by Sinikka Elliott
Last month the VIA research team published a research article about how difficult preparing family meals can be for mothers of young children, who face time and money constraints as well as the challenges of trying to please picky palates. We were surprised by the attention the article received. It seems we touched a nerve by bringing into the open what sociologist Marjorie DeVault long ago called the “invisible work” of feeding the family.
In personal emails and Facebook posts, mothers have thanked us for validating the stress they feel about putting a meal on the table. Others have pointed to the work they themselves do to make sure that their families eat a good meal at the end of the day, like cooking in bulk on the weekend, using crockpots, and getting children involved in cooking, as evidence that the ideal family meal is still possible.
These are all admirable efforts that resonate with our bootstrap culture. But asking American families to just try harder to put better food on the table doesn’t address the real issue: families are already doing more with less. With stagnating wages, overwork, and erratic and nonstandard work schedules, the average American family has less time and money and yet faces high expectations.
It’s not simply an issue of time and money, though. Even if we all lived in a world where people had more time and more money, some might not choose to spend their time cooking. They might want to play more with their kids or even relax at the end of the day. Compared to 40 years ago, parents are now are spending significantly more time with their children, helping them with homework, shuttling them to extracurricular activities, and engaging with them.
By documenting the challenges mothers experience around cooking, the hope was to spark a conversation about feeding the family. Why is this work so privatized? Why does it so often fall on women? And, especially, why have the standards for feeding the family “right” been ramped up at the same time that families look less and less like the iconic “Leave It to Beaver” family of the 1950s?
The “Leave It to Beaver” family image didn’t reflect the majority of families in the 1950s, as historian Stephanie Coontz demonstrates in The Way We Never Were. And it certainly doesn’t capture the realities of American families today. Most mothers of small children are employed and many are single parents, some raising children with very little support or help.
Cooking should of course be an option for people who want to do it. Making this possible requires addressing economic and social inequalities related to stagnating wages, gender inequality, and unstable and irregular work hours. Our country’s social and economic policies need to make time for family life.
But instead of merely focusing on ways that mothers (and fathers) can cook more and cook healthier, let’s broaden this conversation to consider how to make it possible for families to enjoy a meal at the end of the day without expecting the work of creating this meal to happen solely in the home. Community dinners, healthy food trucks, and to-go meals from schools are all ways that we could fill the cooking gap.
Not so long ago we believed that a mother’s job was to stay at home and care for her children. Most people no longer believe that. Perhaps someday we won’t believe that the work of feeding the family should happen exclusively in the nuclear family home either.