How Academia Studies Mothers

Aurélie Athan, Ph.D. is changing the way academia looks at motherhood by focusing on mothers themselves.

Currently and historically, most research related to motherhood isn’t actually about the mother. It’s usually about her impact on her children. Dr. Athan is on faculty in the Department of Clinical Psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University and a founding member of the Sexuality, Women, & Gender Project where she focuses on women’s development across the lifespan and the transition to motherhood. We talked with Dr. Athan about her unique perspective on motherhood.

Every Mother Counts: Dr. Athan, how did you develop this particular maternal health focus?

Dr. Athan: Believe me, it’s not a terribly sexy subject from an academic perspective. I got into it because I work within a prominent psychology field and questioned the way we talk about mothers’ experiences. What we study and discuss, from long before a pregnancy ever occurs to long past the time a woman’s child graduates from high school is about how her choices, health, wellbeing and life impacts her child’s experience. We rarely reflect on the mother’s subjective experience. Many times in studies her behavior is observed or measured, but we don’t directly ask about her feelings. We might study things like a mother’s folic acid intake but only on how it improves her child’s cognitive abilities, not how it benefits her. When we do research her experience, say, for example, in a study about post partum depression, we’re generally only looking through the pathology lens — when something’s wrong. We’ve never studied the wide range of what’s normal during this huge life event we title “motherhood.”

EMC: So you decided to explore more in-depth?

Dr. Athan: Yes. I was studying adult spiritual development and noticed that mothers shared a common powerful narrative. During their transition to motherhood, they experienced a profound shift in consciousness that was similar to someone having a life and death experience like a cancer diagnosis. They realigned their priorities. They had questions about purpose and the meaning of life. They repaired broken relationships and become more compassionate and present in their life roles. When I looked into the background literature written about this transition, I found very little clinical or developmental literature. Ten years later, my own laboratory on Maternal Psychology did a huge systematic review of 70,000 academic articles from 1992 to 2012 across all kinds of medical and social science professions. On average, only 1–3% of articles focused on anything related to the maternal experience and of those more than 50% looked solely at child outcomes or psychopathology or both. That’s abysmal.

EMC: Why doesn’t motherhood garner more academic or scientific attention?

Dr. Athan: Historically women only become interesting when they are mad or they’ve gone mad. We only pay attention to women’s experiences at their most distressful. Even though mothers form the cornerstone of many fundamental psychological theories, policies and research funding, studies only focus on how well or not well she performs as a mom and how that’s expressed via the child. Mothers’ experiences are largely invisible because we haven’t asked, “What is this like for you?” Generally, in psychology, the best practice is to understand what’s normative and what the challenges, expectations and setbacks are for a given subject. Then we try and understand the risk factors for when things go off course. We can’t begin to understand why things go wrong for some mothers if we don’t understand the whole passage. We also only focus on motherhood within a very limited time frame from conception to childbearing and then, that’s about it.

EMC: The mother’s interest value diminishes after she gives birth?

Dr. Athan: It does and one of the anecdotes we often hear from women is, “I went from the hands of the obstetrician straight into the hands of the pediatrician.” There isn’t much care after that. We have to look at what’s happening from a deeper social-cultural context beyond hormonal and physiologic conditions. Women are having moving and eye-opening experiences but also practicing the institution of motherhood in environments that can be oppressive. They clearly lack opportunities to articulate the complexity of their experiences. As one woman said to me, “Motherhood is simultaneously the most profound and crippling experience.”

EMC: That’s powerful.

Dr. Athan: Books and discourses project either, “I love every minute of it,” or “I hate every minute of it.” The truth for all mothers is both, but we’re not hearing that story. What mothers have to say about the world is compelling because it’s born out of the million daily practices required to make sure our dependent young survive and thrive.

EMC: What do you cover in your classes on the motherhood experience?

Students are always telling me the class blew their minds. They never realized how slanted their perspective on motherhood was towards the child. Over the semester, we cover the history of how mothers are portrayed in psychological literature, the developmental process of motherhood including desire, conception, fertility and infertility, pregnancy, birth and the postnatal experience. We discuss the media and a range of cross-cultural perspectives so students understand the biases and how different motherhood is depending on where you come from. It ends up being an ad hoc health class. For many students it’s the first time they’ve gotten basic reproductive information since they got their first period. When we discuss subjects like the call to motherhood and fertility, things break down for a lot of students. It gets pretty emotional. I’ll always remember the day some students admitted they almost wished they were infertile so they wouldn’t have to decide whether or not to become a mother. I think that’s devastating.

Check out the upcoming classes here. Enrollment is open to the public.

EMC: Tell me about KHORAI, the online journal you created.

Dr. Athan: It’s my little way of getting reproductive and maternal mental health information out of the academic ivory tower and into the public. KHORAI is an online newsfeed of topical issues and hot off the press research that we make available to the public. Usually, this information is only available to parents after it’s processed through a parenting magazine. We’re also trying to present more varied or poetic imagery. When you Google images for motherhood, everything looks sanitized. All the moms are white and smiling and you scroll for pages before you even find one yawning. Women of color are problematically pictured, for example, without their face or naked, and overrepresented in contexts of poverty.

EMC: What kind of reaction do your images generate?

Dr. Athan: Boy, do we get strong reactions. With any picture that deviates from what’s considered ideal, people say the woman isn’t a good mother or she’s too into her self. For example photos like Christina Aguilera’s pregnancy pose on the cover of Rolling Stone or a mother being intimate with her partner or exposing her breasts for breastfeeding can generate disgust or delight. It’s rarely neutral and often touches a hot button. I’m stunned by the level of negativity and judgment projected at mothers, especially those who don’t fit the idealized profile.

EMC: Do you think we’re experiencing a cultural shift in the way we view motherhood?

Dr. Athan: I think we’re facing the last frontier. The mother is the beginning of everything yet she’s often the last called to the table. We’re finally starting to focus on this paradox and I think the impact will be profound.

To learn more about Dr. Athan’s work, click here.

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