The Momservations Project | National Women’s Theatre Festival | Friday, July 29, 7:30 p.m., Sunday, July 31, 2:30 p.m., Thursday, August 4, 7:30 p.m.
After three years of research and analysis, Johannah Maynard Edwards is succinct on the conditions of motherhood in the United States right now.
“They’re deteriorating,” says the executive artistic director of the National Women’s Theatre Festival. “It’s worse today than it was yesterday, worse than it was last year and three years ago.”
Edwards reflects for a second. “And,” she adds, “it’s going to be worse tomorrow.”
She and Molly Claassen, an associate professor at Columbus State University, have assembled the facts to back up that hard-nosed conclusion. This and next week, they’ll present these and other findings in an unconventional form: the theatrical workshop premiere of The Momversations Project at the National Women’s Theatre Festival in Raleigh.
The 90-minute work is a documentary theater project on the circumstances and conditions of pregnancy, childbirth, and beyond in our country that have long gone unreported and unexamined.
Dramaturg Emily Boyd Dahab describes the work as “a memoir of a moment in American motherhood, a lampoon of the political quagmire in which we find ourselves, a lullaby to that which we wish would change, and a battle cry … to encourage ourselves and others to keep up the fight.”
Begin with the fact that motherhood is endemic in our culture. The Pew Research Center reports that the overwhelming majority, 86 percent, of American women and birthing people will become parents at some point during their lifetime.
They are also twice as likely to die now than their mothers were a generation ago as a result of their pregnancies.
That number more than doubles again for women of color in the United States.
The country’s maternal mortality rate jumped by more than a third over the last three years on record according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Not only is it now the highest among developed nations, but the fatality rate here is nearly three times higher than in the next worst country, France.
“What we’re seeing all over the country is that where you live, in a city or a rural area—and not just if you’re in a red or blue state but a red or blue county—has a real correlation to life expectancy for pregnant women and their mental health outcomes,” Edwards says.
An American health-care system plagued by health and racial inequities and underinvestment in primary care and mental health “too often fails women of reproductive age,” according to an April study by the Commonwealth Fund.
In The Momversations Project, Edwards, Claassen, and their colleagues ground these statistical realities in the real-life stories of more than 100 mothers, doctors, nurses, doulas, and others that they’ve interviewed over the last three years.
“As we looked at what was unfolding around us,” Edwards says, “we asked ourselves, could we use these ancient mechanisms of community, theater, and storytelling to help make lives better on a cellular, individual level and outcomes statistically better in specific communities?”
They began releasing some of their stories in a podcast series in March. Then they turned to a community of mothers to mount the stage production.
But, since mothers are so ubiquitous, why is such a project necessary?
“We just don’t talk about motherhood,” says Claassen, who directs the show. She notes that in American society having a baby “is all butterflies and rainbows—and yes, parts of it are absolutely amazing. But we don’t talk about the realities of what it truly is to be a pregnant person: what that does to your body, what recovery is like, and what it is to now suddenly have to take care of another human being.”
Another reason such stories have gone untold? Most mothers are far too busy being moms: juggling work responsibilities and home lives, which frequently involve disproportionate shares of housework and childcare.
“American mothers are exhausted. They’re just drowning,” Dahab says. In her program notes she writes that when birthing people are mothering, “nothing is harder than finding time, space, energy, and bandwidth to record that experience.”
Cultural expectations—and the fear of being branded a bad mom if one complains—compound the silence.
“As soon as you speak up and say this isn’t right, you have to be so careful in the way you do it to be heard,” Claassen says. “Otherwise, you’re ‘dramatic.’ You become the hysterical woman—or you’re the bitch.”
And when much about women’s health is kept hidden and treated as shameful, a lot of crucial information doesn’t get passed down. “We just tell the cleaned-up version, the tropes, the stereotypes over and over again,” Edwards says.
Claassen says it’s critical that motherhood be discussed in ways “more forthcoming” than it has been. “It’s beyond ridiculous that people can get pregnant and say, ‘What the hell’s happening?’ But that’s what happens when there is no knowledge base.”
She recalls prepping herself during childhood to be a mother: babysitting, working at daycare centers, poring over issues of Parents magazine.
“I thought I was so informed,” she says. “And I still had no freaking clue. For someone who actively tried to learn all of this, I still didn’t have anywhere near the information I should have had.”
When so much fundamental information has been withheld, the question arises: What percentage of women and birthing people have ever been in the position to give truly informed consent about entering into motherhood?
As almost every mother knows, the challenges don’t end there. Birthing people are routinely misinformed and their experiences discounted, and disbelieved, often beyond the point at which their and their children’s lives are endangered.
One centerpiece in The Momversations Project depicts a story based on the experience of April Castillo, a biracial woman whose self-diagnosis of life-threatening preeclampsia was disregarded by her physicians, even though she had a medical degree herself. “They told me to stop calling,” she reported.
In the performance, Stephanie Pieper and performer and writer Ariel Fay Gray enact a harrowing dance sequence while her narrative unfolds.
Because the Dobbs case that overturned Roe made its way through the courts while The Momversations Project was in development, reproductive rights have been a concern throughout the production’s development.
“Depending on their weight and height, some 10-year-olds are still required by law to be in a booster seat,” Edwards says. Citing a recent case in Ohio she notes, “That same 10-year-old can be forced to carry and give birth to a baby.
“As [the Roe decision] got closer and closer, it just crystallized for us: motherhood is so fucking hard, nobody should be forced into doing it.”
A dollar from every show ticket will be donated to the Carolina Abortion Fund, and to help enable the audience to take at least one meaningful action themselves, representatives from the Carolina Abortion Fund and Moms Demand Action will have tables in the lobby. People can write postcards to their state representatives on legislation pending in the General Assembly before and after the performance.
To be clear, The Momversations Project isn’t 90 minutes of despair. “It’s about the messy and the beautiful,” Claassen says. “There’s so many moments that are so fulfilling and worthwhile and beautiful.”
Humor, wonder, and deep empowerment inform sections on microchimerism, social justice, and unconditional love. The producers also integrated a different form of activism into the production’s own structure and casting. In an art form where mothers have typically been excluded, only one member of The Momversations Project is not a mother.
Provisions for childcare and accommodations for the other unpredictable intrusions of motherhood have been a part of the project from the outset, in embracing what the Parent Artist Advocacy League calls radical inclusivity.
“It’s not just about doing it because it’s necessary; it’s about doing it because it’s right,” Claassen says. “And it’s really not all that hard. If you just allow people to be human, really, you can figure it out.”
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