The inspiration for My Momma Loves Me, a children’s book about an inquisitive squirrel who sets out to learn about motherhood from a cast of Canadian critters, came from an unlikely source — the qualitative data found in Hee-Jeong Yoo’s graduate thesis as a Master of Social Work student at the University of Calgary
Yoo, who currently works as a clinical therapist and clinical supervisor in the realm of mental health for the province, completed her MSW in 2016. As part of her graduate research, she interviewed Calgary mothers who had experienced homelessness and, as a result in part, found themselves involved with the child welfare system.
The study was born out of another project that Yoo’s thesis adviser, Dr. Christine Walsh, PhD, had completed on chronic and episodically homeless families in Calgary in partnership with the Calgary Homeless Foundation.
“We met all the deliverables, but there were some questions that remained, and the questions that remained were specifically on how are the mothers doing? In particular, mothers who had lost and reclaimed their children from child welfare — a highly vulnerable, stigmatized, marginalized population,” explains Walsh, a professor in the UCalgary Faculty of Social Work. “That led to the ‘Mothering Study,’ which became Hee’s thesis research.”
While Yoo didn’t have any inkling where her findings would lead her at the outset of the study, she soon realized that even under extremely difficult circumstances the bonds that tie women to their children are incredibly strong.
“We found that these women woke up every morning saying that they’re going to try their best to be good moms with the resources that they had at the time,” she says. “We found that these unconventional, uncommon stories of good mothering are something that needs to be shared and normalized, especially for those kids and families whose reality is similar to what these mothers were experiencing.”
Sharing with a broader – and younger – audience
Initially Yoo and Walsh presented their findings via the usual academic avenues — publishing in a journal, presenting at conferences, and sharing with students, but both felt these stories of resiliency and overcoming systemic barriers that the participants had shared with them deserved a wider audience.
“Hee and I were having a conversation about wanting to write a children’s book, something that we both had a desire to do, and we said, ‘Well, why don’t we do it?’” says Walsh. “Because these women’s stories were so important and not heard. We wanted to think about how to write for an audience that would appreciate the stories without being taught or educated in the way we as academics normally think about.”
Settling on an animal theme, Yoo and Walsh set about writing the text. To fully realized their vision, they turned to Mihaela Slabé, a current UCalgary MSW student with a fine arts education who had previously worked as an art co-ordinator in disability services. Despite also having no children’s publishing experience, she set about creating the beautiful, full-colour illustrations that bring the story the life.
Rounding out their ranks with letterer and type designer Chelsey Dyer, the team set about attempting to distill the complex themes which emerged in the study into a form palatable for a very young audience. By choosing animal species found in Canada, they were able to represent all the various parts of the country and, in some cases, represent Indigenous notions. The various species also allowed them to survey a wide gamut of mothering practices, from the least to the most intensive.
“So, we start with the Red Admiral butterfly, which just lays their eggs and disappears because that’s what they have to do to be a good mother,” explains Walsh. “On the other end are killer whales that live in their family pod for their whole life. So, the main character understands that all of these [animals] mother in very different ways, but they’re all doing the very best they can, and their intention is to be loving wonderful mothers.”
In this way, art truly did mirror life.
“All [of the women interviewed for the study] were able to reclaim their identities as moms — as good moms — no matter what their circumstances were or what their relationship was with their children after their involvement with child welfare,” says Yoo. “Each of them had these uniquely beautiful, bold definitions of what it means for them to be good mothers.”