Mothers’ emotions are central to kids’ diets

Priya Fielding-Singh

How do mothers’ emotions impact their children’s diets? For Priya Fielding-Singh, emotions are central to how mothers feed their children. Fielding-Singh, a former Clayman Institute graduate dissertation fellow and an assistant professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah, joined Clayman Institute Executive Director Alison Dahl Crossley for the first talk in the Celebrating Clayman Institute Authors series to discuss her award-winning new book, How the Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequality in America. This event was also co-sponsored by the Center on Poverty and Inequality and the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford University. 

Existing scholarship on family diets and dietary inequalities rarely discuss emotions or how parents and kids feel about the food they eat. Fielding-Singh’s research, therefore, represents an important intervention, offering vital knowledge that will help activists and policy makers who are on the ground, fighting for comprehensive social policy that will improve the quality of life of children and families.

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Fielding-Singh begins her talk by sharing the stories of two mothers who she named, Brenda Rojas and Amber Dawson. Brenda, an immigrant, low-income mother from Colombia, and her family constantly face the threat of food insecurity. To combat the hardship and hunger her family faces, Brenda reframes them as opportunities: “food tasted better when rationed it up; when you shared with other people.” On the other hand, Amber, a white, high-income mother, is the full-time caregiver of her children. Amber felt like a failed mother because she constantly “gave in” to her daughter’s requests for frappuccinos to avoid conflict. Amber disclosed her feelings of guilt: “I know kids who eat a lot better than my kids do.”

Through these two women’s stories, Fielding-Singh invites the audience to consider a fascinating paradox. Low-income mothers knew they were parenting under very challenging circumstances that made feeding their children difficult. At the same time, they did not appear or act so concerned about how their kids were eating even though they wanted their kids to eat nutritiously, and they were frustrated by how that did not always happen. On the contrary, affluent mothers were very stressed and troubled by their kids’ diets even though their families had ample resources for food. For Fielding-Singh, they seemed to struggle even more than low-income mothers. 

In feeding their kids, mothers are beheld to larger cultural standards of motherhood and mothering. As the standards for good mothering have risen over the years, so have the feelings of guilt, because mothers can always do more for their children.

Drawing upon in-depth interviews with 74 mothers from across the income spectrum living in the San Francisco-Bay Area and her observations from spending time with four of these mothers and their families, Fielding-Singh argues that mother’s narratives and feelings illustrated their different approaches to dealing with maternal guilt related to feeding. In feeding their kids, mothers are beheld to larger cultural standards of motherhood and mothering. As the standards for good mothering have risen over the years, so have the feelings of guilt, because mothers can always do more for their children. According to Fielding-Singh, “guilt is the cornerstone of contemporary motherhood.” Therefore, investigating how mothers’ feelings of guilt shape how they feed their children is imperative. 

Across income levels, mothers shared similar ideas about how they should feed their children. Good mothers feed their children a healthy diet, consisting of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and they are invested in what their children eat. Sixty-three mothers expressed feeling guilt over the dietary “flaws” of their kids. Furthermore, mothers’ strategies for navigating that guilt varied across the income spectrum. Low-income mothers are aware of the material conditions that limit their abilities to feed their children in ways they would like to, pushing down the feelings of guilt to come to terms with their current reality. Fielding-Singh calls this strategy “downscaling”: the internal emotional work mothers do in order to feel better about their children’s diets. Downscaling is a pragmatic strategy that solves the problems of feeling guilty and preserving dignity among low-income mothers.

High-income mothers adopted a contrary approach, raising the already high and unattainable societal standard by which they were evaluated as mothers. Fielding-Singh describes this strategy as “upscaling,” or the internal emotional work of high-income mothers that intensified their feelings of guilt, pushing them to “do more and more physical and cognitive labor to alleviate the guilt.” High-income mothers’ greater resources, paradoxically, fueled the upscaling of their guilt. Downscaling and upscaling strategies also figured prominently in the research of Stanford sociologist Marianne Cooper in her 2014 book, Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times. Fielding-Singh said she is excited to be extending her research in partnership with Cooper, who is a senior research scholar with the Stanford VMware Women's Leadership Innovation Lab.

In her conclusion, Fielding-Singh asks a poignant question: “What does it say about our society that even the most privileged moms were generally riddled with stress and feelings of inadequacy about their kids’ diets and their own worth as mothers?” After Fielding-Singh concluded her talk, Crossley provided an insightful response to the book overall, citing the tension in feeding children, which is both a “joyful and excruciating [experience] for mothers.” To begin the question-and-answer section of the talk, Crossley asked Fielding-Singh, “Since you wrote this book, have there been any advancements in policy or industry changes?” Fielding-Singh observed that there have been changes, “less so on industry [and] more so on the government policy.” She noted, “Universal school meals were offered during the pandemic [and] children were elevated out of food insecurity [and] families that were boxed out of benefits had access to two meals per day.” What seemed like an impossible policy change happened, marking a “gigantic win for mothers and gender inequality.” Currently, legislation in California and Maine have made universal meals permanent legislation, and the possibility of a federal program for universal meals is within reach. 

An audience member asked Fielding-Singh, “What can we do to shift the work from mothers?” Fielding-Singh offered a compelling response: “Make [it] easier to raise children in this country.” Feeding children is a collective responsibility to which we all should be held accountable, she said. When everyone pitches in to make sure every child has access to food, to evoke Brenda’s words, “food tastes better.”