Nothing wrong with raising a good eater. // kerkez

Making Mom Proud

How do lower-income mothers respond when societal expectations for feeding children demand resources they do not have? Amidst the pressure of intensive parenting norms, lower-income mothers experience the emotional dilemma of how to feel like good mothers when they perceive themselves falling short of their own and society’s expectations, such as preparing home-cooked meals and avoiding fast food. So how do they manage their emotions to achieve a positive maternal identity?

In a recent article published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, Priya Fielding-Singh and Marianne Cooper draw from 33 interviews in the San Francisco Bay Area to examine how socioeconomically disadvantaged mothers respond to the disconnect between their desired and actual feelings of motherhood. They identify a set of emotional “downscaling” strategies, in which mothers reframe their situations to suppress negative emotions and evoke positive ones.

Mothers’ downscaling strategies included comparing their own current reality to other families who had less and reframing it as an improvement over the challenges they themselves had experienced in the past. Mothers also directed the focus away from the nutritional value of food, an area in which they often felt inadequate, to emphasize other aspects of their caregiving role, such as fostering shared meals and raising children who were not picky eaters, qualities they saw as representative of successful parenting. Through such strategies, mothers suppressed feelings of inadequacy and guilt and amplified feelings of pride and dignity.

These findings provide new insight into the emotional dimensions of social inequality, illuminating how structurally disadvantaged mothers interpret their circumstances in order to feel like good mothers despite dominant cultural narratives portraying them as deficient. In doing so, this study introduces an approach the authors term “attunement,” or the practice of paying attention to what individuals emphasize and omit, to whom they compare themselves, and the emotions contouring their narratives. Through this lens, we can gain valuable insight into the emotional texture of inequality.