Actress Elizabeth Banks inserted her foot far back into the reaches of her mouth recently while discussing motherhood with People magazine. The Hunger Games star shared her thoughts on becoming a mother for the second time after her second son was born last November: “You don’t realize how easy one is until you have two. Now I’m really a mom. Oh, I am a mom now! This is for serious — I am responsible for two people now.”
If I actually believed Banks, I might be offended. But do I honestly think that she believes that women with only one child aren’t “real moms?” Do I think she believes that the first offspring is just for kicks, a starter kid, and the second is when it gets real? Of course not. She probably just chose her words poorly, as we all do occasionally. But that doesn’t excuse the underlying judgment that weighs down her phrasing.
As a mother of one, I’ve been subjected to many folks commenting on my choice, from my own mother pushing her more- grandchildren agenda on me to random people remarking on the selfishness of not giving my son a sibling. I’m no stranger to the “you’re not a real mother” accusation that often gets foisted on parents of only children. But sentiments like that only add fuel to the bane of my existence: the dreaded “Mommy Wars.”
The specter of the “good” or “real” mother is a tired cliche, yet one that is continuously thrust into the center of the Mommy Wars for a variety of reasons. One of the biggest is that it pays—in stories, book sales, and pageviews—for mainstream media to keep pushing the divide regarding who qualifies as a good mother. (Take Time magazine’s controversial attachment-parenting cover story, “Are You Mom Enough?,” or this past Sunday’s Motherlode post on motherhood and abortion, “Judging a Mother’s Choice.”)
In my several years as a mother, one thing I’ve come to learn is that much of the judgment perpetuated in the mommy world stems from insecurity, with parenting self-doubt perpetuated further by the endless mom-on-mom violence ginned up in the media. It’s a vicious cycle that needs to be broken, yet when quotes like Banks’s are made and then argued about, we only fall deeper in. There’s already so much hyped up pressure on mothers to be “real”—whether they do natural childbirth or not, breastfeed or not, stay home or not—that seeing the creation of one more nonsensical measure of realness, like how many children they have, pains me. In Banks’s case, her choice of words seems particularly problematic. Having had both her children by surrogate, she herself is in a category of mothers whose “realness” is regularly disputed, so I’d think she would be more sensitive to the labels she employed in her People interview.
As a mother of one, I will more than own up to the fact that having an only child makes certain things much easier than they would be with two or three. There’s only one child’s schedule to fit into your day, one child’s needs to attend to, one child clamoring for your attention. So, yes. Feel free to shout from the rooftops that having two children is more work. But don’t minimize the experience of other mothers because they’ve made different choices. When it comes to the number of children a person has, one is just as real and valid as two or more. This goes beyond Elizabeth Banks and her public comments to strike at the heart of the real issue: Continuing to perpetuate notions of what it means to be a “good,” “real” mother mires us in infighting, when our energy and time could be better used to tackle the more pressing, systemic issues facing mothers and families.
In the same People interview, Banks recalls the trials of infant parenting with the quote “We had no help, no nannies, no babysitters. It was crazy. You forget how difficult it is to wake up in the middle of the night, how exhausting it is.” Her expectations seem far from the reality of most parents, so perhaps it’s also worth keeping in mind how different the word “real” becomes for celebrities like Banks, parents or not.