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An interview with Enola Aird

The Director of The Motherhood Project at
the Institute for American Values shares her insights with the MMO

Interview by Judith Stadtman Tucker

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Enola G. Aird is an activist mother. After leaving the practice of law to devote her time and energies to her children, she learned first-hand the extent to which mothering is devalued in the United States. This led her to “a new calling as an activist mother, committed to fighting for the best of all possible worlds for children and the mothers and fathers who raise them.”

Enola is an Affiliate Scholar at the Institute for American Values in New York City where she established and directs the Motherhood Project and serves as convener of the Project’s Mothers’ Council, a group of mothers of diverse backgrounds and perspectives “committed to protecting the integrity of children and the dignity of childhood and motherhood”. The mission of the Motherhood Project is to foster “a renewed sense of purpose, passion, and power in the vocation of mothering in both the private and public spheres.” The Project seeks to promote “a deeper appreciation for the contributions mothers make to children and to society, and to bring fresh knowledge to bear to help mothers meet the challenges of raising children in an age driven by the values of commerce and technology.” Enola is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Barnard College and received her law degree from Yale University. During the mid-1990s, Enola worked at the Children's Defense Fund in Washington, DC, directing its violence prevention program and serving as acting director of its Black Community Crusade for Children. She was appointed by Governors O’Neill and Weicker to the Connecticut Commission on Children and elected Chair by its members. She serves on the board of directors and the executive committee of the National Parenting Association, where she is also an adviser to its Task Force on Revitalizing Parenting for the 21st Century.

Enola has appeared in a variety of media including Face The Nation, The News Hour, The O’Reilly Factor, and other shows. Her work with the Motherhood Project was featured in an article in the May 2003 edition of the Ladie's Home Journal. She has published articles in periodicals as diverse as The Wall Street Journal, Theology Today, and Parenting magazine and contributed chapters to several edited publications, most recently, Taking Parenting Public: The Case for A New Social Movement, edited by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Nancy Rankin, and Cornel West. She is currently at work on a book entitled "Militant Mothering."

MMO: A statement on the Motherhood Project Web site emphasizes the need to spark a “mother’s renaissance”. Using the term “renaissance” implies a sort of revival— do you believe there has been a time in American history when mothers were better off, or had more social and economic influence, than they do today?

EA: Actually, the term “mothers’ renaissance” was inspired by the Harlem Renaissance, which certainly did not imply that there had ever been a time in American history when black people were better off or had more influence. It was rather a time of great flowering, of new thinking about the potential, possibilities, and power of the black community. In a similar vein, the Motherhood Project seeks to provide intellectual resources and create opportunities for exchange to help spark a “mothers’ renaissance”-- fresh, creative thinking about the potential, possibilities, and power of the community of mothers.

Through mothers’ statements, appeals, and reports as well as symposia and other gatherings, we are working to promote discussion and activism by mothers about motherhood and mothering -- about who mothers are, what we do, what we need and want, our importance to our children, families, and society, and our potential as catalysts for cultural and social change. Our goal is not to tell mothers what to think, but to create opportunities for mothers to grapple for themselves with these fundamental questions. We seek to help generate new wisdom for mothering in the 21st century, an era that will be driven by the values of commerce and technology, values that are often very much at odds with the values necessary to support mothers and the work of mothering.

MMO: What role does a ‘mother’s renaissance’ play in the contemporary movement to improve social and economic conditions for mothers?

EA: The Motherhood Project wants to help bring an end to our culture’s devaluing of mothers and mothers’ work and we are fully committed to helping build a movement aimed at improving social and economic conditions for mothers. We believe that a mothers’ renaissance will contribute to the movement by helping to bring into the conversation a broad range of mothers’ voices to refine current thinking and generate new ideas for initiatives and policies to value and support mothers.

MMO: How did you become involved in the formation of the Motherhood Project at the Institute for American Values, and later the Mother’s Council?

EA: I am a lawyer by training. When I withdrew from the paid workforce to take care of my children in the mid 1980’s, my life changed dramatically. In my professional life, I had been valued. In my life as a mother, I was not. I learned first-hand of the extent to which mothers, mothering, and children are devalued in this society. I was deeply troubled by the fact that our national conversation about mothering was limited to divisive, media- driven “mommy wars.” I wanted to find a way to help move the conversation forward -- to consider a deeper, more important set of questions that might have the potential of bringing mothers together to work to change conditions for themselves and their children.

Taking mothers’ freedom and the gains of the women’s movement as givens, I wanted to be part of constructing a national conversation that would bring forth new visions and ideas for valuing and empowering mothers, supporting the work of mothering, and mobilizing mothers for the benefit of mothers, children, and families. And I wanted to bring together, in a Mothers’ Council, a group of mothers of diverse backgrounds and political and ideological points of view to take on this challenge and build coalitions with mothers’ groups across the country. The Institute, which has a record of convening people of diverse viewpoints to address issues affecting children, families, and civil society, offered me a base of operations and the absolute freedom to set off in whatever directions seemed to make sense in light of our mission and objectives.

MMO: Most of the activities and research initiated by the Motherhood Project might be described as child centered— they’ve focused on what we need to do, as parents and a society, to shield the nation’s children from harmful influences and protect the integrity of our families. In fact, the URL of your main Web site is "watchoutforchildren.org”. How is this related to your thinking around mothers’ issues?

EA: The Motherhood Project and the Mothers’ Council are concerned with both mothers’ rights and children’s needs. In the Call to a Motherhood Movement, a mothers’ statement issued by the Council last October, we urged mothers to “move boldly to change the conditions under which we mother and under which our children are living.”

We recognize that some mothers will want to focus on mothers’ rights, some will want to devote their energies to addressing children’s needs, and others will prefer an approach that combines the two concerns. There is more than enough work for all of us. It will take a great deal of energy, resources, and good thinking to build this movement and we believe that it is best that we try, where possible, to help and support each other, and look for ways to collaborate.

MMO: Do you believe there is any potential conflict between promoting the needs of children for a safe and secure family life and promoting mothers’ rights to full social and economic citizenship?

EA: I hope there will not be any irreconcilable conflicts. The challenge for all who are concerned with improving conditions for mothers and for children is to build a movement that goes beyond an individualistic, interest-group politics pitting mothers’ interests against children’s needs.

The Motherhood Project wants to point to something admittedly harder (but ultimately, bolder and grander), that recognizes the interconnectedness of mothers and children and members of families, and seeks to recalibrate the values and priorities of our society so that mothers, children, and families get all that they need in order to flourish.

MMO: What is the relationship between the Motherhood Project and the Mothers’ Council? What is the mission of the Mothers’ Council, and how is it currently expressed?

EA: The Mothers’ Council advises the Motherhood Project, examines matters affecting mothers, motherhood, and the work of mothering, and builds coalitions with mothers’ groups across the country, and increasingly, the world.

Among the key objectives of the Council is the preparation and dissemination of mothers’ statements, appeals, and reports (such as Watch Out for Children: A Mothers’ Statement to Advertisers and Call to a Motherhood Movement) designed to add mothers’ voices to the public debate and promote vigorous “mother-informed” national conversations.

MMO: How were the members of the Mothers’ Council recruited?

EA: Our goal in convening the Council was to bring together mothers of diverse races, backgrounds, and points of view, all of whom shared a willingness to listen to and reason with one another to find common ground. We wanted to identify mothers willing to move beyond the easy “with us or against us” attitude that prevails today in discussions of ideas and policies to search for solutions of broad appeal.

We sought mothers who were committed to raising the voices and the visibility of mothers and who believed that mothers’ interests and children’s needs need not be seen as mutually exclusive.

MMO: In October 2002, the Mothers’ Council released a founding document, “Call to A Motherhood Movement”. Do you feel there is a difference between the Council’s concept of a “motherhood movement” and the “mothers movement” that has energized advocacy organizations such as the National Association of Mother’s Centers (the Mothers Ought To Have equal Rights initiative) and Mothers & More?

EA: The Call to a Motherhood Movement was explicit in calling for a movement to value, support, and extend equal rights to mothers. We very much want to be a part of the search for initiatives and proposals that would dramatically improve social and economic conditions for mothers. We would go further, however, to work to put “mothers’ concerns about children and nurturing at the top of the national agenda.”

We want to create a movement that goes beyond the “work and family” debate to a more far-reaching “culture and family” debate. We want to see our culture transformed so that the values that currently dominate our lives -- radical individualism, relentless competition, and materialism -- yield enough room for the values necessary for nurturing human beings and developing human relationships, values such as caring, nurturing, and connectedness.We do not expect that mothers’ groups will agree on everything, but we want to help build a movement that is broad-based and collaborative, and we are committed to working, when we can, with MOTHER, Mothers & More, and other mothers’ organizations.

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