Last spring, Beyoncé told Garage magazine that she considers having a child her greatest achievement yet. “Out of everything I’ve accomplished,” she said, “my proudest moment hands down was when I gave birth to my daughter Blue.” This statement incited a fair amount of chatter, much of it disapproving, on the internet. To Jenny Kutner at Mic, Beyoncé’s decision to rank motherhood as her “greatest triumph … speaks volumes about the way domestic achievements are supposed to rank in women’s lives—that is to say, above the rest.” LaSha at Salon disagreed, arguing that “just because motherhood is traditionally and unfairly used as a marker of full womanhood does not mean that it is not for many women a personal pinnacle of their own womanhood.”
The controversy demonstrated that ascribing value, low or high, to the experience of parenthood continues to be a risky endeavor for women. But it is a risky endeavor for men? On Tuesday night, an extremely successful and high-profile man made a comment very similar to Beyoncé’s, with a very different public response.
In his farewell address, President Barack Obama—one of just a handful of people on earth whose talent and achievements are on par with Beyoncé’s—said that, of all his accomplishments, he prizes having raised his daughters most highly. “Malia and Sasha, under the strangest of circumstances, you have become two amazing young women, smart and beautiful, but more importantly, kind and thoughtful and full of passion. You wore the burden of years in the spotlight so easily. Of all that I’ve done in my life, I’m most proud to be your dad,” he said.
The response? A collective swoon. Obama’s statement about his kids “brought down the house, and made Twitter seriously ugly cry,” according to the parenting website Romper.
It’s easy to see why Obama’s assertion about Sasha and Malia elicited a positive response. Obama’s deep love for his children, and children in general, seems genuine and has been demonstrated repeatedly over the past eight years. Our dad-in-chief has convincingly spoken about his intimacy with his daughters: We’ve learned how he embarrasses them, how they’ve changed him, and how he broke with tradition and made family life a regular feature on the presidential schedule. This all makes for a pretty rock solid dad resume, one that is only bolstered by his acknowledging, back in 2006, that he feels uncertain about his performance. “It is in my capacities as a husband and a father that I entertain the most doubt,” he said. Everyone who’s attempted to fully immerse themselves in the emotional and physical chaos of child-rearing has felt the same at some point; parenthood does not easily inspire confidence.
Nevertheless, even if a woman in the public eye displayed the same level of heartfelt engagement with her children as Obama has, many eyebrows would raise if she called motherhood her greatest achievement. What separates Obama’s words and the reaction he received from those of his female super-achieving peers is that most people don’t fully buy it when a man says his kids are his greatest accomplishment. It’s not that we think he is lying; it’s that we believe his professional accomplishments are so secure, and so protected from family life, that he can’t really expect the rest of us to agree with him. Fatherhood and career have never been a zero-sum game for men the way motherhood and career have been for women.
When Beyoncé made her declaration about parenting being her proudest moment, it called to mind the association between motherhood and martyrhood, and so many women had a knee-jerk instinct to protest it. But when a dad says the same thing, it breaks with tradition and is therefore only reason to love him more. Obama’s words were simultaneously honest and aspirational, a nod towards a gender-neutral reality that many of us would like to move towards, but are not living in yet. We’ll know we’ve come closer to gender equality when moms and dads can both talk about the immense pride they feel in having children and it will not perceived as a relic of a bitter past or an allusion to a sweet future, but an honest and uncontroversial assessment of the present.