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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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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Google Images

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.

Perfectly Normal Mothers?

By Angela Frederick

* We are so proud that Dr. Frederick won the 2017 Outstanding Publication in the Sociology of Disability Award. Congratulations Dr. Frederick!

Gender scholars have been critical of the expectations placed upon women to accomplish a perfect version of motherhood. Yet, as I argue in my recent Gender & Society article, what we have often understood to be a “perfection project” is in fact a “normalcy project.” Exemplified by our celebration of infants born with all ten fingers and all ten toes, we desire, not perfect babies, but normal babies. Under the guidance of medical and scientific experts, mothers are expected to devote ample amounts of their energy and resources to the project of preventing disability and other unwelcome differences in their children.

Women themselves are also expected to possess “normal” bodies as they carry out the demands of modern motherhood. Yet, how do mothers who do not have typical bodies – those with disabilities – experience these ideals? I explore this question through interviews and focus groups with mothers who have physical and sensory disabilities. I find these Deaf women and disabled women experience a profound paradox of visibility as they mother.

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Hypervisibility

The mothers I interviewed shared numerous stories of feeling hypervisible as they were held to higher scrutiny by medical professionals and others who assumed their atypical bodies and ways of mothering rendered them inadequate mothers. Denise, who is blind, recalled being asked by staff at her Obstetrics and Gynecology (OBGYN) clinic, “Are you thinking about getting fixed?” Heather, who has a physical disability, recalled her OBGYN physician remarking, “You sure have a grasp of what’s going on for someone in your condition.” And Grace, who is Deaf, once looked over at a nurse’s notes during a prenatal visit and saw that the nurse had written “deaf and dumb” on her chart.

These pathologizing assumptions can lead to serious consequences for Deaf mothers and disabled mothers. One in four of the mothers I interviewed faced a serious threat to her parenting rights, when doctors initiated state intervention or when former partners or family members threatened to use the mother’s disability against her in custody disputes.

Invisibility

Though many of the mothers I interviewed experienced heightened levels of scrutiny as they sought medical care, at the same time their individual needs and ways of mothering were rendered invisible within the medical system and in the consumer market of advice and products targeting mothers. Accessibility issues manifested in different ways for these women. Mothers with physical disabilities had more issues with inaccessible hospital rooms and medical offices, as well as with restricted choice in doctors. Deaf mothers expressed frustration at medical institutions’ reluctance to provide ASL interpreters for doctor visits. And, though patient forms can be made accessible through online access, blind mothers discussed common experiences of being asked to complete their paperwork verbally in the waiting room where other patients could hear their private medical information being exchanged. Many of the mothers also engaged in additional mothering labor to access hard to find baby equipment compatible with their disabilities, and even built equipment on their own.

Baby Signs

The use of baby sign presents one of the most peculiar contradictions embedded in modern mothering. New brain research suggests teaching infants and toddlers sign language will improve their verbal and cognitive development. As a result, signing has become a common practice among U.S. middle and upper class hearing families.

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I find, however, that the appropriation of sign language by hearing families has not come with an increased appreciation of the identities of Deaf mothers and other mothers with disabilities. Consider the experience of Sarah, who is Deaf, when she sought interventions for her son, who has developmental delays. Two therapists who visited her home on separate occasions claimed Sarah’s use of American Sign Language was inhibiting her son’s language development. Thus, Sarah continued to be regarded as an inadequate mother for using sign language, even as hearing middle and upper class families are consuming sign for the benefits it purports to offer their hearing children.

Too often feminist scholarship has reinforced the binary of care, the notion that we can be neatly divided between women who provide care and those who receive it. This artificial divide renders the care work of women with disabilities invisible in our analyses. Not only are these women’s stories important in their own right, but Deaf and disabled mothers are well-positioned to expose the underlying beliefs about normalcy with which all of us contend.

Angela Frederick is assistant professor of sociology at The University of Texas at El Paso. Her research interests include gender, disability, and intersecting identities. Her article, Risky Mothers and the Normalcy Project Women with Disabilities Negotiate Scientific Motherhood, can be found in the 2017 February 31 (1) issue of Gender & Society

Gender Differences in Working and Caring? A New Mom’s Perspective

By Mara A. Yerkes

For the past fifteen years, I have studied how men and women combine their paid jobs with care for children. I look at how governments and businesses differ in creating policies that can help people reconcile these responsibilities, and at how men and women differ in the way they work and provide care when they have children. In the past year, research from myself and others took on a new dimension as I experienced the combination of work and care first-hand after becoming a mom in late 2015 and returning to work a few months later.

Flexibility when going back to work

As a new working mom, it became clear to me how flexibility upon returning to work is valued by mothers. In an Australian study about the flexible arrangements mothers enter into when returning to work (e.g. part-time work, reduced hours work or working flexible hours), we found that mothers without university education and/or in female-typed occupations with limited career prospects rarely question the fairness of the arrangements they enter into when returning to work after having a child. But for mothers with university degrees, what is ‘fair’ when returning to work is much less settled. For all mothers, how they are treated at work when negotiating these arrangements matters.  If mothers feel they have been treated fairly and appropriately, they are much more likely to perceive flexible work arrangements as fair despite any long-term disadvantages.

Who works and who cares?

Becoming a working mom also heightened my awareness of gender differences in how men and women share work and childcare tasks after having children. In the US,  nearly two-thirds of mothers with at least one child under the age of 14 work.

Yerks_3In the Netherlands, where I now live, – nearly three-fourths of mothers are employed. But here, women are much more likely to work part-time than US mothers, particularly after having children. Despite these differences, the US and the Netherlands share a similarly unequal division of care tasks between mothers and fathers. In the US, mothers spent more than twice as much time as fathers providing physical care to children on an average day in 2015. The most recent data for the Netherlands (from 2011) tells the same story. In fact, research on the gender division of care tasks confirms that in most western countries, mothers consistently spend more time caring for children than fathers, and which types of care tasks moms and dads do differs as well.

Yerks_2Why do moms and dads differ in how they care?

So why do moms consistently provide more care than dads? And why do they often spend more time doing more tasks than fathers? In another Australian study, my colleagues and I investigated how couples negotiate who does which care tasks after having a baby and how they explain these choices. Even in couples where dads take an active role in caring for their child, key differences exist in the type of care tasks that parents perform. Our study shows that fathers often opt out of care tasks they perceive as difficult, such as comforting a very upset baby or night care. Moms and dads rationalize these differences by talking about mother’s superiority in caring for and nurturing infants, for example. Mothers’ willingness to step in and do care tasks when fathers step back supports and reproduces these gendered differences.

The need for better work-care policies

Such gender inequalities are persistent and difficult to address. On the one hand, such inequalities can reflect personal work and care preferences of mothers and fathers, as well as differing country contexts. For example, I feel lucky to live in a country where it’s possible for my to each spend at least one day a week caring for our son. Living in the Netherlands, our jobs are flexible enough to make this possible. On the other hand, gender inequalities in work and care reflect structural problems, such as unequal access to time off from work to care for children or unequal access to childcare alternatives, such as formal care. Unequal access to paid leave following the birth of a child helps to establish gender unequal divisions of care that persist long-term. If I have learned one thing by becoming a working mom, it’s that fathers can and do play a crucial role in caring for their children. Providing fathers with opportunities to care is not only essential for children’s development, it is key to improving gender inequality in care and paid work. Hence work-care policies that provide fathers with such opportunities are crucial to achieving greater gender equality in work and care.

Mara A. Yerkes is Assistant Professor in Interdisciplinary Social Science at Utrecht University and Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Social Science Research (ISSR), University of Queensland. Her research interests include work, care and family, the sociology of gender and sexuality, comparative welfare states, industrial relations, social inequality and women’s employment. She is the author of Transforming the Dutch Welfare State: Social Risks and Corporatist Reform (2011; Policy Press) and co-editor of The Transformation of Solidarity. Changing Risks and the Future of the Welfare State (2011; Amsterdam University Press). Yerkes is also the author of multiple articles, including the recent article on mothers’ perceptions of justice and fairness in paid work ] and an article on attitudes towards the social and civil rights of diverse families.  She is also an editorial board member for Gender & Society.

 

 

 

The Societal Womb

By Jeanne Flavin & Lynn M. Paltrow 

Where do we come from? There are many ways to answer this, but most of us come from a womb inside of a person we think of as “Mom.” As we’ve just celebrated Mother’s Day and March for Moms, we wonder: to what extent do we really celebrate the pregnant women our mothers once were? How much does our existence and our well-being trace back solely to this one person, this one nine-month period? We give moms a lot of credit. We also assign a lot of blame. So we pause here to explore here some of the things we could fix by recognizing the problems pregnant women face and by taking some collective responsibility for improving the health and well-being of women and babies in the United States.

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HAMZA BUTT / Creative Commons

Despite having the costliest maternity care in the world, pregnancy and birth remain health- and life-risking events in the U.S. Each year, an estimated 800-1,200 women die from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth in the United States. Another 55,000-60,000 women suffer near-fatal close calls. Deaths and near-misses are both on the rise. Globally, maternal deaths have dropped by nearly 50 percent since 1990; the United States is the rare wealthy country in which these deaths have increased. Since 1950, black mothers have had maternal death rates at least three times higher than those of white women. Many of these deaths are preventable, too. For example, after a woman gives birth (when most pregnancy-related deaths actually occur), the focus is often on the baby’s health. Giving more postpartum attention to the mother would reduce her risk of dying due to hemorrhage, infection, eclampsia or suicide. Continue reading “The Societal Womb”

There Is No Maternal Instinct

By Amy Blackstone

Cross-posted with permission from Huffington Post (May 10, 2017).

Mother and baby girl lying on the bed together looking at each other.
Mother and baby girl lying on the bed together looking at each other.

While we give the mothers in our lives their well-deserved thanks and recognition, this Mother’s Day, let’s remember something very important about motherhood: It’s not a given. Not every woman wants to be a mom.

Despite our culture’s deeply held belief that women are uniquely wired to want children, the notion of maternal instinct is a myth. Evidence for the idea that women are innately drawn to having children is scant, if it exists at all.

Not one of the over 700 entries in Sage Publishing’s Encyclopedia of Motherhood is dedicated to the concept of maternal instinct. Professor Maria Vicedo-Castello reviewed the history of scientific views about maternal instinct and concluded that “there is no scientific evidence to claim that there is a maternal instinct that automatically gives women the desire to have children, makes women more emotional than men, confers upon them a higher capacity for nurturance, and makes them better equipped to rear children than men.” Continue reading “There Is No Maternal Instinct”

Perfectly Normal Mothers?

By Angela Frederick

Gender scholars have been critical of the expectations placed upon women to accomplish a perfect version of motherhood. Yet, as I argue in my recent Gender & Society article, what we have often understood to be a “perfection project” is in fact a “normalcy project.” Exemplified by our celebration of infants born with all ten fingers and all ten toes, we desire, not perfect babies, but normal babies. Under the guidance of medical and scientific experts, mothers are expected to devote ample amounts of their energy and resources to the project of preventing disability and other unwelcome differences in their children.

Women themselves are also expected to possess “normal” bodies as they carry out the demands of modern motherhood. Yet, how do mothers who do not have typical bodies – those with disabilities – experience these ideals? I explore this question through interviews and focus groups with mothers who have physical and sensory disabilities. I find these Deaf women and disabled women experience a profound paradox of visibility as they mother. Continue reading “Perfectly Normal Mothers?”