Singing Unsung Labor

09 Jun

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Whenever I see a family portrait, I feel like I should stop and offer up a moment of silence for all the work that SOMEbody, most likely the mom, had to do to get all those people together looking that good in one place without stains or tears marring the clothing or tearful or pouting faces revealing the stress that everyone lived through in the moments before the camera clicked.  I almost never think of the people in the picture.  I think of the mothers’ labor in the hour or so before the picture.  I think of the sibling fighting, perhaps the other parents’ uselessness in resolving that conflict, somebody’s frustration at what they have to wear for the photo, somebody’s hair which, moments ago looked great but now looks like they haven’t washed it in a year much less combed it, the mother’s desire to have the family pull together just for a moment so that the pic represents the family as a cohesive unit rather than as gathering of disconnected and disgruntled parts.  When I look at these portraits from my childhood as well as of my own children and family, I note the stress of photo day, particularly of the parent arranging it.  I think about the unsung labor of that person, and how such labor flies beneath the radar of how we understand family life. 

I think of this kind of labor too when I consider holiday meals, or even everyday meals, and I think not only of the physical, mental, and emotional labor of food preparation, which begins long before pots are being stirred on the stove, but also of the communication labor that family meals entail.  There’s the thinking, including the mental juggling of different tastes and preferences and dietary needs or penchants; the cookbooking; the shopping; the putting away; the keeping people out of this ingredient or that until the day it gets thrown into a recipe; the last minute substitution or, worse, the not-quick-enough trip to the store for the ingredient that was forgotten or was unsuccessfully safeguarded against eager hands and mouths; the failed recipe that resulted in pizza delivery and feelings of inadequacy, or the crockpot that never got turned on resulting in bowls of cereal and feelings of being spread too thin; the difficulty of recruiting children into the work of readying the table or serving the food; the astounding fortitude it takes to deflect turned-up noses or displeased faces, or entrees and sides that have been mauled but not eaten. 

In addition to all this (and more) food prep labor, I think of the interpersonal labor of managing family interaction and relationships around meals. A fruitful or engaging discussion over dinner with the fam is an enormous amount of work.  I’ve written previously about the vaunted research findings about how the family dinner will cure all family ills (here and here) and I think it’s worth repeating that mothers are called to bear the weight of family meals in ways that this research is clearly oblivious too.  If it’s true that it is the family dinner that is curative (and I do not believe that it is) , then such is the case because of all this unrecognized labor that parents, usually one per family and usually a mother, provides.  I’d like to recognize today the ways in which, day in and day out, scores of mothers provide this labor on their family’s behalf and I hope that we can figure out a way to sing about that labor.


Posted by on June 9, 2011 in Families, Feminism, Motherhood, Parenting


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4 responses to “Singing Unsung Labor

  1. LaKesha Anderson

    June 9, 2011 at 9:54 pm

    Wow! I can’t even begin to say thanks enough for this. Meal time, especially in the evenings and especially during their school year, is so stressful. So much so that I have come loathe the very thought of actually sitting down to an evening meal with the kids. My family is as much responsible as society is for planting the idea family meals are an indication of a normal, healthy, functional family. However, by that time of day, the only thing that is healthy and functional is that I’m able to refrain from screaming when I’ve heard “mommy, I want…” for the 67th time in an hour or that I don’t automatically smack at the little finger that has poked me 5 times while I’ve been on the phone with the water company. It only gets worse as the week grows longer. For instance, today is Thursday. It has been a genuine pain in the ass to get my kids to clean up anything this week. So, my kitchen is a mess because I went on strike this week and refused to clean up after them. Now, I know without a doubt that I will, in fact, clean most of it up tomorrow with their help. However, I also know that because my house is a mess that my brain is cluttered as well. I can’t work, I don’t want to clean…and by hell, I certainly don’t want to cook and add even MORE mess! So, my kids ate nutella and toast sammies tonight. They also got a speech about cleaning. I also feel like a bad mother because I should have just cleaned it up, right? I mean, all I did today was work and read for a project I’m working on. I keep thinking that maybe, just maybe, one day I’ll begin to enjoy family meal time. But right now, I truly just want to give them their food and then leave the room. Because, hey…if they’re eating, I can be at peace locked in the bathroom alone. But, that’s not what a good mother does. Or so they tell me.

    I’m so very glad I know you. And I’m so thankful that you ‘get’ it, and that you not only get it, but use your position to help others understand it. I owe so much of my own mothering work to you. People ask me so often two things in which your name always comes up:

    Q: Was your PhD hard? You seemed to get through things really well.
    A: It’s a PhD. Of course it was challenging at times. But, I was so prepared by my advisor in my master’s program to be a solid writer and critical thinker that I had an advantage I feel lots of people simply do not have.

    Q: You are really open about your own challenges to mothering. Aren’t you afraid of what your kids will think.
    A: I tell them what you do. I tell them from my vantage point, you’ve raised two very healthy and happy children and that you’re ability to be open and honest with them, and open and honest with us, has been more refreshing than anything offered up by someone who lives screaming behind a door in fear.

    I just love this. Love, love, love it. I am constantly talking about the paradox of the “family dinner” so this was just SO great for me.

  2. Dr. Mama

    June 10, 2011 at 9:53 am

    Lakesha, what a cascade! Thank you so much for your honest post about your own mothering, and for the kind words you’ve offered up. I was feelin’ you like mad as I read about dinnertimes at your house. That finger poke poke poking you that you’re trying not to smack, the connection between a messy house and messy head, how utterly REMARKABLE it is when you DON”T scream at the unending want want want, and how cooking for you just mostly means more mess. You. are. singing. my. song. And speaking of songs, you’ll appreciate this song posted by Joy Rose from the band Housewives on Prozac called “Eat Your Damn Spaghetti”

  3. Mamanym

    June 11, 2011 at 2:32 pm

    When my children (now 23 and 25) were growing up I cooked dinner neary every night. Sure, there was the ocassional chicken nugget but I always made them get a side salad with low fat dressing, never french fries. I was careful to plan at least one item from each food group at each meal. I didn’t find it especially taxing and I did only what a good mother should do. And THAT’S the way I’m going to remember it, whether it’s true or not.

  4. Dr. Mama

    June 14, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    This is really great, Mamanym. Now that you mention it, I think that’s what I did too…except that though I did what a “good” mother should do, I did a bunch of other stuff along with it.


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