As we prepare to honor mothers on Sunday, we should keep in mind that the practice of mothering is not limited to women. There are many men in America today, married and single, gay and straight, who mother their children every day. I am one of them. My male partner and I nurture and care for our two sons in ways that are indistinguishable from what society has traditionally expected of mothers.
We comfort our children when they get hurt, either physically or emotionally. We cook their meals and clean their room. We bake cupcakes for their birthdays and take them to their school so they can celebrate with their friends. We hug and kiss them as often as they allow us. We encourage them to explore their passions, not only for baseball and soccer, but for knitting and piano too.
It may be tempting to think that my partner and I mother our children because there is no female parent in our home. But we know heterosexual married men who do the same things for their children that we do for ours. They, too, are mothers.
The seemingly obvious requirement that one must be a woman to be a mother is actually a powerful example of the ways in which our society has traditionally allowed apparently natural truths about gender differences to color our thinking about what individuals are capable of achieving. Interestingly, however, while our culture continues to view motherhood and fatherhood as mutually exclusive categories, the law no longer distinguishes between the two.
Family law used to hold that mothers were better caretakers of their children and therefore presumed that they should get custody of young children following a divorce. And the law in decades past viewed fathers as better economic providers and therefore imposed on them the exclusive obligation to pay child support and alimony.
The current consensus in the legal profession is that these types of gender distinctions are unconstitutional because they are based on stereotypes. As the Supreme Court has explained, the Constitution does not tolerate "overbroad generalizations about the different talents, capacities, or preferences of males and females."
While our laws promote the idea that men and women are equal, our cultural norms lag far behind. Much of society continues to cling to the view that male parents are incapable of nurturing and caring for their children in ways that female parents do. The prevalent assumption is that mothers are more committed to parenting than are fathers.
What we fail to recognize is that the idea that women are more capable inside of the home goes hand-in-hand with the notion that they are less capable outside of it. It should be as problematic to claim that women make better parents as it is to contend that men make better lawyers and doctors.
Some will argue that to suggest that men can be mothers is to attack motherhood as we know it. I do not see it that way. Motherhood is undoubtedly something to be cherished and celebrated. But motherhood is not about who one is; instead, it is about what one does. This means that we need to start thinking of mother as a verb rather than as a noun. We should focus, in other words, on what it means to mother a child, rather than on the gender of the parent who does the mothering.
Some will claim that the experience of pregnancy and of giving birth allows a woman to experience a special connection with a child that goes to the essence of motherhood. But to accept this argument is to agree with the proposition that there is something deficient about the love and care that adoptive mothers provide their children. Our society, by encouraging adoption, and by treating it as the legal equivalent of biological parenthood, has embraced the idea that women do not have to give birth in order to be considered mothers. Yet, we continue to think that only women can be mothers.
Like most parents today, I do not want my children's future limited in any way by their gender. I hope that my sons, having been mothered by two men, will decide when they grow up that they want to be mothers and not just fathers. I cannot imagine a higher honor as a parent than to think that I helped teach my children how to be good mothers.