Prof. Andrea O’Reilly gets a SSHRC grant to study young mothers

As the principal investigator of research designed to empower young mothers, York Professor Andrea O’Reilly is thrilled her project is a go after receiving a $71,905 SSHRC International Opportunity Fund (IOF) project grant in April.

Out of 117 applications for IOF project grant monies of up to $75,000, only 20 received funding. O’Reilly’s proposal, titled "Mother Centres, Feminist Pedagogy, and Young Motherhood: Creating Empowerment Programming for Young Mothers", was awarded the third highest amount.

"It’s very exciting," says O’Reilly, founder and director of York’s Association for Research on Mothering (ARM) as well as founder and editor-in-chief of the Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering. "It’s absolutely delightful."

Right: Andrea O’Reilly

O’Reilly is planning to collaborate with researchers and agencies in the US, Australia and England to study mother centres and young mother agencies internationally with the view to develop empowerment programming specifically for young mothers here in Canada. Currently, there is only empowerment programming for mothers in general.

"There is currently no real empowerment programming for young moms," says O’Reilly. "The focus at young mom agencies is teaching effective parenting, nutrition for self and baby and so forth with little or no feminist programming, concerned with, and dedicated to the empowerment of the mother."

In addition, O’Reilly says she is not aware of any academic research "which examines formal mother groups or centres and how they function as sites of empowerment to afford women agency in motherhood".

The first phase of the project will look at and analyze the philosophy and practices of the world’s largest mother centres – Mother Centers International Network for Empowerment (MINE), founded in Germany in 1985 with over 700 centres in 15 countries, and the National Association of Mothers’ Centers (NAMC), founded in 1973 with centres in the US, Australia and Nigeria. It will also assess the mothers’ program at the Women’s Health Centre in Winnipeg and the Aboriginal Mother Centre in Vancouver, which is a member of MINE.

A young mom and her baby. Photo courtesy of Humewood House, a resource centre and home for pregnant and young moms

O’Reilly has visited the NAMC centres in the US and has listened to mothers talk about their experiences there. "These NAMC centres literally saved these mothers’ lives through validation, support and advocacy. I want to find out why they are so successful. They’re the best kept secret."

Most of the NAMC centres, however, don’t do specific programming to address the needs of young mothers – those under 25 years of age – except one centre, which is just opening on Long Island in New York. "It’s the only one I know of in the world and it’s being facilitated by older young moms, over 25. So the goal is to set up one of these NAMCs in Canada," says O’Reilly.

In the next phase, the research team, consisting of Deborah Byrd of Lafayette College in the US, Deborah Keys of the University of Melbourne in Australia, Gayle Letherby of the University of Plymouth in the UK and Phyllis Montgomery of Laurentian University, will evaluate six young-mothers’ agencies in Australia, Canada, England and the US. Each agency is partnered with a member of the research team. O’Reilly is partnered with Humewood House, a resource centre for pregnant and young moms in Toronto that offers a 15-bed residence, schooling, a day care, counselling, advocacy and more. This evaluation, along with an examination of the current feminist research on young mothers, will give the team an understanding of how mother empowerment groups work, or could work, for young mothers.

A young mom feeding her child. Photo courtesy of Humewood House

The third phase of the project will bring the researchers together for a discussion on how to design a model for empowerment programming for young mothers incorporating the feminist pedagogy of York’s School of Women’s Studies Bridging Program for Women, which offers academic bridging courses for women who want to upgrade their writing and speaking skills and explore the possibility of university study. The team will then meet for a two-day symposium to develop the various empowerment programming models.

O’Reilly is hoping to start a pilot project of a young mothers’ empowerment program at 1900 Sheppard Avenue West (at Jane and Sheppard), a supportive, transitional housing project for pregnant women and mothers under the age of 25 that is currently being built. She is also hoping to get another pilot project going at the Jane/Finch Community and Family Centre as part of the current Women Moving Forward Program.

"We hope to have a pilot young mothers empowerment group set up by January at these locations," says O’Reilly.

The idea of empowering mothers is to challenge the mainstream, oppressive patriarchal system of motherhood while conferring cultural value and significance to the work of a mother. Empowerment would also give mothers agency, authority, autonomy and authenticity in their mothering. The amount of support mothers receive from like-minded mothers facilitates the empowerment process and this becomes even more crucial for young mothers.

Left: Children playing. Photo courtesy of Humewood House

"The aim of this project initiative is to examine successful mother-empowerment centres; specifically, to analyze and assess how they enable mothers to resist the dominant discourse of motherhood and construct an alternative meaning and experience of mothering," says O’Reilly.

The model of young mothers empowerment programming developed from this initiative will serve as a module in ARM and Humewood House’s 2008 CURA grant application to study service programming in various young mothers’ agencies across Ontario.

O’Reilly has published 14 books on mothering and designed and taught the first university course on motherhood in the world in 1991. She is the author of Toni Morrison and Motherhood: A Politics of the Heart (Albany: SUNY Press, 2004) and Rocking the Cradle: Thoughts on Motherhood, Feminism and the Possibility of Empowered Mothering (Demeter Press, 2006). In addition, she is the editor or co-editor of more than 10 books, including Maternal Theory: Essential Readings (Demeter Press, 2007), Motherhood: Power and Oppression (Women’s Press, 2005) and the forthcoming Feminist Mothering (SUNY Press, 2008). Currently, she is working on editing an encyclopedia of motherhood, expected out in 2010 by Sage Press.

For more information, visit the ARM Web site or contact Andrea O’Reilly at

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer.