Feb 8, 2011

Cultural Divide: Motherhood Edition

I saw this headline today and rolled my eyes: "Mothers-to-Be Are Getting the Message." I assumed it was either yet another article about neurotic upper-middle class women or yet another article offering undue advice for pregnant women. But it turns out it was neither: it's about a highly successful program (text4baby) that sends regular text messages to women who have a hard time accessing prenatal care and don't read the piles of What to Expect books that accumulate in wealthier homes. The messages offer timely advice, based on the mother's due date, on topics like nutrition, finding doctors, and preparing for birth. A broad coalition of women's health providers and organizations have worked together to design the program, and the CEO says that they are designed to be supportive rather than moralizing: "We worked on tone," she said, "so the messages sound like they're coming from a friend. Not 'you should do this' but 'have you thought about this?'" 96% of women who get the text messages say they would recommend the program to their friends.

My reaction to the program – both initially and upon reading more carefully – made me think about the broad cultural divide between rich and poor, relatively speaking. (Maybe it’s better to say it’s a divide between the highly-educated cultural elite and the rest of America?) The most recent explosion of public discussion about mothering came in reaction to Amy Chua’s new book, Battle Hymn of The Tiger Mother, which contains advice (some tongue-in-cheek) about how to raise highly-educated, successful, ambitious children ready for admission to the Ivy League. What a different target audience, though, than the mothers in the text4baby program.

This division reminds me of something else I’ve been hearing about recently: in the midst of national concern about our failing public schools, there is a new movie making the rounds that critically examines the highly pressurized environment of wealthy suburban and private schools. From the movie’s website: “Race to Nowhere points to the silent epidemic in our schools: cheating has become commonplace, students have become disengaged, stress-related illness, depression and burnout are rampant, and young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired.” I haven’t seen the movie, but from what I’ve read it’s an impassioned indictment of one segment of our society's obsession with college applications, and the resulting distortions of adolescents’ lives.

Both of these cases highlight for me the extreme disconnect between different Americans’ experiences because of class, geography, and educational access. I don’t think we can successfully address many of our most pressing social and political problems unless we start to bridge the gap between those experiences.

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