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Society poses many obstacles to motherhood, panelists say

by Sherry Fisher - March 26, 2007

The so-called “Mommy Wars” – the conflict between mothers who work outside the home and stay-at-home moms – are more than a simple debate about how best to raise children, according to panelists at a recent discussion, “Valuing and Reclaiming Motherhood.”

The March 19 event, held at the Women’s Center in the Student Union, was part of Women’s Herstory Month.

The Mommy Wars are “heavily constructed by the media,” said Barbara Gurr, a doctoral candidate in sociology and instructor in the Women’s Studies Program.

The “hidden Mommy Wars” are much more insidious, she said.

“That’s what happens in our culture that prohibits women from being the kind of mothers they want to be, and the way in which the government and politics control motherhood.”

In the U.S., motherhood is the number one cause of poverty for women, Gurr said: “The lost wages, lost retirement, and lost Social Security have an impact on you.”

Homicide is the number one cause of death for pregnant women in this country, she maintained.

“We should be outraged,” she said.

“That’s war. That’s violence. That’s war against motherhood.”

Gurr said there is a “war on reproductive rights and reproductive freedom. People don’t understand how endangered access to safe, legal affordable abortion is.”

She said several dozen counties in the U.S. don’t have any access to abortion.

“If you live in one of those counties you have to drive far even to get advice about abortion.”

She noted that 16 states still have anti-abortion laws on their books that predate the Supreme Court’s 1973 case, Roe v. Wade.

“Georgia, South Dakota, and Oklahoma require woman seeking abortions to receive state-written information on the topic, and the state legislatures in these states are very anti-choice,” she said.

“That impinges on your life.”

She said that in Connecticut, access to emergency contraception for rape victims is a “serious issue.”

Women in the U.S. in same-sex partnerships face legal discrimination over the right to be a mother, she said, whether they want to adopt or have biological children.

“Our country has a long and deep history of forcible sterilization of women of color,” Gurr added.

“This is a very serious war against mothers. That says something about who can be a mother and who cannot be a mother.”

She discussed a form of chemical birth control that was tested on women in communities of color, largely the Native American population.

Women were offered the contraceptive device – little sticks inserted under the skin on the arm – for free.

“Three years later, these women hadn’t stopped bleeding,” Gurr said.

“Nonstop menstruation. Then they were charged $500 to have them taken out.

“We may not be surgically sterilizing, but we’re controlling women through contraception,” she added.

She also said that cuts to federal funding for the Head Start program not only affect children, but reduce the ability of women to go to work.

Anne D’Alleva, associate professor of art and art history and women’s studies, said that since the birth of her son, she has read many articles about the Mommy Wars.

“If you read the literature, they’re always talking about highly accomplished professional women,” she said.

“There are limited articles on African Americans, or women who aren’t straight. In many ways, it’s a restricted discussion.

“The challenges are a lot bigger than arguing over who is baking cupcakes for the school party on Friday,” she said, “which is what the Mommy Wars rhetoric tends to reduce the problems of motherhood to.”

D’Alleva found it difficult to return to work after the birth of her son.

“It was wrenching,” she said. “I wasn’t ready to leave him, and he wasn’t ready to leave me.”

Fortunately, she had an “incredibly flexible boss,” David Woods, dean of the School of Fine Arts.

“The dean was great,” she said.

“I set up a nursery in my office. I was able to make it work. These structures should be in place for everybody.”

The difficulties of motherhood while pursuing an advanced degree were discussed by Angie Beeman, who is working on a graduate degree in sociology.

“One of the negative aspects is not having maternity leave as a graduate student,” she said.

“I gave birth to my child, and less than a week later I had to go back to teaching.”

But she wasn’t physically or emotionally ready to go back.

Fortunately, she says, she had very supportive mentors, including Professor Kay Ratcliff, who took over some of her classes.

Added Beeman, “She didn’t have to do that.”  

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