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Anthropology Course Focuses on Complex Issues Surrounding Motherhood

by Davidson College
Prof. Rebecca Ruhlen
Adjunct Professor Rebecca Ruhlen

"Why does our country have such a hard time providing mothers with basic provisions that almost every other country in the world gives?" asked Adjunct Assistant Professor of Anthropology Rebecca Ruhlen.

"For example, the U.S. is one of just four countries that does not legally mandate paid maternity leave," she continued. "The others are small and impoverished -- Liberia, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland."

Ruhlen's course "Contradictions in Contemporary Motherhood," explores this and many other issues surrounding this universal and vital subject.

The dozen students in her seminar read literature on the challenges of mothering, and reflect on it in small-group discussion. The issues raised include maternal feminism, mothers in the work force, childbirth, breastfeeding, the oppression of disadvantaged mothers and forces limiting the freedom of mothers in general.

"Mothering is glamorized in magazines and other forms of media as though there's a fun, easy, one-size-fits all approach to it," said Ruhlen. "What most of society doesn't realize is that it's also exhausting, demanding work that doesn't get a lot of support."

The issues are especially prevalent in the workplace. Ruhlen said that breastfeeding mothers often are not allowed to take breaks at work to pump milk or nurse their child, even though breastfeeding is healthier than formula feeding for both mother and baby and, in the long-term, healthier moms and babies are less costly to society. Additionally, a 2012 Forbes magazine article notes that employers believe working moms make better employees, but there is a 14% wage gap disadvantaging mothers to childless women.

Over the course of the semester, students develop and research a motherhood topic and present their findings in a 20-25 page final seminar paper. Past topics include reality TV and the depictions of motherhood, sexual violence and motherhood, motherhood after rape, trans-racial adoption, the effects of breast cancer on mothering, and infertility and in vitro fertilization.

Ruhlen supports her teaching with personal experience as a volunteer breastfeeding counselor and board-certified lactation consultant. Her work and views on breastfeeding were recently profiled in an article in The Charlotte Observer titled "Advocate Says Nursing Moms Deserve Support."

"The subject of motherhood can be a tremendous learning experience for students," said Ruhlen. "There's incredibly rich, theoretical, intellectually rigorous literature behind it, and almost everyone can speak about it from personal experience."

Ruhlen earned her Ph.D. in anthropology researching feminist activism in South Korea. Her personal interest in feminist issues and motherhood met her intellectual training when she became a mother of one child, and step mother to another.

She explained, " I began seeing motherhood like an institution. As I paid attention to what was happening politically, culturally, in public discourse and in activism, I found a lot of overlap between motherhood in the West and what was happening with feminist activism in South Korea. I began to recognize it as a motherhood movement."

This semester is Ruhlen's third time teaching the course at Davidson. So far, all of the students Ruhlen has taught have been women, but she recommends the course to male students as well. "The role of mothering isn't just done by women," she said.

She can speak to that point from personal experience as well. Her own mother died when she was three and most of her mothering was provided by her working father. "Women primarily provide care, but all sorts of people mother," she continued. "Raising children to be healthy members of society is a really important job. It only makes sense that we create a society that supports this job."