May 15, 2012 | Economic Opportunity
Let’s Hear it for the Moms
Supporting motherhood works best with an interdisciplinary approach.
By Anna Louie Sussman
NEW YORK -- For better or worse, accurately or inaccurately, there is no role more closely associated with women than “mother.” Irrespective of women’s reproductive wishes or choices, motherhood -- the notion, the experience, the sheer necessity of it – nips at their heels and laps their consciousness.
In America, motherhood is often a solitary undertaking. While the percentage of married-couple households has trudged slowly downwards, the percentage of single-parent households has crept steadily upwards. Around 40% of new births today are by single women. As of 2010, 26.2% of households in the U.S. were single-mother households, and an alarming 46.9% of those families live in poverty, according to an analysis by Ascend, the Family Economic Security Program at the Aspen Institute.
Given these demographics, organizations working to support mothers believe an interdisciplinary and “two-generation” approach is necessary to support mothers and their children to move beyond poverty and towards economic self-sufficiency. And in the developing world, where pregnancy and delivery threaten women’s health, a cross-sectorial initiative in Uganda works to promote safe motherhood by engaging not just health professionals but politicians, journalists, educators and other opinion leaders.
For decades, single mothers in America have been demonized as welfare queens – women, often of color, who have children expressly for the purpose of receiving government benefits. While many single mothers receive public assistance (about 20%, according to a 2004 study from Columbia University’s School of Social Work ), far more work. Many work multiple low-wage jobs, leaving little time for pursuing educational credentials that would improve their earning power, or for parenting the way they would like to.
“People need to understand that we’re not all the same,” said Stephanie Clark, 45, a single mother of 20 years who founded Project Single Moms in 2007. “The majority of single mothers, we do work, we do pay taxes, many of us are educated, and we are entrepreneurs. So we do contribute to society, as opposed to being a drain on society.”
Ms. Clark’s organization helps single mothers across the country organize to make their voices heard on public policy, and also provides direct services such as scholarships to pursue higher education, and a Small Business Academy, led by Ms. Clark herself. Programming also includes a health and wellness component, entrepreneurship training, parenting skills and homeownership support, implemented by grassroots chapters in nine locations. With so many single mothers laid off during the recession, entrepreneurship and education have become even more critical to a family’s survival.
“Education is the key to helping move families from poverty, but it’s only available for those who are financially in a position to take advantage of it,” said Ms. Clark. “If you’re a single mother and you understand the importance of having a college degree, but you can’t obtain it, it’s very frustrating.”
Working with Education Dynamics, a for-profit education consultancy, Project Single Moms has put more than 400 working mothers, including many single mothers, through online learning courses and degree programs on full scholarships. They also meet with universities and colleges to petition admissions programs to set aside scholarships specifically for single moms. The Small Business Academy, a 12-week program that launched in October of 2011, has yielded several non-profit businesses, a social media consultancy and an event planning company.
The Ascend program supports a similar two-generation approach, which works with children and parents, especially single mothers, simultaneously to move entire families beyond poverty.
Sarah Haight, program associate at Ascend, said this approach ties together issues that would seem intuitively related, such as education or healthcare for children and parents, but are often addressed in isolation. Citing the work of one of their Fellows, Steven Dow, Executive Director of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Community Action Project, she explained how tackling family economic insecurity would yield better results from the early childhood education program he’d been running for years. In 2008, he launched CareerAdvance to provide sector-specific job training in high-wage fields for parents.
“It was predominantly single mothers dropping off children to get their children on a path to quality learning, but the parents themselves were not really getting any opportunities out of it,” she said. The program offered training in nursing and health information technology, where jobs were plentiful in Tulsa.
In the developing world, infant and maternal mortality make the simple act of becoming a mother a life-or-death situation. Out of every 1000 children, 118 die before the age of 5 in low-income countries, according to the World Health Organization. Approximately 1,000 women die each day from preventable causes in childbirth or during pregnancy. But, said Dr. Jean Chamberlain, this is not just a public health issue.
“The issues are really outside of the hospital, and the challenge was how do we reach out beyond the hospitals, and affect things like the decision to seek care,” she said.
Dr. Chamberlain, a Canadian obstetrician-gynecologist who worked for years in East Africa, Yemen and Pakistan, designed a cross-sectoral approach that targeted health care providers, educators, journalists, lawmakers and faith leaders to promote the importance of safe motherhood throughout their fields. The Ontario-based organization she founded, Save the Mothers, launched a public health master’s degree with the Uganda Christian University that accepts thought leaders in various fields and trains them in public health issues, with an emphasis on safe motherhood. Since 2005, over 200 people have been trained, all of them from Uganda or other African countries.
With the program’s training, she has seen pastors do 180-degree turns on family planning, and teachers take stands against gender-based violence, throwing perpetrators in jail. Journalists have done radio and newspaper series on safe motherhood, and lawmakers have carved out chunks of their budget to ensure mothers in their localities give birth safely. But above all, the program teaches a greater respect for women as mothers, and as people.
“It’s about the value of women in general,” she said. “A man has great respect for his mother; she’s been the great person in his life for as long as he can remember. But it’s that core foundation of the value of women. Women need to be valued more.”
Anna Louie Sussman is a writer and editor for the Women in the World Foundation website, and a frequent contributor to major U.S. magazines and newspapers.