Global Mama

Just a quick take here: for those who didn’t see it, check out The New York Times article on gay marriage in Mexico City that ran yesterday, here.

Welcome back to guest poster Natalie Wilson, whose new column, Pop Goes Feminism, starts tomorrow!

It’s not about hating men, it’s about helping Haitian women

If one can wrangle any positive shards from the rubble that now pervades Haiti’s landscape, I would say that it would be the tremendous outpouring of concern and aid. Unfortunately, such concern tends to fade and aid donations shrivel once the media moves on to its next story.

Once the Haiti earthquake is merely a blip on the mental desktop of most Americans (like Hurricane Katrina before it), the situation for the majority of Haitians will not have changed for the better. Rather, especially for women and children, the situation is likely to be even worse than it was before. This is why some organizations are targeting their aid at women and children.

As reported by Tracy Clark-Flory, the “women and children” first aid model some organizations are taking makes sense due to the fact that women and children are typically the ones most vulnerable in the wake of a catastrophe.

Before the earthquake, Haitian women were already dealing with extreme poverty, lack of adequate healthcare, high rates of HIV/AIDS, and huge infant and maternal mortality rates. They live in a country that only made a rape a criminal offence in 2005, where at least 50% of women living in the poorer areas of Port-au-Prince have been raped. Haiti also has a serious child trafficking problem and huge numbers of girls working as domestic servants.

The global mamas of Haiti, as detailed by the International Childcare organization, must cope with the fact that one in eight Haitian children never live to see their fifth birthday due to infectious disease, pregnancy-related complications, and delivery-related complications. In Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, many parents cannot afford to send their children to school, give them proper medical care, or even guarantee that their children will have safe drinking water.

For all of these reasons, Haiti needs what Lucinda Marshall calls Gender-Responsive Aid. As she notes, “there are needs that are specific to women, particularly for pregnant women and mothers with new babies and the need to address the added vulnerability to violence that women face when government infrastructures are dysfunctional.” Yifat Susskind of MADRE explains that disasters are often followed by a rise in gender-based violence: “When men deal with very, very difficult stresses, one of their outlets is violence against women.”

In addition to the tendency for increased violence against women in the aftermath of a disaster (as also noted here), women are already economically disadvantaged in Haiti (due in large part to what is commonly known as the feminization of poverty). As noted by MADRE,

“…women are often hardest hit when disaster strikes because they were at a deficit even before the catastrophe. In Haiti, and in every country, women are the poorest and often have no safety net, leaving them most exposed to violence, homelessness and hunger in the wake of disasters.

Because of their role as caretakers and because of the discrimination they face, women have a disproportionate need for assistance. Yet, they are often overlooked in large-scale aid operations. In the chaos that follows disasters, aid too often reaches those who yell the loudest or push their way to the front of the line. When aid is distributed through the “head of household” approach, women-headed families may not even be recognized, and women within male-headed families may be marginalized when aid is controlled by male relatives.”

To make matters even worse, when the earthquake hit, Haiti’s Ministry of Women was holding a meeting–and nearly everyone there was killed or injured. (For the full story, see here). The loss of these women’s rights leaders is a severe blow to relief efforts throughout the entire country.

Despite all the reasons for gender-responsive aid, some have equated this approach with misandry–as in this article. Such spurious claims miss the point entirely and fail to recognize that gender-responsive aid benefits everyone, not just women. Gender-responsive aid isn’t about hating men, it’s about recognizing a gendered response to this disaster is necessary.

Here again with an announcement about a conference that looks fabulous: Mothering and Migration: (Trans)nationalisms, Globalization, and Displacement, in Puerto Rico between February 19-21. The conference is organized by the Association for Research on Mothering (ARM), a research organization based at York University, Ontario. The lineup includes scholars and activists from a wide range of backgrounds and locations. Alas, a lack of funding will prevent me from attending — but I invite any conference attendees to contact me about writing a short column to share their research with the GWP community.

A few things have been on my mind recently.

One is fellow blogger and writer extraordinaire Alison Piepmeier, who posted yesterday about her newly diagnosed brain tumor. Alison, we’re all thinking about you.

The other is Haiti. I don’t have much more to add about the incalculable loss or the soul-crushing devastation, but I did want to point readers towards a very helpful essay by anthropologist Mark Schuller, a resident of New Paltz (where I teach), professor at CUNY-York College, and co-producer/co-director of the documentary Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy. Mark has worked for many years in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and though he was not in Haiti for the devastating earthquake that occurred last week, he left the U.S. this morning to join a medical team to provide on-the-ground disaster relief.

Mark’s essay, “Starfish and Seawalls: Responding to Haiti’s Earthquake, Now and Long-Term,” is a must-read that provides essential information about Haiti and what we all can do. In particular, he details some central questions we should all ask when evaluating NGOs involved in Haitian relief efforts and mentions several particularly noteworthy organizations, including Partners in Health, Fonkoze, and Lambi Fund.

Last I heard, Mark had landed safely in Haiti. My thoughts are with him and everyone else in Haiti.

It’s my pleasure to introduce a guest blogger today: Natalie Wilson.

Natalie Wilson is a literature and women’s studies scholar, blogger, and author. She teaches at Cal State San Marcos and specializes the areas of gender studies, feminism, feminist theory, girl studies, militarism, body studies, boy culture and masculinity, contemporary literature, and popular culture. She is founder of the blogs Professor, What If…? and Seduced by Twilight. She is currently working on Seduced by Twilight, a book examining the Twilight cultural phenomenon from a feminist perspective.

The Mommy Myth That Will Not Die: Bella Swan and Global Motherhood

Living inside our media-saturated US bubble, one might view motherhood as a competitive sport (ala Kate and her eight), as a fashion statement (think Katie Holmes and her impeccably dressed little Suri), as a way to prove one’s enduring hotness (such as Heidi Klum’s post-partum walk down the runway), or even as a testament that one cares about the world (in Madonna or Angelina Jolie adoption-style).

If these media representations of motherhood are to be trusted, what Susan Douglas named “the mommy myth,” where women are supposed to be perfect, gorgeous, dedicated super-moms, still dominates the cultural imagination.

Twilight, via the character of Bella Swan, breathes immortal life into this myth. In Breaking Dawn, the fourth book of the series, Bella transforms from reluctant wife into exultant expectant mom all in the blink of one headboard-busting sexual encounter.

The celebration of maternal martyrdom and mothering as the be-all and end-all of female existence that the final book of Stephenie Meyer’s saga enacts is hard to stomach, even for me–a mother of two that loves being a mom.

The problem is that Bella is a modern June Cleaver–too perfect, too submissive, and too ready to defer to her Mr. Cleaver (embodied by uber-dad, Edward Cullen). Once she is a vampire mommy, college plans are set aside, vampire adventures delayed, and instead, she becomes that monster we all love to hate: perfect mom.

Bella could not be more privileged; she is white, heterosexual, has endless wealth, super-powers, and a bevy of around the clock vampire and werewolf babysitters at her beck and call. She will never have to worry about stretching her budget, not being able to afford healthcare for her daughter, not having access to clean water.

While Bella and her similarly perfect vampire mother-in-law Esmee convey that motherhood is nothing but a joy and women who don’t desire babies are cuckoo, the text silences non-white, non-first-world mothers. Why does Native American mother Sue Clearwater have no voice in the story? Why are South-American women represented as fierce, untrustworthy animals? And why is Leah, the one lone female werewolf, called a “genetic dead end” due to her infertility? (This strand of the narrative would have been an opportunity to explore the historical sterilization of indigenous women. No such luck, though. Instead, we only learn she is a complaining bitch, an annoyance to the male alpha wolves who hate having to deal with a female in their testosterone fueled midsts.)

Globally, for many women, getting pregnant is one of the most dangerous things you can do. It makes you more susceptible to procuring diseases, to enduring poverty, to dying. Around the world, one female dies from pregnancy or labor every minute. That’s 1,440 females a day. Most of these women are not located in the first world nor can they choose, like Bella, to become vampires.

Twilight, loved by many mothers around the world, fails to give voice to the realities of global motherhood. To do so may be asking too much of this lightweight vampire tale; but could not the billions in profit the series is generating be used in some way to curtail maternal mortality rates? Seeing as the series suggests all women’s lives are made better by motherhood, perhaps it should put its money where its mouth is, giving more women more access to prenatal care and reproductive justice.

Now, that’s a dream I could sink my teeth into.

Check out Mandy Van Deven’s interview with Mumbai-born author and architect, Meera Godbole Krishnamurthy, in which they discuss the author’s new novel, Balancing Act (Penguin Books India), her experience of coming to writing as an architect, and her thoughts on building an identity as a feminist mother. You can find their conversation over at Bitch Magazine.

Over twenty mothers who were mourning the deaths of their children and protesting government violence were arrested and jailed this past weekend in Iran. Valerie Young wrote a great post about it over at her blog, Your (Wo)man in Washington, which can also be found over at MomsRising. Connecting Iranian mothers’ activism with mothers’ activism elsewhere, she writes that

Motherhood instantly ups your ante in the human sweepstakes. It gives you a very personal stake in the future, and makes you vulnerable in every way. It can also empower. Women who hesitated to speak for themselves may find their voice and advocate energetically for themselves as mothers and for the welfare of their children.

Mothers in Iran have been organizing online, on twitter, and on the streets. They have set up a Mournful Mothers Committee with a blog and have been staging anti-government protests on a regular basis in Tehran. They were arrested before Student Day demonstrations planned this past Monday. Watch the video here. Supporters in LA have submitted a petition to the U.N. calling for an investigation of human rights violations in Iran.

I am reminded of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo who protested regularly during Argentine’s Dirty War–when tens of thousands of Argentinian citizens were abducted, tortured, and “disappeared” by the government–as well as China’s Tiananmen Mothers, or the Welfare Warriors in the U.S. (The picture above is a poster from the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.) Motherhood can not only be a powerful political motivator for individual women but also provide a potent moral ground from which to protest human rights violations and other injustices. Women in various movements around the world have mobilized the symbolic power of motherhood in ways that work within traditional notions of motherhood to claim authority and demand justice to leave the private space of the home and enter into the public sphere with potentially radical demands.

While it’s true that this form of activism can run the risk of perpetuating traditional definitions of motherhood, it’s also true that it can inspire a powerful activism grounded in an ethics of care. Women who may never have considered themselves activists can suddenly find themselves standing their ground in the face of soldiers with guns, as an anonymous Iranian journalist observes in an article about the ongoing women’s anti-governmental activism in the October 5 issue of The New Yorker.

I am inspired by the brave and media-savvy Mournful Mothers Committee and the mothers who have not let fear stop them from speaking out. They inspire me to consider how caregiving, by women and men, provides us all with an opportunity to extend our circle of concern to our larger communities, both locally and globally.

Four years ago, Judith Warner made the argument that “hyper-parenting” in the U.S. has caused plenty of mothers to lose all semblance of balance in Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. While the book received its fair share of criticism (for example, see the thoughtful analysis of Warner’s book on The Mothers Movement Online), I recently confronted the bubbling up and spiraling out of my own anxiety–slightly irrational but nonetheless all-consuming–which found its source in the shadowy threat of the H1N1 virus.

A few weeks ago, I was totally caught up in H1N1 anxiety. No doubt some of it had to do with media stories about cases of mortality; the rest of it was wrapped up in having young children. I was managing to control my anxiety surrounding my youngest son, who’s in nursery school, but couldn’t manage to quell the fears about my oldest daughter. J. is in elementary school and has asthma plus multiple food allergies, including to egg; this means she can’t get flu shots. We had plans to travel to see their grandparents for Thanksgiving on two planes. Given our past history of taking her to hospitals for various asthma- and sickness-related issues, both my husband and I were nervous about the whole plan.

What to do? Forego the trip to see aging grandparents because of our generalized anxiety about the possibilities of the kids catching H1N1 (from which plenty of kids have recovered)? Grit our teeth and try our best to get a grip on the anxiety and fear we knew were being influenced by media hype? Silence our concerns about a relatively new vaccine and do everything we could to find out if it was possible for both of our kids to get vaccinated?

In the end, we settled on choice #3. This wasn’t hard for my youngest one, but proved more time- and labor- intensive for my oldest. We finally managed to score a dose of the vaccine from the pediatrician, which we transported to the allergist–where we sat, all morning, watching Sponge Bob in the waiting room while the doctor skin-tested her for reactions to the vaccine and eventually administered the dose in two stages.

So, what does this have to do with global motherhood? For one, our little family drama was set into play by globalization, which not only affects the pathways of pandemic viruses and the constant flow of information about them, but also the fact that we were living two plane flights away from my parents. At the same time, our experience represents parenting from a position of privilege: we had health insurance, access to the vaccine, and the ability to take a whole day off from work in order to vaccinate our daughter. It reminded me how many U.S. families don’t have the resources to access preventative care, or even to navigate relatively minor medical issues.

Subsequent phone conversations with friends in other states made me realize how this global scenario was at the same time very local. My friend in Boston? Couldn’t get the vaccine for her two kids but didn’t seem overly worried about it. The pregnant friend of friends in Atlanta who wanted the vaccine? Wanted it but couldn’t get it. Those same friends in Atlanta? Had one child who got sick with H1N1, recovered, and subsequently got the vaccine with the rest of the family. These geographical differences are exacerbated when we look at other countries, where H1N1 has sometimes not even registered on the radar. In many countries, it’s diseases such as pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria, and HIV/AIDS that threaten children on a daily basis. (Here’s a link to UNICEF’s The State of the World’s Children 2009 report.)

Parenting in the time of H1N1: for those of us with some degree of resources, it highlights how caring for children often boils down to managing risks. Does the risk of a relatively new vaccine outweigh the potential risks of contracting a virus? Or is it the other way around? (For that matter, how risky is a plane flight to visit grandparents? The car trip to the airport? The list goes on and on.) Thoughtful parents perceive and weigh risks in different ways. There don’t seem to be right or wrong answers, except in hindsight, which can be kind or cruel. We can never know in the moment.

Families without resources have fewer choices, less ability to take control of these anxiety-ridden situations. I suspect it’s far more stressful not to have choices, to care for small children when you can’t take control and you can’t battle fate with much more than prayers and crossed fingers. Even if “control” is anything but.

In Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich famously made the distinction between the institution of patriarchal motherhood and the experience of motherhood. I’ve always wondered to what degree this distinction bears out in other countries and cultures. According to a new book, Motherhood in India: Glorification without Empowerment?, published by Routledge India and edited by Maithreyi KrishnarajIndia also suffers from a gap between the cultural glorification of mothers and the actual treatment of mothers. Many thanks to writer and Feminist Review blogger Mandy Van Deven, who just told me about it! Mandy wrote a great piece for The Women’s International Perspective (The WIP) in which she interviews Veena Poonancha, one of the book’s contributors. Read her article, Parvati’s Burden: Scratching the Surface of Motherhood in India,” over at The WIP.

Speaking of motherhood: I’m heading out to the National Women’s Studies Association conference in Atlanta tomorrow, where I’ll be on a panel entitled “Globalizing Motherhood Studies” (and another one on “Feminist Publishing 2.0″)–and will be conference blogging (along with fellow Girl with Penner Alison Piepmeier) over at She Writes!

On October 27, the World Economic Forum released its 2009 Global Gender Gap report, which ranks countries according to four categories: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment, and health and survival. Who wins? Iceland, with the world’s smallest gender gap. Who loses? Yemen, coming in at 134th place. But lest we point fingers, the U.S. dropped four places, to 31st place, owing to minor drops in the participation of women in the economy and improvements in the scores of previously lower-ranking countries. (Though we’re top of the heap for educational attainment, we’re #61 for political empowerment. Ouch!)

The authors, Ricardo Hausmann of Harvard University, Laura D. Tyson of the University of California at Berkeley, and Saadia Zahidi of the World Economic Forum, have put together an accessible and informative report. Among many other issues, their report suggests how motherhood can, in a word, kill. Consider a few of the statistics surrounding maternal health in many parts of the world:

Annually, more than half a million women and girls die in pregnancy and childbirth and 3.7 million newborns die within their first 28 days. (Appendix E, “Maternal Health and Mortality”)

Approximately 80% of maternal deaths could be averted if women had access to essential maternity and basic healthcare services. (Appendix E, “Maternal Health and Mortality”)

The need for paying greater attention to maternal health has been underscored by Nicholas Kristof in his New York Times column and his recent book Half the Sky, co-authored with Sheryl WuDunn. And while plenty of criticism has been levied against Kristof’s book, succinctly and fairly voiced by Katha Pollitt in her review in The Nation (thanks to my colleague Amy Kesselman for bringing her review to my attention!), Kristof deserves kudos for bringing media attention to the health issues that needlessly affect mothers in many developing countries, such as obstetric fistula.

The Global Gender Gap report provides other glimpses into how the experience of motherhood varies from country to country. Consider what Ricardo Hausmann, Ina Ganguli, and Martina Viarengo have to say about the relationship between marriage and motherhood, and their impact on the labor force participation gap between men and women:

…while the education gap has been reversed in quite a few countries, the employment gap has not. This gap is related to the compatibility of marriage and motherhood with a lifestyle where women can work.

(Here, the U.S. has a dubious distinction: of those countries where the employment gap has been rising, it has seen the biggest increase.)

Overall, however, there are some signs of positive change when examining the “motherhood gap” within labor force participation globally:

Motherhood has not been a universal obstacle for female labour force participation. In almost half the countries we studied, women with three children work at least as much as women with no children. However, in other countries, especially in Latin America, the motherhood gap is very large, with Chile exhibiting the largest gap. But there is good news: the motherhood gap has been falling in almost two-thirds of the countries, with the biggest reductions shown again by Brazil and Greece, accompanied by Austria and Bolivia.

There isn’t room in this report to explore all the complexities of paid work and mothering–such as who cares for children when mothers work in countries that don’t support working mothers, the working conditions mothers face, and so on–not to mention the wide spectrum of how women experience motherhood according to identity (class, ethnicity, religion), educational background, and geographical location (whether mothers live in a village or an urban environment). Even so, the report provides some broad brushstrokes that help situate the many different kids of gendered gaps in the world.