Michelle Obama waves to the crowd at the first session of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. Photo: Reuters
It was all going so well. Michelle Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention yesterday was gracious, heartfelt, impeccably delivered. An entreaty to the people of America to give the Obamas four more years, with the message, 'we're just like you.'
Twenty-two minutes in, the speech was reaching its crescendo. "In the end, more than anything else, that is the story of this country — the story of unwavering hope grounded in unyielding struggle," said the First Lady. And then she dropped this clanger.
"Let me tell you something. I say all of this tonight not just as First Lady, no, not just as a wife. You see, at the end of the day, my most important title is still "mom-in-chief."
The official Obama family portrait: Michelle with Barack and children Malia and Sasha. Photo: The White House
She said what?
This Princeton and Harvard graduate, well respected lawyer and campaigner for social issues, wife of POTUS had just said that being a mother was the pinnacle of her achievements.
Though overall the response to the speech was rapturous, playing the 'mom card' struck a bum note with female commentators.
ok "mom in chief" is not where i thought that sentence was headed. it was so soaring just before that.— Hanna Rosin (@HannaRosin) September 5, 2012
I long for the day when powerful women don't need to assure Americans that they're moms above all else. ^TS— Twitter API (@jessicavalenti) November7, 2011
Over at Salon.com, Irin Carmen was disappointed by "an arc that begins with anti-colonialism, immigration and women being dragged to jail, but returns to the cult of motherhood."
Initially, I agreed, re-tweeting Valenti’s tweet.
And then I wondered – what is so terrible about putting parenting on a pedestal? Why is it unfeminist to identify primarily as a mother, before anything else? Is it not possible for women to be many things at once?
A key point for me was that Ms Obama did not say that being a 'mom' was the most important job in the world (because that's ridiculous), but that it was the most important role of the many roles she plays.
The thing about motherhood, it's transformative. It's a physical process, from the pregnancy and birth to the day-in-day out decision making and care for another little human being. Resist all you want, but parenthood is likely to change you, and that's not something to be afraid of.
All the talk of whether women can do it all, and how much parenthood takes away from the ability to deliver in the workplace, neglects the attributes that mothers (and fathers) can bring to the table. For example, many parents report that they are more patient, more compassionate, more determined after children.
Tanya works in public policy and has two boys. She says, 'Before kids I thought nothing of staying back at work to finish a project or meet a deadline. Now I have somewhere better to be and little people I want to be with. So I work more productively in the office as I don't want to take work home.'
Leah, a writer and mother of three, named 'the ability to feign patience while raging inside.' As the character trait she’s developed since having kids, as well as 'the ability to rally and just get on with it.'
Of course it is possible to be a terrific leader without children. But just as childlessness does not mean that a person can't legislate on behalf of parents, nor does having a baby mean that one’s operational ability has become permanently impaired.
Yet that's the kind of hand-wringing that goes on when powerful businesswomen like Marissa Mayer announce their pregnancies. (Never mind the dinosaurs who think that any woman in power is #destroyingthejoint).
Look, there is no doubt Gail Kelly would have been a powerhouse with or without children. Motherhood does not make you a better, or smarter person.
Putting motherhood first doesn't mean not returning to work, or burying one's identity under a pile of nappies.
Nor does it mean apologising for being a mother in the first place. Westpac CEO Gail Kelly famously took two children to a job interview.
For me, beyond the increased patience and ability to survive on minimal sleep it's about being accountable to people who trust you. As Ms Obama said,
'…. If I truly want to leave a better world for my daughters — and for all of our sons and daughters, if we want to give all of our children a foundation for their dreams and opportunities worthy of their promise, if we want to give them that sense of limitless possibility — that belief that here in America, there is always something better out there if you're willing to work for it — then we must work like never before.'
Now that's inspiring.