PhD Candidate Merin Oleschuk on the Contradictions of Maternal Foodwork

Merin OleschukPhD Candidate Merin Oleschuk recently co-authored a piece on maternal foodwork with Professors Kate Cairns and Josée Johnston that was featured on the Gender & Society blog. The Gender & Society blog posts pieces for a general audience that align with the mandate of the Gender and Society journal.  This blog post examines the careful “balancing act” that mothers perform when deciding what to feed their children according to societal expectations. Using the conceptual figures of the “McDonalds Mom” and the “Organic Mom”, the authors illustrate how mothers are penalized for both healthy and unhealthy choices, and how  different social contexts can perpetuate these undesirable labels or hinder mothers from reaching the acceptable balance. Merin is currently completing her dissertation on how social inequalities shape food and the practices surrounding it.

We have posted an excerpt of the blog post below.

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…

Read the full blog post here.