January 8, 2001
West examines child
'myths of motherhood'
By Michael Alpert
Laurel Parker West isnt yet a mother, but shes already headlong into checking out child care.
As one of three graduate fellows at the Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life (MARIAL), West has embarked on ambitious research focused on the national condition of child care policy and the perceptions of Americas mothers. Her research precisWelfare Queens, Soccer Moms and the Working Poor: The Socio-Political Construction of State Child Care Policybespeaks her seemingly overwhelming undertaking to examine policies in all 50 states
.In keeping with MARIALs purpose of researching and training in
the study of ritual and myth in middle-class families, Wests 16-month-long
focus is on states child care policies as created by four perceived
categories of mothers:
West formulated this concept for her doctoral thesis nearly a year ago
after canvassing south Georgias Crisp and Dooly counties for a research
assignment on welfare reform. Her interest was sparked further by a recent
book by Theda Skocpol, The Missing Middle: Working Families and the
Future of American Social Policy, which confirmed Wests preconceptions
that government programs increasingly are being aimed either at societys
poor or at its wealthyat the expense of its ever-widening socioeconomic
It seems incredibly hypocritical to me that politicians are calling
for welfare mothers to work, while at the same time trying to make it
easier for middle-class mothers to stay home with their children,
West said. It seems striking to me that ... if you are poor enough
to be on welfare, your job as mother doesnt seem nearly as important.
Her research comprises two phases: first, an examination of politicians
and the medias typification of moms, followed by case studies in
Georgia (and likely Tennessee) to review the implementation of state policies.
For example, West hypothesizes that rural states policies and programs
will focus more on welfare moms and affordability of child
care, including vouchers for low-income parents. Conversely, more cosmopolitan
states would focus more on quality of care, offering government subsidies
such as tax credits or head-start programs as well as encouraging employer-sponsored
flex time and telecommuting.
West expects her research to be particularly revealing in four states:
Wisconsin, which she considers a leader in welfare reform; Tennessee,
which recently passed child care quality standards; North Carolina, which
she said offers scholarships to train daycare providers; and Georgia,
which boasts universal pre-K programs.
Im going to classify each state according to how it views
the myths of motherhood, West said. I want to find out how
these societal myths shape states concrete policies.
West, who teaches an introductory-level public policy course, began last
fall cataloguing Internet media articles about states child care
policies. By February, she plans to mail surveys to legislators and child
care policy makers to elicit their opinions. She will perform the case
studies herself this summer. Hoping to produce an initial draft of her
dissertation by December, West is excited about launching into an immense
body of research.
If theres a graduate student able to complete something this
big, its Laurel, said Jolly Emrey, a colleague who worked
with West on the welfare policy research in south Georgia. Shes
very organized and incredibly capable. Shes definitely taken on
a huge body of work.
I dont think her dissertation is just something shes
doing to get her Ph.D., added Emrey, now a professor at the University
of New Hampshire. She really and truly cares about this issue.
West is focused on making her research well rounded, including both qualitative
and quantitative analysis. Not only does she plan to interview legislators
about future focuses in policy, she also hopes to attend government meetings,
state-level conferences and visit daycare centers. Interviewing lawmakers,
West said, will provide valuable foresight into a career she hopes to
someday enjoy in public policy and community development.
Michael Rich, director of the Office of University-Community Partnerships
and the political science professor who directed Wests welfare reform
work, said her research should result in a dissertation of great use to
policymakers throughout the country.
There are a lot of people looking at how much states spend on childcare,
but I dont know if anybody is looking at the particular set of questions
she is, Rich said. Her project