What Motherhood Asks of Us - Dr. Aurelie Athan

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The transition to motherhood is a story as old as time, yet it’s retold with each individual experience of becoming a mother. In honor of Mother’s Day, let’s acknowledge that this seemingly ordinary transformation is in fact extraordinary. There is no doubt that a mother has enormous impact on her children. Yet, it’s also intriguing to examine how children can shape a mother’s personal growth and development.

The Shift

New, and not-so-new, mothers describe an often seismic shift in their identities, priorities and worldviews. It begins with an initial revolution that evolves with time and the developmental needs of their children. These changes can be simultaneously distressing and welcome, sources of both inspiration and depletion. As a researcher and practitioner I am endlessly curious about how mothers make meaning of this enormous personal undertaking. What happens internally and externally as motherhood takes hold as a central, or perhaps more central, preoccupation in their lives?

In trying to make sense of their experiences, mothers may be grappling with the same questions that send seekers to the tops of mountains, church pews, or meditation cushions. One recurring finding in my work shows that raising vulnerable others (animals and aging parents included) unwittingly teaches us about the core tenets of the world wisdom traditions like mindfulness, compassion, patience, ego death and paradox. These are not just benign philosophical ideals. When engaged they have demonstrated, through a growing body of evidence, to confer physical health and psychological well-being. Sometimes these revelations arrive after a crisis, such as an illness or loss, has upended the usual order of things. Becoming a mother, or matrescence as coined by anthropologist Dana Raphael (1975), can also be viewed as another kind of life-drama, with its own disorientation and opportunity for resilience. Like adolescence and other rites of passages, giving birth or defying death (sometimes one and the same), reveal that our own adult development is as interesting as that of our children! We too can use a helping hand and a village to nurture us through.

Katie, a recent transplant to Westchester (Hastings-on-Hudson) from the West Coast, is nostalgic for when, “We used to live in communities with multi-generational families all living nearby or in the same home. While that has its obvious downsides, what a tremendous sense of support we would have as mothers! And when you move you disrupt what you do have. So in my own way, I’ve tried to make those ‘families’ with my neighbors. They see my kids almost every day, I feed theirs, they feed mine. I’m hoping over time we grow our web and keep paying it forward.”

Challenging Cultural Expectations

While parents face challenges that are unique to their individual circumstances, they have collective insights that cut across these differences. One of the common challenges I hear from parents is that the demands of parenting essentially run counter to the modern world and its competing set of cultural expectations: being versus doing, relating versus producing, listening versus performing, comfort with ambiguity versus certainty, presence versus distraction and interdependence versus self-reliance. While one could argue that these are universal human struggles, it could also be said that the introduction of children has an especially amplifying effect.

Many mothers can relate to that painful split when they try to be present while attending to their children. They report a constant divided attention between their to-dos and wanting to spend quality time knowing that this moment is precious and fleeting. Aileen, a former banker from Pelham admitted that, “It was absolutely a losing battle – there wasn’t enough of me to go around between excelling at work and not being stressed for my young children. As someone used to being a high achiever, the dissonance of often knowing exactly what needs to get done, but being physically unable to do it all was extremely frustrating trying to manage my different responsibi­lities.”

Maria, a college instructor from Hastings-on-Hudson, spoke to the additional loss of “me-time” and one repeating scenario on her way to renewed self-focus, “It really does feel like my son knows exactly when I’m trying to get back to my old routines. The other day I finally had it in me to get dressed up in something more than leggings and a dirty shirt. The minute the lipstick touched my lips he woke up from his nap and started crying as if on cue. It happens all the time in big and small ways.”

Like a good family sitcom, parents bemoan getting ready to leave the house for an important appointment, only to find their young children have undressed themselves or their older ones had never gotten dressed to begin with. Even parents devoted to selfless contribution at work, like Scott Harrison, the founder of charity: water, must find comic relief at home: “One of my recurring discouraging moments as a parent: cooking breakfast, looking out with delight to see empty plates, and then next in horror to the floor.”

Self Compassion

On the surface, these absurd encounters can propel deeper existential questions and even dark conclusions like those posed by Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus repeatedly pushing his stone up the hill only to roll down again. Understandably so, parents aren’t always sure if these daily lessons are teaching them humility or humiliation and whether they are, frankly, pointless. Most parents can relate to feeling as if parenthood is punishing when their patience is tested while seeking a moment to themselves or initiating a project only to be thwarted again and again.

“As a professional, I hear my patients describing judgments of themselves and disappointments that I too experience as a parent: the drive to please and succeed in all my roles while also feeling that I am letting everyone down. Yet I’ve learned to become more patient and compassionate with myself. Just like my toddler, I am also learning to walk,” says Greg Payton, psychologist and father of two. “Because of my children, I’ve discovered healthier habits, such as setting boundaries, resisting unimportant distractions and prioritizing the emotional wellness of our family.”

This growing awareness of self-compassion can extend toward other parents through empathic action. Katie again voiced how this has become so automatic to the point that she did not even see it as remarkable, “Oh that happens all the time! At least a few times a month. There have been so many times when I’m out in public and help strangers. Simple things like a mother who needs to go to the bathroom. I’ll offer to wait with her kids so they don’t run off. You make the eye contact and say ‘go, I got this.’”


Mothers I consult with describe as many awe-inducing examples of appreciation for the beneficial ways their children allow them to slow down, notice surroundings and revel in small instances of beauty otherwise missed. Seeing the world from a child’s eyes can have its considerable rewards, including the lasting power of kindness, the pain of misguided aggression, or an insistence to tune back in when tuned out. Children awaken us to bigger truths like the necessity of tolerance for co-existence and the possibility of unconditional love and forgiveness. To paraphrase a client, “My child is a gift to start over, each and every moment.” Such words empower children with the same potential to illuminate our greatest values as any contemplative or spiritual practice. If we can turn a raisin into a moment for reflection à la Jon Kabat Zinn’s famous mindfulness exercise, can we honor motherhood as a vehicle for self-realization and social justice?

Aileen from Pelham agrees. “My children may have changed me from who I thought I was, but I am beyond grateful to say that they are the fire behind my self-actualization. I used to care too much about people’s opinions to make bold decisions. Now I have to put it in the forefront. What kind of example am I setting?” Aileen knew her children were going to pay more attention to what she did rather than what she would say to them, so she makes her actions count. She’s constantly asking herself questions, did I just say I cared about the environment, or did I use only reusable containers in our daily life, recycle as much as humanly possible and live a life of conscious consumption? Did I just say I cared about other people, or did I show up and march for equal rights and take an active role in our local government, donate items to neighbors in need, cook for those less fortunate? “They were watching, and I wanted them to be proud of what they saw, as well as incorporate those habits into their life,” she says.

Mother’s Day can be both a celebration and opportunity to recognize the potential for endless change and discovery in the nature of mothering. Doing so might not come easily at first, like a less-honed muscle that with continued practice becomes a strength. Motherhood might be more akin to a lifetime gym membership, pushing our limits of what it means be human and humane. Mothers are modeling this expanded attitude for the rest of us and revealing stretch marks that are more than just skin deep. As one mother, in a study by myself and a colleague, poignantly professed, “The greatest stress, the greatest stretch … the experience that pushes me to be all that I can be and more than I ever knew I could become” (Athan & Miller, 2013).

Aurélie Athan, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist in private practice and faculty at the Spirituality Mind Body Institute at Teachers College, Columbia University. She specializes in reproductive health and family wellness, and the psychology of creativity, myth and archetypes. matrescence.com.

Read original article in Westchester Family here.

Want to really know what Matrescence is all about?

To find out about the history of #Matrescence starting at Columbia University and now the halls of Teachers College, Columbia University with Dr. Aurelie Athan's work visit: matrescence.com

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"Perhaps reviving the conceptual term matrescence, coined by and borrowed from anthropology, would be most apt within the landscape of maternity. Much like adolescence, it is an experience of disorientation and reorientation marked by an acceleration of changes in multiple domains: physical, psychological, social, and spiritual. We are indeed indebted to the early 'maternal developmentalists' who aptly characterized motherhood in its multi-dimension and dynamism, both the oppressive and the liberating-- the dichotomous phenomena that are often the hallmark of any major life transition. Their perspectives equalized and served to normalize the 'mixed feelings' of women."



CCPX 4126 Mother-Child Matrix: Clinical & Developmental Implications

Take this course - a decade in the making - with Aurélie Athan, Ph.D. offered every semester, and this summer online. There is no one expert on the subject of Matrescence. This course will highlight the writers and scholars in fields ranging from Feminism, Psychoanalysis, to Anthropology who have developed models of maternal development. To learn more and strengthen your knowledge base, see the course description here:

Few areas in psychology have developed as slowly as research and theory about mothers and the transition to motherhood. The purpose of this course is to explore the biological, psychological, social, cultural, and spiritual dimensions that influence a mother's well-being. Theories of maternal development from conception through pregnancy and beyond will be critically examined alongside prevailing conceptualizations of perinatal distress and psychopathology. Matrescence will be proposed as a term like adolescence to describe this significant rite of passage from physiological to identity and role changes. Readings will be interdisciplinary from psychology to anthropology and include empirical, descriptive, theoretical, literary and popular publications. 

You may be taking this course for a number of reasons. Perhaps you have interest in working with mothers and their children. Perhaps you have a personal connection to the issues women commonly face as mothers. This course has been structured to fit a variety of goals. However, if you expected this course to emphasize the infant, then it will be a surprise inversion of focus. We will shift attention to the mother and her experiences, in service of understanding both her and her ultimate relationship with her child--for they both live and thrive within a mother-child matrix.

Vice on Male Body Enhancement - Dr. Melanie Brewster

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Surely, wearing padded underwear is a healthier way of dealing with your own body dysmorphia than using steroids or compulsively exercising, but it also perpetuates unrealistic standards of beauty, according to Columbia University psychology professor Melanie Brewster. “It’s hard for me to imagine that when someone goes out and buys any kind of shaping undergarment, that there isn’t some underlying dissatisfaction with their own bodies,” she says.

Read the full story here:


#MeToo Movement & the News - Dr. Melanie Brewster

“There’s something about the familiarity of news anchors that makes this latest case of sexual harassment feel even more painful,” Melanie Brewster, an associate professor of psychology at Teachers College at Columbia University and co-founder of the “Sexuality, Women and Gender Project” there, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Matt Lauer was someone who was a daily guest in people’s homes, while they were getting ready for work or eating breakfast, and supposed to be a trustworthy and wholesome figure. We are living in a jaded age where, as women, we almost anticipate or expect that male politicians or Hollywood types will be skeezy, but admitting to ourselves that this isn’t just an issue for ‘some men in some fields,’ but men everywhere, across all walks of life, is disheartening. Perhaps this is the reckoning that will lead to women finally being believed and heard.”

Read the full piece here.

Sex Ed: Lessons from the Frontline - Panel Discussion - RSVP NOW!

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Open to the Public

RSVP Now with Eventbrite!

Learn more: https://sex-ed.tc.columbia.edu/

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The following sex education leaders will be featured on the panel:

Brittany Brathwaite (reproductive justice activist | KIMBRITIVE)
Brittany Brathwaite is a reproductive justice activist, community accountable scholar, and justice designer with a deep-seated commitment for supporting the leadership, organizing, and health of girls of color. Brittany has worked to create change through sexual health education, advocacy, policy and research. Brittany is the co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer at KIMBRITIVE, a social start-up unapologetically working to educate and empower communities about sexual health, reproductive justice and everything in between. Brittany holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Women’s and Gender Studies from Syracuse University and a Master of Public Health and Master of Social Work from Columbia University. When she’s not attempting to save the world, you can catch on her co- curating a feminist gift box inspired by women of color, The Homegirl Box. 

Kurt Conklin (sexuality education trainer)
Kurt Conklin, MPH, MCHES began his career at Planned Parenthood Southeastern Pennsylvania. Later, as Director of Programs at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS) he trained school personnel in places as diverse as Mississippi, California, North Dakota, the District of Columbia, and New York City. He is a contributor to the national Teacher Preparation Standards for Sexuality Education, and continues to train teachers to use the National Sexuality Education Standards. He is currently on the faculty of the Montclair State University Department of Public Health. His 2013 research article “’We Can’t Let Chicago Outdo Us, Can We?’ Sex Education and Desegregation in New York City's Public Schools” appeared in the journal History of Education Quarterly.

Lindsay Fram (Children's Aid)
Lindsay Fram currently serves as the Director of Capacity Building for the Children’s Aid Adolescence Division. She has an MPH from Tulane University and served two years in the Peace Corps in Guatemala working with schools on HIV education and prevention. Lindsay then spent several years teaching sexuality education as part of the Carrera Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program (Carrera Program) and then went on to developed a middle school sexuality education curriculum for the Carrera Program titled Above the Waist: Sexuality Education Beginning with the Brain. Lindsay also works as an independent consultant training teachers and parent groups who want to increase their capacity to talk to young people about sex and sexuality. 

Emily Kadar (National Institute for Reproductive Health)
Emily Kadar is the Government Affairs and Advocacy Manager at the National Institute for Reproductive Health and the NIRH Action Fund. In that role, she lobbies for proactive policies that fortify access to abortion, contraception, and sexuality education in New York State and City and manages the organization's electoral activity. She also serves as co-chair of the Sexuality Education Alliance of New York City (SEANYC), a broad coalition that advocates for comprehensive, K-12 sex ed that meets the National Sexuality Education Standards for all New York City youth.

Lindsey Harr (New York City Department of Education)
Lindsey Harr is Executive Director for the Office of School Wellness Programs at the NYC Department of Education. She leads her team in promoting comprehensive health education as essential to student well-being and achievement. This work encompasses advising on systemwide policies, like the sexual health education mandate and the high school condom demonstration policy, as well as developing and implementing school-level efforts to strengthen sex ed. Through free trainings and curriculum, CDC-funded initiatives, the high school Condom Availability Program, and teacher mentoring, Lindsey and her team collaborate with educators and partners citywide to improve student access to quality, inclusive sexual health education. 

Wazina Zondon (sexuality educator and trainer)
Wazina, enters her fourteenth year in the field of holistic sexuality, beginning as a sexuality educator at Planned Parenthood traveling throughout the Mid-Hudson Valley region from high schools to prisons. She spent three years focusing on promoting and training on LGBTQ best practices for with the Empire State Pride Agenda and GLSEN; she returned to the classroom full-time in 2010. Inside and outside of the classroom, Wazina offers expertise on addressing the intersections of homophobia and islamophobia, often traveling as part of Coming Out Muslim: Radical Acts of Love, a storytelling performance. Currently she is part of the founding team at the Brooklyn Emerging Leaders Academy (BELA), an all-girl STEAM high school in BedStuy. 

Learn more about our Teacher Training Program, please visit: https://sex-ed.tc.columbia.edu/

For a link to the FB event: https://www.facebook.com/events/132071334104176/

To register on the Eventbrite page: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/sex-ed-lessons-from-the-frontlines-tickets-36676699997 

Hope to see you on December 4th! 

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Female Stereotypes & the Airline Industry - Dr. Melanie Brewster

Melanie Brewster, an assistant professor of psychology and the co-founder of the Sexuality, Women, & Gender Project at Columbia University in New York City, tells Yahoo Beauty that Poole is far from alone in being a woman met with disbelief about her own medical condition. The way in which women aren’t taken seriously in medical contexts is well-documented: Studies have found that women are forced to wait longer to receive pain medicine in hospital settings than men, that extreme menstrual pain described by women to their physicians is frequently dismissed, that women receive less aggressive treatment for heart attacks when admitted to hospitals than men, and that the default in clinical trials for pharmaceuticals is male patients. The sociocultural phenomenon of not trusting women about their own health has made women skeptical of medicine itself, too, further reinforcing a dangerous cycle that leaves women’s concerns about their health ignored.

And Brewster says that she thinks women’s sexuality plays a central role in this problem.

“In psychology we have a framework called Objectification Theory which explains that women are sexualized to such a point that their worth and value is entirely dictated by their outward appearance,” Brewster says. “Women who are in historically sexualized occupations (i.e., flight attendants, hostesses, waitresses, fashion models) are some of the easiest to objectify because their jobs put them on display for consumption.

“And, of course, objects don’t complain; the purpose of an object is to please,” Brewster continues. “This is why men just don’t buy women’s pain; it is repeatedly minimized or dismissed as hysteria or disproportionate whining because it is incongruent with women being happy rays of sunshine, easy to look at and nondisruptive.”

Brewster adds that because of this, for someone like Poole to claim that her own health isn’t being believed is not totally dissimilar to the way in which survivors of sexual assault routinely meet skepticism. These survivors, she says, are too often viewed “as objects” — and as such, “they don’t have power over their own narrative. Men still hold that power.”  

Furthermore, Brewster says, there is something about uniforms in general that helps to invalidate women’s pain. The allegations about the American Airlines uniforms, she says, reflect “a long history of women having to ‘suck up’ pain and discomfort in order to adhere to unrealistic cultural beauty norms.”

For further proof, she says one need look no further than the fact that until very recently (and even today for some airlines), flight attendants were required to wear high heels during their in-flight shifts, despite the known health risks associated with this kind of footwear. This is why Canada went so far as to make it illegal to require the wearing of high heels at work. High heels can cause muscle degradation and hip problems when worn over long stretches of time.

And in many professions where a uniform is required, as is the case for the iflight crews of commercial airlines, these clothing choices reflect a “tacit expectation … [that the female employee] either look ‘sexy’ at work, or find another job.”


Read the full story here.

Calling all health/sex ed teachers!

The Reproductive Health/ Well-being Lab at the Sexuality, Women, and Gender Project at TC is seeking NYC educators to participate in a short online survey about teaching sexual health education. We are passionate about arming teachers with the tools they need in order to ensure all students receive the quality, comprehensive and medically accurate sex education they so deserve. This study will lead to a better understanding of the current state of sex education in NYC and indicate possible areas of development for teacher training. Participation in this survey is voluntary, and one may withdraw from this study at any time without any penalty. No identifying information will be requested of participants.

If you do not teach health/sex education, please help spread the word! We would greatly appreciate any effort (facebook, twitter, linkedin, email listservs) to get our survey out to as many NYC health teachers as possible!

The survey can be accessed here: https://goo.gl/au4dop  

Understanding Roadblocks to Providing Comprehensive Sex Education

Faced by Middle and High School Teachers in New York City

Dear Educator,

We invite you to take a brief online survey for a DOE-approved study that aims to identify the needs of New York City educators who teach about sexual health.

I am writing to you on behalf of the Sexuality, Women, and Gender Project of Teachers College, Columbia University. The current study will provide information about sexual health education to better understand the factors influencing teacher effectiveness in this area.

The link to the online survey is below. It will take approximately 15 to 25 minute to complete, and will ask about attitudes and beliefs regarding teaching about sexual health. Participation is voluntary. Participants may decline to answer any questions presented during the survey. Furthermore, one may decide to withdraw from this study at any time. No identifying information will be requested of participants. Responses will be stored on an encrypted server that is password protected. I assure you that this study has been reviewed and approved by the Institutional Research Ethics Review Board (IRB) at Teachers College, Columbia University as well as the NYC Department of Education IRB Board.

If you would like to participate, here is a link to the survey: https://goo.gl/au4dop

If you do not teach about sexual health in New York City but know of anyone who does, I would greatly appreciate it if you could forward this e-mail on our behalf.

If you have any questions about this study, I can be reached at brewster@tc.columbia.edu. For concerns resulting from your participation in this study, please contact the Institutional Review Board of Teachers College, Columbia University (irb@tc.edu).

Thank you for your assistance in this project.

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Exploring Gender and Sexuality in Everyday Curricular Practices

C&T 5563

Tuesdays 5:10-6:50pm

Nancy Lesko






Queer of Color Critique and Education Praxis
Teachers College: Summer Session B
C&T 5199 Tuesday and Thursday
4:40pm - 6:45pm

*These courses will count towards your elective credits in the SWG Certificate Program


Recruiting Laboratory Volunteers and Coordinator!

Laboratory on Sexual/Reproductive Well- Being

  • Sexuality, Women, & Gender Project
  • Dept of Counseling & Clinical Psychology
  • Teachers College, Columbia University
  • Directors: Aurelie Athan, Ph.D; Melanie Brewster, Ph.D., Riddhi Sandil, Ph.D.


ORIENTATION MEETING: 9/21, 328HM, 2:30-3:30

Description of Research:

The Sexual/Reproductive Well-Being Laboratory will be studying the topic of young adult pregnancy and health education programming. The primary goal is to improve the quality of sexuality/reproductive literacy education. It will review existing programs, survey health educators, and develop a cutting-edge teacher development training platform at TC to disseminate well-validated concepts, topics, and messages that ideally make up a comprehensive and holistic sexuality/reproductive curriculum.

Laboratory Meetings:

Wednesdays weekly: 2:30-4pm.

Orientation meeting: 9/21/16 - 328 HM Conference Room - Orientation, Recruitment/Selection

Please bring copy of your resume and brief paragraph of interest and also email to swgproject@tc.columbia.edu.

Volunteer Research Assistants:

We welcome research assistants to support the various laboratory needs including: literature reviews, survey development, participant recruitment, data analysis, etc. Requirements:

  • Weekly lab attendance + 6-8 hours/week independent work.

  • Interest in issues related to young adulthood/adolescence/emerging adulthood, sex/health education, reproduction & parenting.

  • Priority will be given to students who have demonstrated competency in courses taught by the directors.

  • Knowledge of research databases, and general research skills (e.g. literature searches, data management).

Laboratory Coordinator:

In addition to volunteer research assistants we will be interviewing and hiring a laboratory coordinator. Please attend Orientation Meeting (9/21/16 - 328 HM Conference Room - 2:30-3:30pm). Requirements:

  • 20 hours per week

  • Leadership experience managing projects.

  • Confirmed commitment to this topic as supported by current academic interests and or previous experience.

  • Please bring copy of your resume and cover letter of interest to first meeting and also email to swgproject@tc.columbia.edu. Interviews will be conducted and completed by 9/30.

Ruth Lubic & Call the Midwife

TC's very own Pioneer of Midwifery, Dr. Ruth Lubic

 Ruth Lubic

Ruth Lubic

In this month's issue of The New Yorker, the "sneaky radicalism of 'Call the Midwife'" is featured by Emily Nussbaum. Dr. Ruth Lubic of Teachers College pointed us to the article while also highlighting the impact of Public Health Nursing home visits as well clinic appointments. Her own early "eye-opening" experiences during home visits led her to supplement her nurse-midwifery education  at Kings County Hospital with anthropology at TC. She went on to found the Maternity Center Association's Childbearing Center, for which she received a MacArthur "genius" award and to co-found the National Association of Birth Centers which has inspired the creation of more than 325 free-standing birth centers in the United States. Dr. Lubic, a "living legend" according to the American Academy of Nursing, most recently created an endowed scholarship to support TC students in Applied Anthropology, with a preference given to registered nurses or other health care professionals.

To learn more about this mother of the American midwifery movement, read the full TC Today article here.

SWG Project and MOM (Museum of Motherhood) was honored to induct Dr. Lubic into the Motherhood Hall of Fame this Spring.

 Image curtousy of The New Yorker

Image curtousy of The New Yorker