Motherhood and Work: ShopTalk Perspectives

painting by Carl Wilhelm Kolbe, the younger, called 'Cooper Shop'

The painting is used with permission from The Grohmann Museum Collection at Milwaukee School of Engineering. Painting by Carl Wilhelm Kolbe, the younger; German (1781-1853); Entitled ‘Cooper Shop,’ ca.1816; Oil on canvas; 16 3/4 x 21 3/4 in.

by Carmelo Dávila

“A mother’s work is never done.”

Whether you are a mother or not, you have certainly heard some of the many expressions about the work of motherhood.  They point to the complexity of the ‘job’ and allude to the lack of recognition for this work in society.

May is the month when Mother’s Day is celebrated, so as part of our ongoing fascination with, and examination of, the subject of work, we turn our humanities lens on the work of motherhood. ShopTalk presentations such as ‘Workplace Equity for Mothers’ and ‘Work-Life Balance: Is it an Option for Mothers?’ provide some historical and modern context within which to think about and discuss what mothering entails. We hope you will consider hosting one of these, or any of the more than forty ShopTalk presentations, in your community!

◊  ◊  ◊


Modern Motherhood

Historian Jodi Vandenberg-Daves has devoted a significant portion of her career to study the historical evolution of motherhood in the United States. She says, “In most cultures since the dawn of history, women have been told that their primary role is to be a mother. And the vast majority of women in world history have become mothers. Yet remarkably few of the thousands of history books ever written focus on the history of motherhood.”

Her latest book, Modern Motherhood: An American History, (Rutgers University Press, 2014), provides the first synthesis of the history of mothers’ experiences and motherhood as ideal, ideology, and institution, with its various political, national, religious and scientific meanings. 

One of Jodi’s ShopTalks is called ‘Mother’s Labors. ’ This is an exploration of the historical patterns associated with the role women in the United States have played in supporting their families’ economic survival. She looks at changes since the industrial era. Her presentation is also an invitation to examine some of the more pressing implications of the changing role of mothers throughout modern history. She invites a conversation about the historical and modern ways women have worked as wage-earners and caregivers.

In her other ShopTalk, ‘Workplace Equity for Mothers,’ she considers some of the more contemporary challenges facing working women as they strive to harmonize their role as mothers and their desire or need to work outside the home. As she will underscore, challenges for wage-earning mothers still abound, even in those cases where another parent is actively involved in child-rearing.

◊  Click Here to Find Jodi in ShopTalk  ◊


A Delicate Balance

Many women living in Wisconsin are finding their own ways to balance mothering with paid employment.  Jessie Garcia says, “I dropped to part-time after my first son was born, and turned down a lot of promotion opportunities in favor of being there more for my two sons. We gave up a lot of money, choosing instead to stay in a smaller home and tighten the belt.”

In her ShopTalk presentation called ‘Work-Life Balance: Is it an Option for Mothers?,  she shares her personal story about harmonizing motherhood, family life, and work, to succeed in an increasingly competitive and demanding job market. With her second ShopTalk presentation, ‘Finding Your Own Path,’ she invites everyone to engage in a deep discussion about how mothers in Wisconsin are struggling with questions of how much to work, where, and for whom.


◊  UPDATE: Jessie Garcia is temporarily on leave from ShopTalk ◊

Mothering Traditions

Engaging in conversations about the challenges and joys of working and raising a family certainly makes us more aware that the experience of motherhood, and of parenting in general, is part of so many lives. What that parenting entails and means to people, however, is subject to much cultural variation.

Mothering practices are situated at the crossroad between nature and nurture. Coping with this paradox while wearing the parent’s hat can be complicated. This is why professor Maysee Yang Herr hopes to encourage people attending her ShopTalk presentations to think deeply about how cultural beliefs, values, and experiences often inform parenting decisions. To make this point, she presents a research study done with first- and second-generation Hmong mothers and children in the United States, as well as her own experience as a female Hmong professional and a mother.

In her ShopTalk presentation called ‘Hmong Motherhood: Cultural Influences on Parenting Styles,’ Maysee explains some of the ways that Hmong mothers support their children and directly teach them to solve problems. This sometimes contradicts Hmong traditional values and beliefs. In this example, the work of a mother includes the additional task of navigating the complexities of being a bi-cultural parent, and the need to negotiate culturally-sanctioned gender role expectations.

Her other presentation, ‘Being a Female Hmong Professional,’ follows a similar line of thought by emphasizing her personal experience as one of the only few Hmong females working in academia, coping with the challenge of having to defy social and cultural expectations, while still embracing her cultural heritage as a Hmong American.

◊  Click Here to Find Maysee in ShopTalk  ◊


Bring ShopTalk to your town!

In our contemporary society, work is a defining feature of life. The topic of work can encompass an infinite range of human experiences. Some of these experiences define us as individuals, while others connect us as members of society.

Our 25+ ShopTalk speakers were selected for their knowledge or specific angle they can offer on work, and for their skill in helping public audiences take on conversations about work as a lived experience. A public humanities program aspiring to tackle the topic of work in all it vastness and richness cannot be complete without addressing the work that mothers have done, and continue to do, throughout history and beyond. We are proud to offer these talks, as well as many, many more.

ShopTalk is free to host and free to attend. ShopTalk is easy to book and easy to publicize.

To book or learn more about Jodi, Jessie, Maysee, or other ShopTalk presenters, please visit the ShopTalk website website.

Thank you for helping us spread the word and for adding your perspective to this public humanities conversation about work in Wisconsin.




Kathleen Gallagher, Mark Johnson, Gary Porter and Allison Sherwood are all Pulitzer winners from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

As part of the WHC’s ShopTalk speaker/discussion program, they are available to come speak in your community for free in 2016.

Health, Work, and Healthy Working: What is Human Factors Engineering? 

Katherine Sanders, one of our ShopTalk presenters, shares her Top 5 list for creating work systems that promote health and meaning, as well as productivity and efficiency. 

Funding Priorities:

Do you have an idea for a public humanities program about work?  

The WHC grant program has 7 grant deadlines a year and funding is available for Wisconsin groups. 

Learn more about applying for a WHC grant!


Leave a Reply