May 16th, 2022


That burden called 'motherhood'

Laura Hollis

By Laura Hollis

Published Sept. 23, 2014


In its August 2014 issue, National Geographic featured a story about hunger in America, part of an eight-month series on feeding the planet. "The New Face of Hunger" presents often counterintuitive images of what is now being called "food insecurity": hunger amid plentiful farmlands, in the suburbs, among the overweight, and in households with "a television in nearly every room."

The stories have their glaring gaps. (Buying fast food because "it's convenient" or having money for electronics but not food, suggest poor priorities as well as poverty.) But one account stands out — that of Kyera Reams, a married mother of four, who, despite having only a high school diploma, manages to feed her family healthfully on the limited income provided by federal assistance. She shops, cooks, gardens, cans and preserves; she even gathers nuts, berries and mushrooms near her home:

"We wouldn't eat healthy at all if we lived off the food-bank food," Reams says, (which are) high in salt, sugar and fat. She estimates her family could live for three months on the nutritious foods she's saved up. The Reamses have food security, in other words, because Kyera makes procuring food her full-time job, along with caring for her husband, whose disability payments provide their only income."

If it's possible for a young woman with limited education living on disability to feed a family of six healthfully — and with food stores to spare — shouldn't we find that news encouraging and worthy of emulation? Alas, such efforts run counter to the contemporary meme that more important work must be found outside the home.

A recent PBS article is illustrative. Titled, "Study finds that home-cooking disproportionately burdens mothers," it cites work published by researchers at North Caroline State University. They acknowledge the growing realization that food prepared at home is healthier than pre-packaged, processed, or (worst of all) fast food. But someone has todo E the shopping, the preparing and the serving. And — feminist trigger warning — more women than men tend to perform these tasks. In an apparent effort to stave off a stampede of home-cooking moms, the study's authors warn:

"One could say that home-cooked meals have become the hallmark of good mothering, stable families and the ideal of the healthy, productive citizen. ...Yet, in reality, home-cooked meals rarely look this good. Leanne, for example, who held down a minimum-wage job while taking classes for an associate's degree, often spent her valuable time preparing meals, only to be rewarded with family members' complaints — or disinterest."

The authors appear to suggest that Leanne's time is better spent doing something other than preparing healthy meals for her children, and that efforts to nourish a family are negated by picky eaters. These conclusions are questionable at best. (Further, one could probably commission a study that showed that "breadwinning disproportionately burdens fathers," and file both under "d" for "duh.") Worse, however, is characterizing the work involved in caring for a family as a "burden."

This, sadly, is typical these days. One unfortunate offshoot of modern feminism is the reluctance to acknowledge value in the work traditionally (though not exclusively) done by stay-at-home mothers. But as we are seeing in myriad contexts, the care and feeding of a family is a full-time job. In fact, it is more like two full-time jobs, which any single parent can tell you from long — and tired — experience. Only the wealthiest among us can afford to pay for many household tasks to be performed by someone else — and that is no guaranty of quality. Why is it surprising that many Americans decide it is in their family's financial and emotional best interests for Mom or Dad to devote their full time to it? Why — when so much rides on it — do we keep insisting that parents' efforts are more "valuable" when spent elsewhere?

Not every family can make the sacrifice of a stay-at-home parent, but for those who do, it is a labor of love, not a "burden." Our society would likely be healthier in all respects if we chose our words — and our priorities — more wisely.

09/23/14: Obama's Johnny Bravo Moment

Comment by clicking here.

Laura Hirschfeld Hollis is on the faculty at the University of Notre Dame, where she teaches courses in business law and entrepreneurship. She has received numerous awards for her teaching, research, community service and contributions to entrepreneurship education.