Commentary Maternity and Birthing

Does the Right Actually Take Motherhood Seriously?

Amanda Marcotte

The past week had a lot of conservative posturing about the importance of motherhood. But if you look at their policy ideas -- especially around reproductive rights -- you'll realize they don't think much of motherhood after all. 

During the run of History’s Stupidest Political Dust-Up — wherein Hilary Rosen sensibly pointed out that wealthy housewife Ann Romney is not really the best top advisor to her husband on the issues of women who work outside of the home, causing the June Cleaver cult to give themselves shin splits taking umbrage — many platitudes were thrown around. Most of them unfortunately conflated “mother” with “stay-at-home mother (SAHM),” even though more than three-fourths of mothers with children under 15 work outside of the home at some point. And most of them assumed that Romney is a good stand-in for SAHMs, even though she’s never lived the coupon-clipping, money-saving, employment-seeking life of a typical American SAHM. No matter; it was the time for empty platitudes about the moral perfection of mothers, especially housewives, platitudes that exist to conceal instead of reveal.

My least favorite is the modern variations on the Victorian anti-feminist slogan, “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.” The most popular modern variation is to say, “Being a stay-at-home mother is the most important/hardest job in the world.” Some times the person saying it just says “mother,” even though they’re talking about stay-at-home mothers, just to further erase the experiences of women who have to do all the duties of SAHMs while also holding down a paid job. You can tell on its surface that this is an empty platitude, because while it certainly is true that child-rearing is exhausting work, no one sincerely believes that it’s harder than disarming bombs in a war zone or more important than the jobs of those trying to halt global warming so all those kids actually have a livable planet to grow up on. 

But in my experience, the insulting emptiness of that platitude goes even deeper than that, because anti-choice folks are exponentially more likely to indulge that phrase than pro-choice ones. Which means that they think that this job they believe is the most difficult and important job in the world is one which they believe should be forced on the unwilling, as well as the young and unformed.

That’s not how we usually treat hard, important jobs. Imagine if we treated the office of the Presidency the way that anti-choicers believe we should approach motherhood. Some 15-year-old would give in to the temptation to watch the morning news one day, and boom! A crew of Secret Service would come in, having randomly selected that CNN viewer to hold the office for the next four years. “But I don’t want the job!” our 15-year-old would wail. “I don’t know what I’m doing. I have other dreams for myself. I wanted to play the piano!”

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“Too bad,” our Secret Service agents would say. “You should have thought about that before you watched CNN.”

Granted, an imperfect analogy, because sex is way more fun than CNN, which explains why pretty much everyone has sex and only some people watch CNN. (Seriously, if sex was a TV show, it would have better ratings than the Super Bowl.) But that just means that the anti-choice position is even worse than this analogy. It’s closer to randomly picking a 15-year-old, even if they don’t know the name of the current President, and assigning them this office, which according to the popular platitude, is less hard and important than the work of motherhood.

In sum, I think it’s clear that conservatives don’t mean it when they go on about how motherhood is the most important, hardest job in the world. Anyone who sincerely believes that it’s important, hard work at all — even if we don’t hand out “We’re #1” trophies — would, at bare minimum, believe that it should therefore not be handled by those who didn’t ask for the job. You’d believe that women who say, “No thank you,” “Not now,” or “My plate is full, thanks,” know what they’re talking about and shouldn’t be entrusted with more responsibility than they have already pointed out they don’t want or can’t handle. Those of us who think motherhood is hard, important work sure don’t think that it should be forced arbitrarily on women because they have sex. We believe that access to contraception and abortion rights are important because motherhood is hard, important work, and that women are good judges of whether or not they’re up to the task.

Of course, the entire charade was blown wide open by Chris Hayes’ revelations this weekend that Mitt Romney was speaking as recently as January about how women with small children should be required to work in order to obtain government benefits. His rationale wasn’t “fiscal conservatism” so much as a moral argument; he portrayed women who stay home with their children as weak and undignified, dependent and lazy. Which, by the way, is way worse than anything that Hilary Rosen said about Ann Romney.

It seems conservatives really do have different rules for their own and for everyone else. Ann Romney, whose youngest is 30, is a “stay-at-home mother” whose work is unassailable to the point where someone who wasn’t even assailing it has to be forced to apologized. But poor women with children under the age of 5 who need government assistance to survive? If they don’t get to work right away, they don’t have “dignity”. Ann Romney gets into a huff about non-existent attacks from the left on housewives, self-righteously saying, “We need to respect the choices that women make.” Of course, that doesn’t extend to the choice to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, and increasingly the right is attacking the choice to not become pregnant in the first place.

In order to understand how conservatives really think about motherhood, stop listening to their platitudes and start looking at how they actually act. And that way is a way that shows they actually have no respect for women’s choices, for women’s rights, and not even for how real the work of motherhood actually is. 

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Reproductive rights are a public health issue. That's a fact.

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