, public child care truly supports working women. It doesn’t cost a fortune equal to a monthly income and actually fulfills its promise of quality care. In Norway, voted the #1 best place to be a mother by the international organization, Save the Children, parents are given a full year of paid leave to spend time with their infant. Those practices support mothers with action – not lip service.

Hugs and smiles are great rewards, but not one senator or governor or CEO that I know of is paid in them. I like a good “Thanks. Job well done” as much as the next person but it shouldn’t be my only source of income. I can’t provide for my children with kisses, can I? If so, my student loans wouldn’t be piling up. Saying that mothers hold our country together and that being a mother is the hardest job there is seems like empty talk when there are no incentive programs or retirement matches being offered for being a mom, for being the holder of this “incredibly important job.”

Personally, as mothers we sometimes believe that self sacrifice is the only path to Good Momville. Unless we are giving something up (our job, our free time, our identity), we aren’t as good of a mom as our more “unselfish” counterparts. ” It’s no wonder that as free thinking and confident as person as I am – with, of course, my own insecurities – when I became a mother I was swimming, drowning in doubt. When Valenti said

“To be a truly committed parent, women are expected to be mothers above all else – we’re “moms  first”… means that women are expected to be everything – and give up anything – for their children. Whatever women do that seems to separate them from “true”motherhood is misguided, or at worst, selfish. If we formula-feed we’re not giving our babies the best start in life. If we work outside the home [and Heaven forbid we work outside the home without even financial reward, like let’s say, hmmm…. I don’t know, an aspiring writer?!], we must do it with tremendous guilt and anxiety. Time away from our children in the form of an occasional movie or hobby is seen as a treat rather than an expected part of living a full life.”

I heard the angels sing and saw the clouds part because I had spent so much of my first few months of motherhood being taken over by thoughts of you are not good enough and too selfish for this job that these words were an awakening. I realized, quicker than most, that keeping my identity didn’t mean that I loved my daughter any less. In fact, I could argue that by being myself first and someone’s attached identity second, I was actually doing my daughter justice who might one day grow up and be someone’s wife or someone’s mother and uncertain if she could be herself first.

Inevitably, I can hear the bounce back, some women saying, “But I like being known as Mrs. Wife or Kid’s Mother. I’m not arguing against that I just ask that you ask yourself why you need to be Mrs. Anything when you only have to be You. Ask your husband if he’d like being called Mrs. You from this point forward and see what he says.

These roles of wife and mother are a part of who I am but they aren’t solely who I exist to be. Owning our own identity is a crucial part of making changes that benefit us, changes that would benefit more people than just mothers, like the children who have an at home, present parent.

We don’t have to give up everything. I’m not saying that being a mother isn’t as good a reason as any to lose my identity, I’m simply saying that I don’t have to lose my identity to be one.


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