Demythologizing Motherhood


An institution takes center stage in anthropology seminar


By Cathryn Westra

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. She notes that the U.S. is one of just four countries that does not legally mandate paid maternity leave.

“Mothering is glamorized in the 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 dozen students in Ruhlen’s “Contradictions in Contemporary Mother-hood” seminar discuss motherhood from many angles—mothers in the work force, childbirth, breastfeeding, the oppression of disadvantaged mothers, infertility, adoption, and in-vitro fertilization.

“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 supports her teaching with personal experience as a volunteer breastfeeding counselor and board-certified lactation consultant. Her personal interest in feminist issues and motherhood also met her intellectual training when she became a mother of one child, and stepmother 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.”

So far, all of the students in the course have been women, but Ruhlen recommends the course to male students as well. “The role of mothering isn’t just done by women,” she said. “All sorts of people mother. Raising children to be healthy members of society is a really important job. It only makes sense that we create a society that supports it.”

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