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Lecture explores Mother Wars

Michelle Eggers | Monday, September 13, 2004

More than 50 Saint Mary’s community members crowded Stapleton Lounge Friday to hear Debra Swanson and Jenelle Dame speak about the “mother wars” being fought in communities across the nation.

Entitled “Undermining Mothers,” the hour-long lecture discussed the pitting of at-home and employed moms against each other.

“There is a mother war out there,” Swanson, an associate professor of sociology at Hope College, said. “The women that choose to stay home and the women that choose to go to work often fight with each other.”

Women define what makes them a good mom based on these choices, and consequently become defensive of their choices and degrade the choices of others.

“Mother wars” are fueled further by society’s contradictory messages that affirm a particular mother role and also condemn her for achieving it.

Dame, a senior sociology major at Hope College, said, “At-home moms are undermined [in society], and the employed moms are lacking affirmation.”

Jill Roberts, a senior sociology major, felt the lecture resonated well with the college community.

“This is an issue pertinent to a women’s college,” Roberts said. “It is unavoidable that we will all have to choose a side of the mother wars.”

The lecture was co-sponsored by the department of sociology, the Center for Women’s Intercultural Leadership and the Women’s Studies Program. The lecture came in part from Swanson and another Hope College professor’s research into the struggles women face balancing work and children.

A mother of two, Swanson said the colleagues decided to “put their heads where their hearts are” with their project.

“We thought that if we are academics, why not look at this transformation that was happening to us as we became mothers,” she said.

The project was based on extended interviews with moms of preschoolers, as well as the analysis of the representations of at-home and employed mothers in five popular women’s magazines.

The researchers predicted at-home moms would be depicted as selfless, overly involved, nurturing and failing in the public sphere, while employed moms would be depicted as selfish, uninvolved, neglectful and failing in the domestic sphere. Part-time moms would fall somewhere in the middle.

“What we found was that 88 percent of the mothers were portrayed as at-home mothers, and only 12 percent were depicted as employed mothers,” Swanson said. “That does not match statistics that say more than half of all women are in the labor force.”

In addition to the misrepresentation, at-home moms were more likely to be portrayed as serving others, having exaggerated needs of connections and failing in the public sphere.

Employed moms, on the other hand, were portrayed as having an independent identity, being competent at work and home and being natural mothers.

“While we expect at-home moms to be portrayed as natural moms, in the magazines she is actually depicted as needing lots of help,” Swanson said. “Employed moms, who you would think would need more help because they aren’t at home as much, they are the more natural mothers.”

Swanson calls employed moms’ positive portrayal and under representation in magazines the “double bind.”

“You have to chose one or the other,” she said. “That is often where women struggle.”