If You’re Not a Mother or Wife, You’re Not a Woman (or So We’re Told)

When Mika Brzezinski told the audience at Arianna Huffington’s Thrive event last spring about the day she was fired from CBS, she described it as devastating. As she packed up her things and walked out, she said to herself, “Damn! I’m so glad I didn’t forget to get married and have kids.”

Mother's loveThe message is clear: No matter how much you love your job, or how ambitious you are, being a wife and mother is the most important and only “real” job for women. It’s the only one that counts.

I was appalled by this (and other decidedly unfunny things the Morning Joe cohost-slash-foil said that day). But remember: This was a crowd of 99% women in the middle of Manhattan, many of whom I’m willing to bet, are not wives or mothers. But that’s not the point.

The point is that this runs counter to what Arianna’s Thrive movement purports to be about: to redefine success beyond the two-legged stool of money and power by introducing a third metric, one that encompasses wellness, wisdom, and giving.

The message is: Don’t let work define you. If you’re a slave to your job, you put yourself at risk of stress-induced illness and burnout. That, I get. But when it comes to aligning with “what matters,” the only thing anyone could think of was being a wife and a mother.

Will All the Real Women Please Stand Up

There will never be a shortage of women who yearn for a traditional life (declining marriage statistics aside). But I saw precious few other examples on that stage of any woman whose success was defined outside of those traditional roles, regardless of their own obvious achievements (rock star, A-list actress, best-selling author).

Because the message is that none of that stuff really matters. (Despite her admirable big screen success, Julianne Moore talked more about how proud she was of teaching herself to make lasagna, as excruciating as she says it was). And while there was some time dedicated to the importance of having female supports in place (Girls Night!), it still felt auxiliary, as something “else” you might want, you know, when you’re not tending to your homestead.

What’s the Point of a Single Woman?

Yet, scores of women in this country choose not to marry or have children. They’re passionate contributors to their communities with lives bursting with activity and connection. As Tara Parker-Pope pointed out in 2011 (“In a Married World, Singles Struggle for Attention”), nearly half the U.S. population is single (around 100 million Americans, according to the Census Bureau).

And they’re hardly just getting their nails done: While 68 percent of married women offer support to aging parents, that role more often falls to the unmarried children (about 84 percent, according to the Council on Contemporary Families).

Bella DePaulo, PhD, arguably one of the fiercest advocates of single living, cites some statistics from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics in a recent post which showed that single people in fact spend more time than married people on educational activities, socializing, and staying in touch with family and friends (and less time shopping).

But even Katie Couric, who was there to promote Fed Up, a film that sheds light on the troubling trends promoted by the food industry, told us we need to be concerned as “wives, mothers, professionals.” That’s right: If you don’t have a husband or a brood, you’re just a worker.

Melanie Notkin, the author of the new book Otherhood: Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness, said to me once over a glass of malbec (and many times before and since): “Ever notice there are no career men? Just career women.” Because men are just men—who might also happen to be husbands and fathers, or, if they’re single, “eligible” (as opposed to “damaged goods”).

So…This Is It, Then?

Is this the next wave of feminism? Canonizing the people who attempt to have it all (which it’s pretty clear no one has)? And cooing over driven women who “push themselves too hard?” I sincerely hope not.

Not too long ago, women fought tooth and nail to get into the work world. There’s still far too few women in leadership roles in this country. We have not closed that gap. So while we don’t have to work ourselves to death, we shouldn’t have to be afraid to define ourselves by the very work we’ve fought so hard to do.

A friend of mine in her 40s (who’s often mistaken for 29) has big dreams—none of which involve raising children. She struck up a conversation with another woman at the Thrive event. “Do you have children?” the woman asked expectantly. “No,” my friend said. “Don’t worry,” the woman reassured her. “You still have time.”

I commend Arianna’s efforts to champion the third metric and start the movement toward more sane, meaningful lives and work. But while everyone can sleep 30 minutes longer or log off once in a while, until we can define ourselves as women first, not just as the roles we play, we’re going to be stuck right where we are.

6 replies
  1. Sandra Keros
    Sandra Keros says:

    WORD, sister! I’m glad Arianna was driving home the need for a more qualitative approach to life. Still, I had to depart from the conference speakers’ repeated messages emphasizing kids+spouse as being the ultimate ticket to meaning and fulfillment. Hello, diversity! There are myriad ways to feel fulfilled and contribute to this world. And I happen to enjoy other people’s kids instead of having my own.

  2. Bella DePaulo
    Bella DePaulo says:

    So well said and such important points — thanks for posting it. Years ago, when Maria Shriver put together that (first?) Women’s Nation report, I read it and discovered it was just a married mothers report, not a report on women.

  3. Diane Clarkson
    Diane Clarkson says:

    I respect your point of view and do see your point.
    But I’d like to ask you something. What if Mika didn’t say ““Damn! I’m so glad I didn’t forget to get married and have kids.”
    What if, instead, she had said “I’m so glad I travelled around the world.” or “I’m so glad I ran marathons.”
    I agree that her message is clear. I just don’t see the same one you do. I think the message is that she is glad she didn’t put all her time, energy, and self of accomplishment into her career.
    If anyone says “you’re not a mother or a wife, you’re not a woman”, I choose not to listen. I just don’t think that is what Mika was saying.
    I don’t know if you are married and have kids. And you don’t know about me. So let’s just support each other’s choices and hope each other is fulfilled.

    • terri
      terri says:

      Thank you for that very thoughtful response. You’re right in that if she had said something else, it might have come across differently, sure. It’s not a matter of what’s the “right” choice (mother vs. traveling, etc). But remember you are seeing this out of context–there was HOURS of this, and again and again, it came back to the fact that being a wife and a mother was the real job. When Mika said that, it was more the last straw than just another option women can do. Women who choose other paths were and are underrepresented, seen as an exotic rare breed, when really there are so many of us. I hear you–of course, we should and must support each other’s choices. But the undercurrent, the thing that goes without being said, is that what Mika said is what most people seem to think. That’s what bothered me. That it went uncontested.


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