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.