Calibrating Extremes: The Balancing Act of Maternal Foodwork

By Kate Cairns, Josée Johnston and Merin Oleschuk

 

When it comes to feeding children, mothers today must avoid the appearance of caring too little, or too much. Either extreme garners social stigma, although the penalties are far from equal.

Theresa describes how becoming a mother brought heightened significance to her food decisions. “I really tried to avoid the junk,” she says, hosting a focus group of friends in her Toronto apartment. A mixed-race single mother raising three kids on social assistance, Theresa says the scarcity of time and money makes putting regular healthy meals on the table difficult. But occasionally her efforts pay off. She recalls with pride the time her five-year-old son “went to a birthday party at McDonald’s, came home and threw up because he just wasn’t used to that food.” For Theresa, her son’s intolerance for fast food was evidence of her devoted feeding work.

The specter of the “McDonalds Mom”

When we conducted interviews and focus groups with Toronto women, many mothers described ongoing efforts to feed their kids nutritious meals, while avoiding processed “junk.” In doing so, these women distanced their own feeding practices from an imagined “bad” mother who makes “bad” food choices. Carol (white, producer) admits that she sometimes scrutinizes other grocery carts with a “judgmental eye” when she sees “really awful stuff going down the conveyer belt with kids there.” Tara (a white single-mother who was unable to work due to chronic pain) expressed frustration that her son’s healthy lunches would inevitably be traded for junk because his friends were sent to school with “all this crap.”

As mothers in our study distanced themselves from an unhealthy “Other” who made poor food choices, we were surprised how frequently McDonald’s entered the conversation. McDonald’s seemed to function as a trope symbolizing “easy” meals, “unhealthy” choices, and “bad” mothering more generally. Gail (white, acupuncturist) contrasted her vision of healthy home cooking with a “stereotypical image of someone stopping at McDonald’s to get food for their kids.” Marissa (Black, project manager) confessed that as “busy people we do need to do fast food,” but clarified that “my kids will tell you that does not mean McDonald’s.” Lucia (Latina, social worker) said she and her son “talk about what’s junk and you know, McDonald’s and all that kind of food” in an effort to teach him “what’s healthy, what’s not healthy.”

Again and again, mothers distanced themselves from the figure of the “McDonald’s Mom,” a stigmatized “Other” they used to defend their own feeding practices. While this defense may seem judgmental, we suggest mothers’ efforts to establish this distance reflect the intense pressures they experience feeding their children. These pressures are especially penalizing for poor women who struggle to feed kids on a limited budget and racialized women who face enduring racist stereotypes about parenting and food choices. Indeed, the assumption that poor mothers make inferior food choices is evident in recent calls to restrict what can be purchased on SNAP benefits, undermining the essential role of government assistance in mitigating the effects of poverty.

Going organic… but not too organic

When distancing their own feeding practices from “bad” ones, some mothers described feeding their children an organic diet – a resource-intensive practice that has become a gold standard of middle-class motherhood. Mothers today face considerable pressure to purchase ‘pure’ foods that are free of harmful chemical additives; this “intensive feeding ideology” involves the added work of researching products, reading labels, and making baby food from scratch.

Bananas

Some more privileged mothers in our study expressed preference for these standards, but insisted they weren’t dogmatic in their commitment. Tammy (white, daycare worker) explained that while she and her husband provide their son healthy foods, they “try very hard also not to get into that urban, crunchy granola mafia kind of mindset.” Elaine (Asian, research analyst) described how she “goes with the flow” when feeding her infant daughter, and contrasted this approach with friends who are “very militant about it… almost as if it’s a religion.”

Thus, when feeding children an organic diet, mothers risk resembling another stigmatized figure: the overbearing “Organic Mom” whose feeding practices venture into excess. Implicitly coded white and affluent, this pathologized figure obsesses over what her kids are eating, denying them the tasty treats associated with childhood. Like the McDonald’s Mom, the Organic Mom is not a real person, embodied in a singular mother; she is an imagined figure used to police the boundaries of maternal foodwork.

Feeding children: A struggle shaped by social inequality

Importantly, the McDonald’s Mom and the Organic Mom do not entail equal social sanction. The stigma of being perceived as a “bad” feeder is much more socially discrediting, and engenders significantly greater penalty – including surveillance from state institutions like schools, doctors, and child welfare agencies. What’s more, an individual woman’s relationship to these figures is shaped by her social location. Given the challenge of feeding children on a limited income, along with racist ideologies linking “healthy eating” to whiteness, the threat of being categorized as a McDonald’s Mom is clearly greater for poor women and women of color than for affluent white women. And the risk of being perceived as controlling or uptight is incomparable with the stress of food insecurity. Shannon, a white single-mother living on social assistance, said she wished she could buy organic food, but has to ration her own fruit and vegetable intake so her daughter can eat them. She explained that when there’s not enough for both of them, “I will say I don’t feel like eating.”

Our point is not to equate these uneven penalties, but to draw attention to the multiple ways mothers are harshly judged for their foodwork. Notably, comparable figures of the “McDonald’s” or “Organic Dad” did not emerge in our broader study (which included men), revealing the continued gendered burden of feeding children and the more flexible standards fathers face when doing this work.

What became clear throughout our research is that mothers from diverse backgrounds face pressure to continually monitor their children’s eating in ways that are careful and responsible, yet don’t appear obsessive or controlling. We call this process calibration – the constant balancing act of striving for an elusive maternal ideal. Calibration is labor-intensive and emotionally taxing, part of the seemingly impossible task of performing the “good” mother. If you opt for affordability or convenience, you risk being seen as a McDonald’s Mom. If you take your job as health-protector too seriously, you may be deemed an obsessive Organic Mom who deprives her kids of childhood joys like hotdogs. These gendered pressures not only contribute to mother-blame, but distract us from the larger harms perpetuated by an unhealthy, unsustainable, and unjust food system. Instead of trading in individualized blame, let’s work to build an equitable food system that promotes the health of all children, not simply those whose mothers appear to care (and spend) just the right amount.

Kate Cairns is an Assistant Professor of Childhood Studies at Rutgers University-Camden. She is coauthor of Food and Femininity (Bloomsbury 2015) with Josée Johnston, Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto. Merin Oleschuk is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of Toronto studying home cooking and family health.

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