Queering the Familiar: Genealogy of a Book and its Cover

By Carla A. Pfeffer

Do you ever wonder how an author decided to write a book or how a book cover came to be? I often find these to be fascinating parts of the book creation process, but areas that many authors don’t say much about. In this post, I’m going to offer some of this background story on my book, Queering Families: The Postmodern Partnerships of Cisgender Women and Transgender Men.

fa·mil·iar

fəˈmilyər/

adjective

well known from long or close association.

noun

a demon supposedly attending and obeying a witch, often said to assume the form of an

animal.

Cultural Response to “Unfamiliar” Families

One of the first moments of awareness that I needed to write Queering Families occurred one afternoon while I was working on my dissertation with the television on for background noise. Oprah Winfrey appeared, announcing that she had partnered exclusively with People magazine for an interview with Thomas Beatie, who the press was dubbing, “the world’s first pregnant man.” At that time, I’d been studying a group of fifty cisgender women partners of transgender men over the past three years and was excited to see one segment of the trans community covered on a forum that would, quite literally, reach millions of people. Over the next hour, Winfrey interviewed Thomas Beatie and his then-wife, Nancy. Winfrey followed the Beaties to Thomas’ obstetrical appointments, peeked into his body through ultrasound images, and offered video vignettes of the Beaties’ neighbors and life together in a suburban community in Bend, Oregon.

What I found most remarkable about this hour of television was not so much Thomas Beatie, his pregnancy, his wife Nancy, or even the details of their day-to-day family life. In many ways, their story actually seemed quite mundane. My focus, instead, was drawn to Oprah and her audience. Over the course of the hour, cameras panned and focused for close-ups upon viewers who appeared shocked and bewildered; in many instances, their mouths quite literally agape, slack-jawed, as they stared at Thomas and Nancy and then turned to one another. Their faces mirrored confusion and disbelief.

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After the show aired, Internet chat rooms were abuzz with thousands of comments; their tones ranged from supportive to curious to overtly disgusted and irate. Simply put, many individuals were confused and shocked by these postmodern queer family forms about which they knew and understood very little.

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[These are publicly-posted comments to internet chat rooms following Oprah’s Beatie episode]

Family Trees and Judging a Book by its Cover

As I wrote the book, I continued to ponder the faces and reactions of those engaging with an unfamiliar family form. This focus continued throughout, and even after I finished the book and began to think about potential book cover designs. The book cover image my editor at Oxford University Press first sent to me for consideration lit a fire under me. I immediately knew it was exactly something I did not want for the cover of this book. It had all the requisite components you might expect—a family tree, full with leaves and rainbow-colored boxes. It felt derivative, like it couldn’t possibly do justice to the complex stories and experiences with which I had been entrusted by my participants.

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 [Image available via Getty Images]

So I began searching through thousands of images to find something that felt more fitting. I recognized it immediately when I finally found it.

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 [Image available via Getty Images]

The image was recognizable yet ambiguous, inverted—or was it? Were those barren branches or life-giving roots? Is that verdant and lush greenness foliage or moss-covered ground? Are those blue clouds floating in the sky or a water source toward which the roots are stretching? In the branches/roots, where some might see barrenness, Halloween, death, others might see something more arterial—a pathway for vital sustenance and growth. The bold starkness of the colors of the image seemed almost surreal, particularly juxtaposed against the often saccharine, nostalgic renderings of many family trees. In this image, there was no singular originary structure—a trunk; rather, it had an almost rhizomatic quality to it. The image felt a bit like a confrontation, something you had to think about rather than assume. It was an image that left you a bit unsettled even as it drew you in for a closer look. And it was also beautiful, simultaneously strong and fragile, in transition—perhaps from season to season, from life to death, or death to life.

I was thrilled when the design team also liked the image I’d so obviously fallen in love with, but less thrilled when I saw the mock-up of the cover. They had placed a green overlay atop the image.

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Originally, this irked me to no end. I felt it minimized the distinctiveness and surreal quality of the colors in the original image, blending them into a more uniform and bland palate. Over time, it grew on me. I came to see it as the color of the sky in the middle of a tornado—a warning that this is a sky not to be messed with or taken lightly. It was a color that simultaneously symbolizes queasiness, newness, growth, good fortune, perhaps even envy.

Familiar or Unfamiliar?

What I love most about the cover image is that it tends to move the observer and their perceptions from background irrelevance to front and center. Unlike more normative or predictable images symbolizing families, the image is not so easily assimilated; rather, the viewer’s interpretation becomes requisite. It challenges you to step out of passive inattention and into wondering, asking, talking. And, in that moment, it is you and your perceptions that may be called into question, becoming the subject.

The image is, in many ways, symbolic of the lives and families of the cis women I interviewed for the book project. Their relationships have been described by some as highly normative—reflecting a mirror image of 1950s housewifery in the twenty-first century. Yet others understand their relationships as a complete inversion or even perversion of families and family life. In the book, I explore the possibility that queer relationships and families bear no more and no less responsibility than any other types of relationships to socially conform or to subvert normativity. The book’s title is meant to beg the question: Just who or what is doing the queering here? Do we understand cis women and their trans men partners and the families they create as the ones queering families? Ultimately, I argue that is incumbent upon all of us to consider how our perceptions, our interpretations, and our assumptions around families (and who and what gets to “count” as a family or family issues) hold the greatest potential to queer and transform these very concepts and institutions.

Dr. Carla Pfeffer  is Associate Professor of Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of South Carolina and Chair-Elect of the Sexualities Section of the American Sociological Association. Pfeffer’s research on cisgender women’s partnerships with transgender men has been published in the American Journal of Sociology, Gender & Society, Journal of Marriage and Family, and the Journal of Lesbian Studies. Her book, Queering Families: The Postmodern Partnerships of Cisgender Women and Transgender Men, was published by Oxford University Press (2017). Pfeffer’s research has been recognized through funding and awards from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, American Council of Learned Societies, National Council on Family Relations, and the sections on Sexualities and Sex and Gender of the American Sociological Association. In a new collaborative and international project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, Pfeffer and colleagues will study transgender men’s practices and experiences around reproduction and reproductive healthcare.

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G&S in the Classroom Guide for Syllabi on Gender and Reproductive Practice & Technology

Gender & Society in the Classroom is curated by scholars in the field and is a listing of articles that would be relevant in certain classrooms. These lists are not exhaustive but contain a small section of important articles that can begin to start classroom discussion on a variety of topics.

Myers, Kit (2017). “If I’m Going to Do It, I’m Going to Do It Right”: Intensive Mothering Ideologies among Childless Women Who Elect Egg Freezing. Gender & Society 31: (6): pp. 777-803.

Researchers have documented the dominance of intensive mothering ideologies and their impact on mothers and their families. However, the effect of these ideologies on childless women has received little attention. I draw on interview data to examine the parenting ideologies of childless women with electively frozen eggs. I demonstrate that incorporation of and commitment to intensive mothering ideologies affect fertility decision making among these childless women. I find that concerns about the heavy burdens of intensive motherhood, coupled with unsupportive partners and workplaces, produce ambivalence toward childbearing and a strategy of fertility postponement. I extend the literatures on intensive mothering, reproductive decision making, assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs), and elective egg freezing by identifying egg freezing as an expression of the gendering of fertility risk and as a means of “doing security.” Participants view egg freezing as a means of managing risk in two primary ways: as a means of securing access to biogenetic motherhood by managing biological risks of infertility and fetal genetic abnormality, and as a means of enabling intensive parenting by managing temporal risks inherent in coordinating careers, relationships, and childbearing.

Czarnecki, Danielle. (2015). Moral Women, Immoral Technologies: How Devout Women Negotiate Gender, Religion, and Assisted Reproductive Technologies. Gender & Society 29: (5): pp. 716-742.

Catholicism is the most restrictive world religion in its position on assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs). The opposition of the Church, combined with the widespread acceptability of ARTs in the United States, creates a profound moral dilemma for those who adhere to Church doctrine. Drawing on interviews from 33 Catholic women, this study shows that devout women have different understandings of these technologies than women from treatment-based studies. These differences are rooted in devout women’s position of navigating two contradictory cultural schemas—“religious” and “secular”—regarding the meaning of reproductive technologies. Religious schemas provide devout women with different cultural resources that help them to avoid using ARTs while still reckoning with the ideal of biological parenthood. I show how devout women draw on religion to find value and meaning in their suffering, move beyond biological motherhood, and achieve a moral femininity. While religion increases the burden of reproduction for devout women, it also provides the cultural resources to resist the financial, emotional, and physical difficulties experienced by women who use ARTs.

Deomampo, Daisy. (2013). Gendered Geographies of Reproductive Tourism. Gender & Society 27: (4): pp. 514-537.

This article explores the intersections of power within transnational surrogacy in India, using the lens of geography to examine surrogate women’s and commissioning parents’ experiences and perceptions of space and mobility. The author analyzes ethnographic data within a geographical framework to examine how actors embody and experience power relations through space and movement, revealing how power is not simply about who moves and who doesn’t. Rather, in recognizing the specificity of the Indian context, and how different actors inhabit and move through distinct spaces, a geographical lens reveals the shifting complexity of structures of agency and power. Drawing on extensive ethnographic fieldwork in India, the author traces how both surrogate mothers and commissioning parents experience moments of mobility and movement punctuated by intervals of immobility and stillness, in distinct ways that illuminate the power relations inherent in transnational reproduction.

Almeling, Rene and Miranda R. Waggoner. (2013) More and Less than Equal: How Men Factor in the Reproductive Equation. Gender & Society 27: (6): pp. 821-842.

In both social science and medicine, research on reproduction generally focuses on women. In this article, we examine how men’s reproductive contributions are understood. We develop an analytic framework that brings together Cynthia Daniels’ conceptualization of reproductive masculinity (2006) with a staged view of reproduction, where the stages include the period before conception, conception, gestation, and birth. Drawing on data from two medical sites that are oriented to the period before pregnancy (preconception health care and sperm banks), we examine how gendered knowledge about reproduction produces different reproductive equations in different stages of the reproductive process. We conclude with a new research agenda that emerges from rethinking the role of men and masculinity in reproduction.

Mann, Emily S. (2013). Regulating Latina Youth Sexualities through Community Health Centers. Gender & Society 27: (5): pp. 681-703.

This article examines the regulation of Latina youth sexualities in the context of sexual and reproductive health care provision. In-depth interviews with health care providers working in two Latino-serving community health centers are analyzed for how they interpret and respond to the sexual and reproductive practices of their low-income Latina teen patients. The author finds that providers emphasize teenage pregnancy as a social problem among this population to the exclusion of other dimensions of youth sexualities and encourage Latina girls’ adherence to a life course trajectory that conforms to middle-class, heteronormative ideals as a solution to this problem. By relying on such understandings, providers construct meanings of sexual citizenship that require participation in bourgeois heteronormativity. These findings suggest that Latino-serving community health centers, their providers, and their teen patients could benefit from questioning the assumptions that inform providers’ appraisals of Latina youth and developing a more inclusive approach to Latina youth sexualities beyond a discourse of pregnancy prevention. Such efforts could allow community health centers to actively participate in disrupting the structural inequalities that shape their young patients’ lives.

Gender & Society in the Classroom is curated by scholars in the field and is a listing of articles that would be relevant in certain classrooms. These lists are not exhaustive but contain a small section of important articles that can begin to start classroom discussion on a variety of topics.

Organizer: Katrina Kimport, University of California, San Francisco and Colleen C. Ammerman, William T. Grant Foundation. Updated by: Lacey Story, Oakland University

Does motherhood make women more traditional?

By Muzhi Zhou  

As a PhD scholar working on gender and family issues, and as a woman of childbearing age, I spend a lot of time thinking about the balance between work and family. I have witnessed many of my female friends move away from their promising careers to be a dedicated caregiver and educator for their young children. They shared with me their struggles and conflicting feelings in the change of roles. Those who did go back to work after maternity leave told me their lives had changed irrevocably, and they now felt that, despite what they had previously been led to believe, you could not have it all. If motherhood changes women’s lives so much, does it change their views about the roles of women and men as well? I ask this question in my Gender & Society article.

The conflict between women’s employment and child-rearing responsibilities

I have always been interested in the impact of motherhood on women’s lives and identity. The most striking fact is that in many developed countries, women are outperforming men in education and participating in the labour market at a similar level as men are. However, women’s labour market activity declines substantially once they become mothers. Many leave the labour market, at least temporarily, to fulfill their child-rearing responsibilities. Others are struggling to achieve a balance between work and family.

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In the United Kingdom, where I now live and study, employed mothers can have a maximum 52 weeks (up to 39 weeks are paid) of maternity leave. Formal childcare is extremely costly. The cost for a nursery school is high, starting at £30 (about $39) per day. For many women, it is unrealistic, uneconomic, or not ideal to work and spend most of the earnings on day care. National statistics show that in 2014, 61 percent of women with dependent children aged under five were working, of whom 58 percent were working part time. For many mothers, leaving the labour market to care for children seems to be the only choice, despite their earlier needs, efforts, and desires in career development. Those who maintain a full-time job as mothers are subject to great tension between work and family, especially when women are still expected to prioritize the need of children. In other words, the career of a mother, who has to care one or more young children, is likely to be at stake.

Women’s gender attitudes are related to how they settle the conflict

The substantial conflict between women’s employment and child-rearing responsibilities can be powerful enough to provoke a change in women’s gender attitudes, especially their views about the gendered division of labour. Using a sample of women aged 21 to 45 who were followed up over time in the United Kingdom from 1991 to 2013, I discovered that simply the birth of a child, or the shift from full-time employment to a non-working status is not the direct reason for changes in women’s gender attitudes. Women adjust their attitudes when their motherhood and employment statuses intersect. That is, only mothers become more traditional if they withdraw from the labour market. Among childless women, their gender attitudes remain largely stable regardless of whether they change their employment status. If we compare women’s attitudes before and after the birth of a child, those who remain in the labour market, and keep a full-time job, actually become slightly less traditional in their attitudes after becoming mothers, whereas those who withdraw from the labour market as mothers turn to more traditional attitudes. Therefore, adult women adjust their views about the gendered division of labour in family only when they are trying to settle the conflict between their employment and child-rearing responsibilities.

A call for policies targeting the conflict between women’s employment and child-rearing responsibilities

Gender attitudes are usually assumed to be stable during adulthood and work as an important predictor of women’s labour market performance and fertility behaviour. However, I discovered that women’s lived experience can also influence gender attitudes, which can subsequently affect future decisions to balance work and family. A critical step to further improve gender equality is to have more people practicing and supporting a symmetrical family model with dual earners and caregivers. Better work-care policies and cost-effective childcare services would enable more mothers with young children to maintain employed so that fewer women need to compromise their original gender attitudes to conform the reality of staying at home and caring for children.

Muzhi Zhou is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Oxford. She is also affiliated with St Antony’s College. Her areas of interest include gender, family and marriage, and quantitative methodology. Her recent research examines the gendered effect of parenthood and the relationship between gender equality and fertility.

“If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it right”: How intensive mothering ideologies motivate women to freeze their eggs

By Kit Myers

Elective egg freezing first caught the public eye in 2002 when a fertility center in Los Angeles began offering “commercial” egg freezing to healthy women who were delaying motherhood into their 30s. Predictions of gender-liberated utopias and eugenicist dystopias abounded in the following years and interest in elective egg freezing hit a fevered pitch in the fall of 2014 when Silicone Valley giants Facebook and Apple announced the addition of egg freezing to their benefits packages in an attempt to attract more women. Hailed by some as a move to give women in tech more control over their fertility, many commentators worried that egg freezing was, at best, a stopgap solution that failed to address systemic issues of work-family conflict in the tech industry and beyond. In lifestyle pieces and opinion columns, women who froze their eggs were alternately depicted as hard charging career women putting motherhood on the back burner or as baby-starved women desperate for a shot at motherhood.

When I began interviewing women who had chosen to freeze their eggs in the summer of 2014, I found neither of these stock characters. Instead I found a cohort of women in their mid-30s to 40s who were deeply ambivalent about motherhood. They were high achieving in education and work, but none of them felt they had made a conscious choice to prioritize their careers over motherhood. Most had expected to pursue the standard script of love, marriage, and baby carriage by their early 30s, but setbacks in their love lives —including broken engagements and divorce—had knocked them off track. They generally felt that these romantic challenges were the primary reason why they froze their eggs, but as I spoke to more and more of these women it became clear that their beliefs about the best way to raise children was a major factor as well.

In my Gender & Society article, I explore the life histories of these women in order to understand the role parenting ideologies play in choices that childless women make about their fertility. Women with electively frozen eggs provide a particularly interesting perspective on fertility decision-making because the technology of egg freezing allows women to prolong indecision. Many of these women explain that—before they froze their eggs—the ticking of the biological clock made them feel as though they had to rush to make up their minds about motherhood. Should they:

A) Settle for the next half-way decent guy to come along?

B) Give up on love and pursue single-motherhood-by-choice?

C) Give up on having kids altogether and cultivate a childfree lifestyle?

For women with frozen eggs the answer was: D) None of the above. They weren’t ready to give up on motherhood but they also weren’t ready to settle or go it alone. What they really wanted was a way to keep their options open until marriage, financial security, and career advancement allowed them to pursue motherhood on their own terms. For the women in this study, egg freezing enabled that option. But how did these women arrive at the point of needing to freeze their eggs in the first place? Demanding careers and complicated love lives played a role, but beliefs about appropriate parenting styles also contributed to their ambivalence.

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Although parenting styles abound—attachment parenting, child-centered parenting, positive parenting, slow parenting, etc.—most current mainstream parenting styles fall under the rubric of intensive motherhood, which is child-centered, labor-intensive, and financially expensive. While we often presume that new mothers get drawn into particular parenting camps during pregnancy or early motherhood, messages about appropriate middle-class parenting are so deeply embedded in mainstream culture that most women already have a sense of how they should parent, long before they ever have children.

As the name implies, intensive motherhood is intense. It demands a lot of mothers and all of the women in my study were aware of those demands. Despite being fully committed to intensive mothering, Angela worried about the toll it would take on her, explaining, “You have to sacrifice your needs for [your kids’] needs. I think if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it right. I’m going to put their needs in front of mine … You have to hand your life over to them. It’s hard… It’s emotionally draining. It’s financially draining.” Most of the women I interviewed didn’t feel that they were up to meeting those challenges without first finding supportive partners and workplaces. Yet most of the women had already encountered inflexible workplaces and unsupportive partners and worried that they might never achieve their ideal scenario for raising children. Freezing their eggs gave these women some peace of mind that motherhood would still be an option for them when (and if) they felt ready to pursue it.

My work suggests that growth of elective egg freezing among professional-class women exposes the gaps between these women’s hopes and aspirations and the realities they encounter in their workplaces and love lives. Insecurity at home and at work leaves these women worried that they won’t be able to live up to their own expectations of good motherhood. Faced with the overwhelming demands of intensive motherhood, these women freeze their eggs in the hope of buying themselves time to find the perfect combination of factors that will allow them to be the mothers they want to be. Yet egg freezing is an imperfect fix that places the burden of resolving work-family conflict on individual women, rather than addressing the cultural and structural factors that make motherhood so difficult for these women to accomplish in the first place.

Kit Myers is a doctoral candidate in Sociology and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California. Their research focuses on the intersection of gender, sexualities, and families with science, medicine, and technology. They are currently working on their dissertation on professional class women’s fertility decision making.

 

External Childcare Services & Gendered Perceptions of Time Conflicts

By Isabelle Stadelmann-Steffen and Dominique Oehrli

In recent decades, female contributions to paid work have strongly increased. This trend can be observed in most countries, although to different degrees. This, in turn, has nourished public and scientific discussions on whether and how female employment could be promoted. Most prominently, it has been shown that external childcare services play a crucial role: These measures facilitate the reconciliation of family duties and paid work as they provide women with opportunities to become more extensively employed and also promote the preference to do so.

However, quite obviously, the relationship between external childcare provision and female employment does not occur in a vacuum. In other words, and this is the starting point of our article, if external childcare policies lead to a stronger labor market involvement by women, these policies also may have much broader consequences on what women and men (!) do beyond the labor market, that is at home or in society.  In our study we therefore look at the relationship between external childcare policies in Swiss municipalities and gender-specific perceptions of time conflict. Hence, we are interested in whether childcare policies indeed shape the allocation of time to paid work, work at home and social activities and how the potential time conflicts in handling these different activities are perceived by individuals.

The main finding of our study is that the existence of childcare policies in a municipality mainly affects men’s perceived time conflicts. For men, having small children does not induce any time conflicts if they do not live in a municipality that provides Early Childcare and Education (ECEC) services. By contrast, fathers living in a municipality with ECEC services face substantially higher time conflicts regarding both, leisure and housework activities. Conversely, women’s perceived time conflicts are to a much lesser degree related to childcare services in the municipality. Childcare provision is associated with stronger perceptions of time conflicts only when children get older, probably because mothers typically increase their employment level when their children grow older.

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Given these results, do we need to question the positive framing of external childcare provision? While our findings may seem to be somewhat disillusioning at first sight, a closer look leads to a more positive conclusion. In fact, our findings clearly support the hypothesis that the provision of childcare services is associated with a more equal division of labor within households; in particular also with a stronger involvement of fathers at home. It is true that this increased equality induces some “costs” (i.e., stronger perceptions of time conflicts) that are mainly reported by fathers. That is, at least in the Swiss context—changing gender norms provoke more negative feelings and stress in men than in women. This gender difference may be explained by the fact that a more equal division of labor for mothers is strongly related to increased opportunities. Put differently, although a stronger labor market involvement may objectively mean more time conflicts for women as well, this situation does not automatically translate into stronger perceptions of time conflict. In contrast, it can be argued that a more egalitarian division of labor makes fathers’ lives more complex. The advantages of more modernized family roles are less obvious for them, but rather they are confronted with new and stronger constraints. Moreover, at the more normative level, these fathers may feel a conflict between their involvement at home and the still persisting traditional image of how a “real man” should behave. This is a conclusion that seems reasonable at least in the Swiss context. Hence, it is the clash between the different normative ideals that makes the situation particularly difficult for fathers.

Against this background, our results eventually point to the need for policy makers to consider and target not only women but increasingly men when crafting childcare (but probably also parental leave) policies. Most importantly, our article implies that childcare services are a relevant, but not a sufficient mean to promote a sound work-life balance for parents. In this vein, it is also important to acknowledge that childcare policies may have different consequences on different groups depending not only on their specific design but also on the cultural context. In a country like Switzerland, for example, in which a (modernized) male-breadwinner model still dominates and in which childcare coverage is far from universal, the changes induced by these policies may create particular conflicts – including normative struggles. However, these policies may at the same time be a trigger for changing traditional gender norms and moreover provide men also with positive experiences in new roles. Whereas these processes will obviously need some time, this might eventually lead to a situation in which policies promoting more equal gender roles will be perceived as opportunity rather than as constraint also by men.

Isabelle Stadelmann-Steffen is professor in comparative politics with the University of Bern. Her main research interests concern comparative welfare state research and political behavior and attitudes. Current research projects aim at linking these two areas by considering potential policy feedback effects, mainly in the field of family and energy policy.

Dominique Oehrli is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Political Science, University of Bern. Her main research interests concern comparative welfare state research and, in particular, gendered policy effects. In her PhD thesis, she investigated the relationship between conditional cash transfers and women’s labor market involvement in Latin America.

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.

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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.

MAKING A CAREER: Reproducing Gender within a Predominately Female Profession

By LaTonya J. Trotter

Stephanie had always planned to be a physician. She never wavered as she marched through the premed curriculum at college. But in the years after graduation, she began to have doubts. While applying to medical schools, Stephanie was working at a clinical research center. She had shadowed physicians before, but working alongside them made her notice the mundane rather than the esoteric: physicians worked very long hours. “Oh my God,” she thought, “I’m a woman! I want to have children!” How would she manage motherhood with such high demands? She began to reconsider medicine. And to consider nursing.

Nursing had never had much appeal for Stephanie. But at the research center, she had an up-close view of a different kind of nursing work: that of nurse practitioners (NP). Becoming an NP seemed to offer the possibility of independently caring for patients without fighting her way through medicine. It was a professional choice. It was a respectable choice. And it seemed to promise a better balance between work and family. “I wanted to be able to have a flexible timeline and a flexible career,” she explained. “And that’s what nursing is. Flexible.”

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Women have made great strides in terms of workplace equality. Yet there remain clear obstacles regarding career advancement. While some women encounter glass ceilings, the maternal wall is a more pervasive stumbling block. Employers expect and reward workers unfettered by family responsibilities. Faced with these expectations, men and women often find themselves making gender specific choices: men invest in work and women invest in family. For women wanting to invest in both, workplace flexibility has become the policy equivalent of the Holy Grail: highly sought after but difficult to find. Inflexible workplace policies dead-end some women’s careers while pushing others out of paid employment altogether. The observation that women continue to crowd into female professions like nursing is usually attributed to women’s preference for caring labor. What if these choices were as much about opportunity as gendered predispositions? Is this a win for gender equity? Or gender inequality by another name?

In my Gender & Society article, I explore the career biographies of NPs and NP students in order to understand the role of nursing’s institutional arrangements in women’s labor market decisions. I focus on NPs because they are a highly educated subgroup of nurses that have cleared a series of credentialing hurdles to order to make careers. In some ways, nursing is a shining example of how flexible arrangements not only help workers manage family commitments but actively encourage career aspirations. Nursing’s flexibility begins with education. Nursing is one of the few professions that make it possible to accrue educational credentials in cohesive fragments. Forty-one-year-old Hana described a fifteen-year trajectory that started with a two-year community college degree. That was enough to begin working as a registered nurse (RN). A few years later, Hana enrolled in a structured bridge program that allowed her to leverage her two-year degree towards completion of a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Moreover, the bridge program enabled her to pursue her bachelor’s part-time while working as a full-time nurse. Ten years later, Hana took advantage of similar accommodations to complete her master’s degree to practice as an NP. “I call myself a kind of Cinderella story,” she told me. “I came up from community college all the way up to the Ivy League.”

Nursing’s flexibility facilitated motherhood as well as social mobility. Women entering high status professions often delay childbearing. The demands of advanced schooling and early career leave little room for parenting. The ability to build a career over a longer time horizon meant that motherhood might change the rhythm of a career, but it did not stop it. A similar level of flexibility was mirrored in nursing work. Hospital nursing’s reliance on 12-hour shifts over 3 days gives full-time workers more days at home to spend with children. For NPs who spend part of their careers as hospital RNs, this allowed them to more effectively juggle work, family, and eventually, graduate education.

For individual women, these institutional arrangements provided a private solution to balancing work with family life. However, these solutions have broader consequences for gender inequality. Because these arrangements were sequestered within a predominately female occupation, they reproduced gendered expectations about women’s investments in family life. Flexible scheduling ensured that women retained primary responsibility for family caregiving. Moreover, nursing’s flexibility reproduced flexible women who could switch specialties, change jobs, or delay graduate education to accommodate the inflexible jobs of partners and spouses. Flexibility became both an opportunity and an obligation. Nursing’s accommodating arrangements are themselves a product of the historical legacy of gender inequality. The continued existence of two-year RN programs is the preference of employers, not the profession. As a female dominated profession, its aspirations remain tempered by hospital demands for an inexpensively trained workforce.

My work suggests an additional explanation for why women continue to crowd into careers like nursing. Women may gravitate toward caring work, but they also care about creating careers. Nursing’s flexibility stands in contrast to the inflexibility women encounter in other parts of the labor market. My work also serves as a caution for relying on workplace policies alone to solve the dilemmas of working women. Without subsidized, national programs for parental leave and child-care, women alone will be pressed to “choose” flexibility. When only women are the beneficiaries of such arrangements, they quickly become segregated into “mommy tracks” or “women’s professions.” The unequal benefits that follow can too easily be attributed to women’s preferences rather than as the product of gender inequality.

LaTonya J. Trotter is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Vanderbilt University. She is an ethnographer and sociologist of medicine whose explores the relationship between the organization of medical work and the reproduction of racial, economic, and gender inequality. The empirical terrain of these explorations ranges from professional negotiations between medicine and nursing to organizational shifts in older adult care.