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Clare Winterton

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What Does Beyoncé's Recent Birth Tell Us About How Much We Value Mothers?

Posted: 01/24/2012 10:00 am

As we look at the prominent and adoring coverage of celebrity moms and babies -- such as the recent media excitement that surrounded the birth of Beyoncé's daughter Blue Ivy -- how can we doubt that motherhood, and the health and welfare of all mothers, is a cornerstone of our culture?

Today the International Museum of Women launches MAMA, a new online exhibition on motherhood that suggests a far more complex and confusing picture.

Both the global statistics and our exhibition tell a story that is very different to the glowing and positive picture that surrounds each new celebrity birth.

Every 90 seconds a woman somewhere in the world dies from a complication of pregnancy or childbirth, and most of these deaths are preventable. And while it is true that the vast majority of these deaths occur in the developing world, the U.S. significantly lags other developed nations: the United States' rate of maternal mortality is the highest of any industrialized country. The United Nations rightly identified reducing the number of global maternal deaths as a key millennium development goal. Yet of all the millennium goals this one has made the least progress.

And it's not just issues of mothers' health that offer cause for doubt. Countless women around the world, in the U.S. included, still find that their work as mothers and in the workplace is not only under-valued, but under-paid as well. The U.S. campaign group MomsRising found that moms earn 27 percent less than male colleagues (compared to 10 percent less for non mothers); and single mothers earn between 34 percent and 44 percent less. Women in developing countries work 12 to 13 hours more per week more than men, and much of that work can be attributed to the childcare and domestic work involved in 'mothering'. What's more, the different aspects of 'mother's work' are so hard to juggle that many moms end up short changing their families, their careers or their health. Young women around the world tell us that one of their biggest anxieties about the future is whether they will be able to combine motherhood with a successful professional life.

Becoming a mother also brings other new hurdles and realities that are too often absent in the media's rosy depiction of celebrity motherhood: a changed body, new emotions and a realization that one's identity will never be quite the same. Women also discover that many of society's greatest remaining taboos are reserved for the journey towards and beyond motherhood -- from miscarriage to infertility and postpartum depression.

Our exhibition shows the starkness of these realities -- from Chantal Andersen's moving photographs of birth experiences in Bangladesh to Alexia Nye Jackson's documentary about working mothers in the U.S. and Humaira Abid's sculptures depicting the hidden disappointment of miscarriage. But it also illuminates areas of hope and optimism. A health worker in the Democratic Republic of Congo shares her vision for advancing maternal health in her country, a documentarian from Hungary looks at how men are increasing their share of parenting and domestic responsibility and a film-maker from the U.S. elicits women's realistic -- and positive -- reflections on their postpartum bodies. Two contributors share the critical role that mothers in Haiti played in rebuilding their country after the devastating 2010 earthquake.

These visions of hope and change are accompanied by art that spotlights the true beauty and diversity of modern mothers around the world -- through breath-taking images that are often a million miles from the "look how fast I got my body back" pictures of celebrity moms in swim-suits, mere months after giving birth. We see the contours of pregnant and postpartum bellies, the daily lives of mothers inside and outside the home and myriad glimpses of the love, hope and admiration that pass between mothers and children. We see the strength of mothers who are leaders their families and communities -- from Maasai mothers in Kenya to grandmothers in Bangladesh and midwives in Ecuador.

By sharing portraits and stories of motherhood that are too often unseen, we give women a space to define the true realities of 21st century motherhood and to share what needs to be done before mothers are truly valued in our country and in our world.

Perhaps when we can all see -- with clear eyes -- mothers and their lives as they really are, the world will come closer to valuing mothers. Valuing not just their role in families or their even their beauty, but their health, their economic potential and their leadership. On that day, we dream that every mother and every baby will be celebrated with as much acclaim and veneration as Beyoncé and her daughter.

Clare Winterton is the Executive Director of the International Museum of Women.

The MAMA: Motherhood Around the Globe exhibition launches today at http://mama.imow.org/

 

Follow Clare Winterton on Twitter: www.twitter.com/imowomen