Social class, anxieties and preschool mothers' foodwork

Year: 2012

Author: Wright, Jan

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


You know you do these social comparisons and the norm that the mental health nurse has presented to you just sounds so angelic that you are never going to compare, so you are always feeling guilty about not having been a good enough mother and you know, I think you just do anyway because it's just that middle class thing of wanting to be a good mum or something, I don't know. (mother, preschool child)

In the context of concerns about childhood obesity, mothers are placed at the forefront of responsibility for shaping the eating behaviours and consequently the health of their young children now and in the future. This is evident in a multitude of diverse sites such as government reports, health promotion materials, reality TV shows, the advice of childcare nurses and preschools. These contribute to what Thomson al. (2011: 8) call 'a common culture of motherhood', the range of resources that mothers have to draw on to constitute themselves as 'mothers' in terms of caring for their children's health. In this paper we examine how mothers of preschool aged children engaged with the knowledge about mothering, children and health, which these sites engender. We ask what effects such engagements have for how they think about themselves, their mothering practices and their children?

The data for the analysis discussed in the paper is derived from interviews with mothers of children attending three preschools – two of which drew their children primarily from middle class families and the third from working class families.  The interviews were coded into Nvivo. On the basis of this analysis we argue that how the mothers responded to the resources provided by a 'common culture' of mothering and health, was influenced by their social class locations, specifically their education and their 'diverse and situated experience of mothering' (p.8).  While the working class mothers were more likely to demonstrate a no-nonsense (but still responsibilised) approach to feeding their children, the middle class mothers were more likely to demonstrate considerable anxieties about the appropriateness of their practices for their child's current and future health; they were often anxious about their children's weight, while at the same time articulating some resistance to the dominating effects of discourses associated with childhood obesity. We argue that the resources available to women do nothing to allay their concerns but further contribute to self-surveillance and guilt.