Motherhood Conference MIRCI
Canada meets Greece
A conference organized by Canadian organization
‘Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement’ (MIRCI) on Motherhood
On 23rd & 24th of May 2014 I was honored to represent the Greek Doula Association and the Athens-based grass-roots movement BirthVoice at the Conference entitled “Mothers, Mothering and Motherhood from Ancient to Contemporary Times”, organized by MIRCI at the Hellenic Education & Research Center (HERC) in Athens, Greece.
The conference included women speakers originating from many parts of the world (Canada, USA, Spain, Africa, Greece, UK, Israel, China, Netherlands, Germany, Indonesia, Australia, Hong Kong) with English as our common language. The topics covered were diverse and unique. The conference was organized in eleven sections:
Work and Mothering; Mothering Children; Maternal Identities; Mothers, Mothering and Historical Literature; Mothers and Mothering in Popular Culture; Mothers, Health & Wellbeing; Mothers in Religion and History; Motherlines; Mothers, Literature and Narrative; Mothers, Activism & Agency; Reproduction.
I will share with you some highlights from some presentations (unfortunately I was not able to follow all of them since there were some concurrent sessions).
The “Work and Mothering” Sessions included different aspects of the dilemma.
Dr. Lea Caragata (Professor of Social Policy at Wilfrid Laurier University, whose areas of research include international development, marginalization and oppression, and was Principal Investigator on a Canada-wide study entitled “Lone Mothers: Building Social Inclusion”) presented her paper entitled: “Juggling the Work/Care Nexus: The Experiences of Canadian Single Mothers”. She described the findings of interviews from 120 single mothers on welfare. She presented the false dichotomy between work and care, where both mothers and social workers recognize the contradiction of single mothers’ pressure to return to the work force, leaving their children behind. She introduced and hoped for a feministic ethic of care in opposition to the current male-dominated model of care where unpaid work is not valued and paid work involved no real care (by parents and professionals).
Dr. Jennifer Heisler (Associate Professor and Chairperson of the Department of Communication and Journalism at Oakland University, Rochester, MI, USA, where she teaches Communication Theory and various Interpersonal and Family Communication courses) presented the topic: “‘Not Now, Honey! I Have to Study!’ Student-Mothers Managing Role Conflicts in Higher Education”, examining findings from interviews with “non-traditional students” (defined as adults who return to school full- or part-time while maintaining responsibilities such as employment, family, and other responsibilities of adult life), their ages ranging from 22-62 years and reasons for studying including increased employment opportunities, personal growth or pressure from family members (often parents). She examined the special traits of this special category of students, from feelings of ‘being different’, guilt for leaving family responsibilities, lack of time for fulfillment of academic work, childcare barriers, difficulty to integrate in the student body.
Next was Dr. Lee Murray (Associate Professor at the College of Nursing, University of Saskatchewan and a Clinical Nurse Specialist in adolescent mental health). Her paper was called “Mothering and Academia: A Recipe for Disaster??” She used autoethnography as her methodology to explore the challenges of the mothers in academia in her presentation. She discussed the contradictory feelings of completion, personal advancement, perseverence, ambition and isolation, exhaustion, struggle; targeted by the hostile, toxic environment of the academic world, by preconcieved notions of where mothers and children belong, the structural inability of the academic world to support options for mothers (thus resulting in the ‘hide-the-baby’ solution), the contradition of the presence of children in the lives of men and women in the academia (where children have a negative effect for women academics and positive effects for men academics), and the even greater challenges of the single mother academic.
Terri Hawkes (playwright, screenwriter, actor and director) also used autoethnography to explore current practicies of breastfeeding in her presentation “Performing Breastfeeding: An Autoethnographic Narrative of Theory and Practice or Milkshake Lovers Unite!” In it she touched upon issues such as ‘essentialism’ and the politics of breastfeeding, public vs private spheres, sexuality, lactivism, class issues, medicalization of infant feeding, feminist theory and practice.
On the issue of “Maternal Identities”, Dr. Shauna Wilton (Associate Professor of political studies at the Augustana Campus of the University of Alberta), with her paper “Family Policy and the Construction of the 'Good Mother'” examined the history and practical implications of welfare policies from the Second World War until today in Canada and Europe. She noted that as more and more women enter the work force, the oppression and expectations on mothers also rise, and that mothering, with emphasis on single parenting, does not go well with certain work areas, such as academia. The policies are designed for the average person, thus contributing to the marginalization of all other people in need. Another important finding is that with the rise of science in the 20th century, the innate intuition for raising children is quickly decreasing. A quick historical view shows that welfare started from offering pensions to war widows and abandoned wives, then some kind of help to all parents with children, then making maternity leave (with certain prerequisites) part of the working contracts for women. Along with this came the creation of the ‘Super Mom’ model, who works and mothers at the same time (e.g. the popular cartoon character ‘Lisa’ from ‘Our Super Mom’ by Bachmann and Simmons, a former super hero, who decides to dedicate herself to her family and quits saving the world - although she does miss it sometimes); the appearance of ‘Mompreneurs’ (the home-based business mothers) caused the development of two approaches: the neo conservatism (where the mother ‘opts out’ from working) and the neo liberalism (where the mother ‘leans in’ to working), both of which represent a masculinized life cycle for both men and women.
Einat Peled (Associate Professor in the Bob Shapell School of Social Work at Tel Aviv University, whose latest studies focus on domestic violence, violence against women and prostitution with a particular emphasis on societal and professional responses to these social problems and on the experiences of mothering and fathering under these circumstances) presented the paper “The Perception of Motherhood Among Family Workers In Social Services Departments”. A social worker herself, Einat Peled examined the preconceptions of social workers in Israel (in a culture that holds motherhood and children as the ultimate purpose of life) on motherhood, especially as they were connected to the ‘good mother’ myth. In her research (using a qualitative approach from a critical feminist perspective, intervewing 22 social workers from 10 welfare departments), she noted that most social workers interviewed held rigid and clear ideas about ‘good mothering’ as opposed to ‘bad mothering’, and they openly supported the intensive mothering model themselves; they considered the desire for mothering a natural, self evident purpose of every woman’s life and supported the part-time working model, to ensure dedication to the mothering role, while expecting from their clients (mothers identified as ‘problematic’) to sacrifice themselves for their children. The social workers seemed to support a psycho-educational approach (learning skills for mothering which would be child-centered), not taking into consideration the structural problems leading to their clients’ mothering challenges, thus thinking all problems could be resolved individually.
Deirdre M. Donoghue (performance and visual artist, writer and researcher with a background in photography, theatre and directing, with a BA Hons in photography at the Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland, and a MA in Fine Arts at the Piet Zwart Institute, The Netherlands and The Plymouth University, United Kingdom) gave a unique presentation entitled “(M)Other Voices: The Maternal as an Attitude, Maternal Thinking and the Production of Time and Knowledge”. She presented captions of her 43 min. video called “Kitchen Lecture: Notes on Gesture”, where an artist mother (herself) makes a presentation while at the same time she is preparing the family meal, with the interruptions of her young daughter throughout the piece. She noted the clear separation between art and mothering (maternal experiences are excluded from artistic discussions, and motherhood is often considered as ‘contaminating’ art making; further noting that by choosing motherhood most often the art-making stops) and presented her project (M)Other Voices, in Denmark, where philosophers, writers, artists etc are invited to discussions during field trips in a beautiful natural setting.
The next series of sessions included Sarah Sahagian’s (PhD candidate at York University, currently writing her dissertation on the maternal cultural training of inter-ethnic children) analysis on Amy Chua’s bestselling memoir “Hymn of the Tiger Mother”: “Why is Everyone Mad at Amy? A Critical Analysis of Popular Reception to Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”. Chua’s descriptions in her book have been heavily critisized in the U.S. as ‘excessively intensive mothering’ and she herself has been called ‘a monster’. In this presentation Sahagian discussed how a mother can never win, no matter how she raises her children, she talked about ‘mother-blame’ and the notion of the sacrificial mother.
On a similar subject, Jane Tolmie, (Ph.D., D.Phil, associate professor of Gender Studies and Cultural Studies at Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada), in her presentation “Mommy-Blaming, Consent, & Choice in Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey” discussed critically the books Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey and The Host, raising issues of feminism, racism, mothering choices, mommy-blaming, classism, abortion politics, heterosexuality, economics, consent, subordination.
Patti Duncan (associate professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Oregon State University) and Kryn Freehling-Burton (an instructor at Oregon State University who also coordinates the online Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies major) presented “Embedding Mother Studies across a Women and Gender Studies Curriculum”. In this paper, the speakers examined university courses that are not typically motherhood related (e.g. "Disney: Gender, Race, Empire"; "Gender and Science"; "Women and Sexuality," "Reproductive Justice"; and "Transnational Feminisms") as they intersect with the learning objectives of a program, students’ expectations, and the trajectory of motherhood studies. Utilizing such popular courses, the authors are able to work with a wide range of students most of whom would not elect to take a motherhood studies course. By examining current news items, specific films and television shows, and examples of advocacy for women globally, students learn to analyze mothering/motherhood alongside other markers of identity to critique the institutional status of mothers and imagine possibilities for further empowerment for their own (future) families as well as deconstructing the impact of globalization on mothers in and from the Global South.
Nancy Barbour, in her paper “The Spectacle of Monstrous Motherhood: Assisted Reproductive Technology and the Media” used the case of Nadya Suleman -the “Octomom”, initially a story of miraculous medical achievement and later a debate on the ethics of assisted reproductive technology (ART)-, as a starting point to discuss issues of reproductive rights. She questioned the reasons for deciding who is elligible for ART, based on sexual orientation, financial situation, race, immigration status, class, nationality, and other discriminations, re-enforced by popular media representations - including Toddlers and Tiaras, 16 and Pregnant, Dance Moms and others – which perpetuate stereotypes and support a hierarchy of motherhood based on the above discriminations. She connected her arguments with the 1939 law against negro reproduction based on ‘lesser intelligence’ of the black women; she discussed criminalization of motherhood for certain populations of women, e.g. women of color, former drug addicts, etc. Finally she invited a dicussion on reproductive labor, on the basis of it being ‘a right for the priviledged and a duty for the poor’.
Israeli sociologist/anthropologist Orna Donath (her Ph.D. dissertation on Regretting Motherhood soon to be published) presented her controversial topic on regretting motherhood, based on in-depth interviews of 23 Israeli-Jewish mothers from different ethnicities, religious backgrounds and social classes.
Using direct quotes from interview participants (“Every day I regreat having my child and every day I am thankful that I have only one” – mother of a 20-year-old), historical context (motherhood is ideologically imperative for the Israeli women, a notion rooted on the holocaust), social trends (the rise of a new Essentialism: motherhood allows no room for re-evaluation or regrets), she studies the politics of reproduction. She shared her methods of recruiting the participants (asked for people who either did not want children because they felt they would regret it, or had children and regretted it). The purpose of the study was to situate regret over motherhood in the sociopolitical arena. Mothers openly admitted to regret and wished for their daughters to know that they loved them but they did not like the role of mothering; they wished for their daughters to know about the alternative choice of no mothering, instead of falling into the very essentialist presumption of a fixed female identity.
Kaley Ames (Master of Interdisciplinary Studies at York University where she
researches women who willingly kill their children from three perspectives/disciplines - Classical Studies, Motherhood in the Gender and Women’s Studies, and Canadian Criminal Law) discusses the issue of infanticide as the ‘last taboo’ performed by mothers. She states that Medea is given male characteristics in order to kill her children and mother-killers’ motives are gendered-based by the international (patriarchical) academia, thus making it seem impossible for a woman to be capable of killing her children; she adds that in Canada the penalty for a woman who comits infanticide is 7 years (because she is always believed to be out of her mind) while for any other murder is from 45 years to life sentence. She is mostly interested in recovering the real voice and cries of Medea, and through her, of all the women who kill their children, through studying their particular circumstances which are never examined by non-feminist scholars.
Naomi Stadlen presented her paper “A Grand Quarrel’: Mrs. Gaskell and Florence Nightingale”, in which she sheds light on ‘a grand quarrel’ that Mrs. Gaskell, the Victorian novelist, reported in a letter dated 1854. Her friend, Florence Nightingale, already a pioneering nurse, had declared that, if she had influence enough, every mother, whether rich or poor, would send her child to a crèche. Florence Nightingale had no children, but Mrs Gaskell had four teenage daughters (one named Florence) and was evidently startled.
Mrs Gaskell declared herself ‘so unknowing, so doubtful’ about mothering. Her mother died young, and she had been brought up by an aunt. Her privately-published diary shows her re-inventing mothering and fitting it around her writing career.
Florence Nightingale confided, in a notebook entry of 1856, that she had been ‘such a bad mother’ to British soldiers ‘lying in your Crimean grave.’ She had a living mother but felt neither understood nor accepted by her.
Mrs. Gaskell and Florence Nightingale were exceptional women – independent, active, and creative. Each developed maternal sensitivity in her own unique way. This talk explored the issues inherent in their ‘grand quarrel’, and discussed them as paradigms of two modes of mothering.
The next series of talks addressed the issues of “Motherlines, Literature and Narrative”.
Chinese-Canadian Master’s student Gina Ko, currently working on her thesis entitled “Inspiring Bilingualism: Chinese-Canadian Mother’s Stories” presented her paper: “Matroreform and Motherlines: Stories of Connection and Disconnection in Passing on the Chinese Language”. In it she used the methodology of autoethnography, narrative and introduced the term “matroreform” to describe her mothering decisions. She reports her personal experiences with bilinguism as a Vietnam-born child who later fled to Malaysia and from then on immigrated to Canada. Her relationship to her mother-tongue was split between shame and pride; language is used for communication but also as a cultural identity. She noted how many immigrants in Canada will fordib the use of English language at home (putting pressure on the new generations to learn and use the Cantonese language) and at the same time allow no emotional discussions in the mother-tongue. She discussed the common threads she found on a personal and social level: a pride for bilinguism; intentional mothering; absence of emotional connection through mother-tongue when using bilinguism; angst in passing on the mother-tongue; bilingual education for children. She concluded with her goal to find strategies for sharing language in mixed-heritage people for the benefit of all.
Continuing on the approach of ‘matroreform’, Anita Saini (Master’s student with Athabasca University, Canada), presented her paper “Exploring Matroreform in Bicultural Mothers”. She pointed that Matroreform and Biculturalism are tightly connected, since a lot of mothers nowadays identify with more than one cultural identity. She also stressed that reconsiliation with the mother IS possible after matroreform, while a serious limitation for its success is the notion of ‘mother-blame’. In the end, matroreform should be viewed as a valid, conscious choice and we should bear in mind that mothers are influenced by their bicultural identity in regards to their maternal values and practices.
Dr. Rachel Robertson (Lecturer at Curtin University, Western Australia) presented the paper “Interruption and Repetition in Australian Motherhood Memoirs”. A most moving presentation of the speaker’s personal experience as a mother of an autistic child, especially her experience with a particular form of repetitive interruption through the words and behavior of her son (actions described as ‘perseveration’ by psychologists). For parents of children with a disability, this experience may continue beyond the typical baby and toddler phase and become a lifelong experience of recurrence and disjunction. As a writer, Robertson discussed how she attempted to represent this mothering experience in her memoir, struggling with how to convey repetition and interruption in the form of a book-length commercial publication.
Diana L. Gustafson (Associate Professor of Social Science and Health in the Faculty of Medicine at Memorial University, Canada) presented on “Narrating maternal histories: Examining the relative merits of an intergenerational life history approach”. She used the benefits of longitudinal study with large scale participants to provide for a good understanding of maternal histories and various aspects of family relationships from marriage and divorce to parenting and child development. Large scale studies of 100 to 1000 or more participants that are typically quantitative in approach follow women and families for years – even decades – to quantify, for instance, the impact of various maternal risk factors on healthy child development.
She compared the methodologies of quantitative longitudinal studies versus qualitative longitudinal studies and insisted in an intergenerational life history approach which involved collecting narratives across three generations in the same family at one point in time.
She briefly presented parts of her longer study (made into a book: Motherhood Memoirs: Mothers Creating/Writing Lives), including excerpts from extended narratives with a mother, daughter and granddaughter in one of the 24 families that were interviewed, to demonstrate the relative merits of this methodological approach to exploring family relationships, temporality and the transmission of maternal practices and cultural values.
Dr Lee Murray (also mentioned above) presented “Mothering and Sexual Abuse”, a touching personal text, using autoethnography to share her personal experience with her own child’s sexual abuse by one of his school teachers.
In the last session of the conference I represented the Greek Doula Association and the grass-roots movement BirthVoice with a discussion on the Doula role, a topic similar to the one I had presented at the DONA International Virtual Conference 2013: I discussed the historical context for the doula from the ancient times until today, terminology, modern western needs on mothering support by doulas, the situation internationally and in Greece with doulas and doula trainings nationally and internationally.
Bruna Alvarez (Ph.D candidate in AFIN Group Research in Anthropology Department in
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona) presented her paper on “The Meaning of Motherhood in Contemporary Spain”. In it she examined the phenomenon of motherhood in Spain in a historical, legal, social, economical context in the last decades: She talked a. about the unknown number – around 200.000 – of ‘lost’, ‘stolen’ or ‘disappeared’ children in Spain between the end of the civil war in Spain in 1939 until the mid 1990s. b. about the notion of multiple motherhood or multi-motherhood: in Spain, where it is commonly said that ‘mother, there is only one’, birth mothers of adopted, ‘lost’, ‘stolen’ or ‘disappeared’ children remain 'silent', 'invisible' and unknown as well as ova donors and surrogate mothers. c. about the high infertility rates noted in modern Spain (studies estimate a 1,17% children per woman). d. about the lack of clear regulations around assisted reproduction (ART, egg donors, surrogate parents, etc). e. the economic implications of international adoption (where there is an hierarchy on the country of origin of adopted children, with African countries being the cheapest and Russia being the most expensive). These and other factors create a disturbing picture of children being treated as a commodity to be commercialized and negotiated on business terms.
Last speaker was Susan Hogan (Professor of Cultural Studies and Art Therapy, with a main interest and extensive writings on the relationship between the arts & insanity, and the role of the arts in rehabilitation, particularly in relation to the position of women and the transition to motherhood). In her paper “Exploring Birthing Identities: Transitions to Motherhood” she presented her “Birth Project”, a project working with a diverse range of new mothers to enable them to explore their experience of childbirth, and the transition to motherhood through a variety of creative mediums: images produced included those which both represent and defy cultural expectations.
Some presenters have also sent us additional resources about publications (books, articles etc) of their work that may interest those who participated or others who could not attend. I include them as footnotes under their names. For any further information on the presenters and the organization MIRCI, please visit their website.
Lea Caragata: Principal Investigator on a Canada-wide study entitled “Lone Mothers: Building Social Inclusion”.
Jennifer Heisler’s publications can be found in Journal of Family Communication, Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, Communication Quarterly, Communication Teacher, and Communication Education.
Terri Hawkes: Co-editor of upcoming Performing Motherhood (Demeter Press).
Sarah Sahagian: co-editor of the Demeter Press title Mother of Invention: How Our Mothers Influenced Us as Feminist Academics and Activists.
Patti Duncan: author of Tell This Silence: Asian American Women Writers and the Politics of Speech, and co-editor, with Gina Wong, of East Asian Mothering: Politics and Practices for Demeter Press.
Kryn Freehling-Burton: co-editor with Amber Kinsey and Terri Hawkes for Demeter Press’ forthcoming Performing Motherhood.
Nancy Barbour: editor of the volume on Europe for the forthcoming encyclopedia series, Women’s Lives Around the World (ABC-CLIO Greenwood
Orna Donath’s article – “Regretting Motherhood: A Sociopolitical Analysis” – will be published soon in Signs [Forthcoming].
The term matroreform refers to the intentional and deliberate development of a new method of mothering that differs from one’s motherline. First introduced by Gina Wong in her book Moms Gone Mad; Motherhood and Madness, Oppression and Resistance: http://www.demeterpress.org/momsgonemad.html
Dr. Rachel Robertson, : Reaching One Thousand: a story of love, motherhood and autism (Black Inc 2012) (shortlisted for the 2013 National Biography Award). Her most recent scholarly publication is a chapter in Motherhood Memoirs: Mothers Creating/Writing Lives edited by Dymond and Willey (Demeter Press 2013).
The Tyranny of the Maternal Body: Madness & Maternity,
Abridged version Parenting Memoir: Conception Diary: Thinking About Pregnancy & Childbirth (Read Online Via this Link)