Work and the ethics of care: Working class mothers of higher weight children

Sharon Noonan-Gunning

‘Obesity’ is at the fore of Covid-19 crisis as illustrated by the BBC World Service’s Food Chain programme ‘Coronavirus: obesity’s defining moment’. For decades obesity has been framed a major problem, a burden on society which results from individuals making poor lifestyle choices. For children that applies to parents/caregivers/mothers. In 2007, Secretary of State for Health said ‘For the first time, we are clear about the magnitude of the problem: we are facing a potential crisis on the scale of climate change’. In 2017, the then Chief Medical Officer for England argued that it should be recognised as a national threat that ‘for women it is as dangerous as terror threat’(Borland, 2015). In 2018 Theresa May, stated ‘The health and well-being of our children critically determines their opportunities in life … Today, nothing threatens that more than childhood obesity’

Obesity is a complex sociocultural and biological phenomenon (for example, Crossley, 2004, Warin et al, 2016). Such simplistic statements serve discourses of obesity that produce blame and stigma as mobilised in media, public and policy discourses (for example, Raisborough, 2016). The word ‘obesity’ is highly stigmatising so non-stigmatising language is sought such as ‘higher weight’. Weight stigma contributes to the generalised increase in stigma, explained by Tyler (2020), that is politically driven, socially divisive and veils the inequalities that have deepened in recent decades. Inequalities include child health as illustrated by social gradient in obesity in which the prevalence is double for children living in areas of deprivation compared to the most affluent areas. Government statements, as above, mobilises emotions attached to ‘child-rescue-saving’ movement, national belonging and parental failure. Those ideas veil the contradictions in the pro-market system within which children are exposed to social harms (Gillies et al. 2017) and harms to health caused by food industry, poverty, and stigma. A context is provided in which parents of higher weight children are blamed, shamed and assigned as moral associates of the child’s problematic body that conveys a failure in parenthood through poor food practices (Davis et al., 2018). Yet, as food insecurity heightened during the pandemic many parents of higher weight children and living in poverty provided the low paid and unpaid work involved with emergency food aid distribution. This article shares the experiences of such parents: working-class mothers of higher weight children many of whom volunteer in their communities, before, during and post Covid-19, despite their material constraints. It draws on experiences of everyday interaction with food policy processes. A collective ethic of care is present, but this is subjected to divisive tensions that take form of socially embedded and multi-layered stigmas. Sensitivity to a political ethic of care is urgent to provide insights for future policies that best support caregivers and communities.

Gillies (2008) argues that ‘parenting is no longer accepted by the state to be a relational bond characterised by love and care. Instead, it has been re‐framed as a job requiring particular skills and expertise’. For the neoliberal parent-self ‘good parenting’ is a competency-based function and mostly concerns the practices of working-class mothers. It is that deficit model which creates the space for assumptions of parent/mother failure and blame. Yet caring for children was paramount for these mothers. Tronto defines responsibility as a moral quality of caring. This is contained within the processes of care for which Tronto applies five steps. These start with noticing unmet needs, then taking responsibility to meet those needs, doing the caregiving work with a response from the receiver  – that is, as part of relationships with others –  and finally that these are consistent with democratic aims for justice, equality and freedom for all (2013 pp22-23). Thus care is political. It is based on government decisions to provide the resources to meet human needs, or otherwise.

For these mothers with higher weight children carrying out responsibility to care was central to being a parent. Most met all Tronto’s dimensions and were critical of responsibilisation by the state and food industry. Caring practices around their child’s weight intersected with employment, and other parenting responsibilities. One mother, Syrita, explained her child gained excess weight after she started full time work. Syrita felt anxious about whether she should work fewer hours and spend more time caring for the needs of her child. She was forced to make food compromises as part of the negative externalities of work: an experience shared with other working parents. For Syrita, the work ethic was important yet working full time forced her to juggle and compromise. Arriving home at 6.30pm her choices were to help with her child’s physical activities, homework, or to freshly cook a meal before the child’s 8.30pm bedtime. As a lone mother her work – despite its low pay – enabled her to pay for out-of-school activities such as scouts. This cost required balancing with food provisioning. Syrita describes food choice as no choice other than processed foods. To provision fresh chicken and salad for her child she would go without. Syrita’s story, highlights the continued function of the family as a social institution and illustrates the competency-based approach to child rearing; with multiple tasks and trade-offs (Gillies, 2011): weighing up the pros and cons, setting priorities and resourceful time management. As Gillies (2007) found household decisions are bound with the struggle to survive and ensure child is provided for and interconnects with feelings of powerlessness, lack of control, and an awareness that constraints are due to lack of resources (2007, p 68).

Bev, a policy implementer shared her observation of mothers feeding children on evening buses due to the long working hours with late finishing times. Lena, a domiciliary care worker, on zero-hour contract would leave food in fridge for her children to feed themselves whilst she prepared fresh foods and fed her client. Lena cared for both – children and client- describing her client as a friend. The ‘nanny’ was frequently used as metaphor for lack of time and resources compared to affluent communities: mothers knew they faced structural constraints, and that these affected their food choices. Leyla, childcare worker commented:

They can afford to go out and buy these organics, healthy foodshave nannies that prepare the dinners before they get intold the nanny “make sure you feed them healthily”. But when you’re thinking every day, what am I going to cook them? Your money’s running low. You’ve got stresses about bills and everything else. The last thing on your mind is “what’s the healthy option?” You can’t afford to buy the healthy stuff so you’re just going to go for the quick fix.

Mothers self-blamed. Performativity and guilt were powerfully illustrated through parents’ self-reported practices. In self-blaming, many parents used the language of performance, such as “can’t blame someone else for what I do,” “[I put] food on the plate”. Most were aware of the powerful influences around the food system, yet they took ultimate responsibility by performing the food duties of shopping and feeding the child. For example, when thinking about who is responsible for child ‘obesity’ Bedria, a childcare worker, said:

 Its … the economy … and government, everything linked together… It’s one big chain goes around and we’re in the middle and we’re the one who just picks up!… parents [bear] first responsibility… it’s us who’s responsible for what goes into my child’s mouth… we’re the responsible…

In the context of taking ultimate responsibility the attribution of self-blame was collective. Social divisions emerged as parents self-blamed, blamed other parents, and reported being blamed by parents of normative weight children. Stigma was also attached to welfare recipients who wanted to spend time with their children – that is, they were caregiving – which points to the imbalance between family and working life. Working hours alongside low wages were core concerns for these mothers. Andrea worked part-time being one of three workers in her family yet still they struggled financially. Syrita contemplated reducing her working hours. Liz, bus driver and mother worked shifts and husband over fifty hours a week and described selves as ‘working-poor’. Felecia is a mother in receipt of welfare benefits. The story of Liz and Felecia provides insight into the possible negative externalities of work including long hours that reduce caregiving time and alienates them from human activities that are ‘intrinsically satisfying’ (Glyn, 2007, p. 183). Liz wanted time to spend with children. Cooking, for example, was elevated to quality time:

There are people on benefits in this area who’ve got a good quality of life with their kids because they are at home and are able to cook. I think it’s more the working parents that are suffering and the kids of working parents who are suffering.

Felecia, articulated a counter-argument to commodification of childcare to increase the workforce, which is part of the neoliberal notion that citizenship is based on paid work (Williams, 2005, p28). Felecia considered it economically illogical that mothers are forced into work so they can pay someone else to raise their children:

when you’re on benefits, they feel you squander it. You’ve got a roof over your head, paying your bills, doing your shopping, feeding your family as best you can. It’s not life-changing money … its money just to livestereotype people who are on benefits, not worthyvery unfair …You want women to have children and go back to work. Who’s going to raise their children? Then why should you have them? Why should you pay other people to raise your children? That doesn’t make sense. I decided that I was going to raise my children. Yes, I was on benefits.I don’t want my children to go childcare and the government helps me pay for it. Why? I don’t need them to do that. I will do my bit and look after my children because I had them, you see.

Parents were blamed for lack of care – deficit model – that was evident in this research. For example, a policy maker states

I mean Jamie Oliver of course tried, starting with school dinners. He was very committed. He did not move on then to educating the mums which is what I think is needed.

Yet they desired to care more. There was a collective ethic of care, for their own and others’ children, as most volunteered in their communities and school. For example, Liz despite working shifts, volunteered to teach children to cook healthily – paradoxically, because the children’s parents’ working hours were worse than her shifts

In classes at the (community) centre, we try to teach them about healthy eating … but it’s us doing it who are volunteers. When parents used to be able to do things with their kids because they had the time to do it. Whereas nowadays they haven’t and I think that’s the biggest problem … too busy working

Felecia’ s solutions can be viewed in the context of the ethics of care. The issue is not the state enforcing care but ‘how far society supports a commitment to care’ (Williams, 2005, p. 31). Felecia is committed, but denied resources. That suggests to her that society is not committed. In a market-led society the commitment involves commodifying caregiving. Williams argues that the benefits’ system should fully provide for childcare costs. Adopting a political ethic of care would establish that welfare payments are compensation for caregiving (Williams, 2005). This means for in-work mothers, working hours fit around their care commitments and those choosing to be full-time carers are compensated (ibid., 31).

However, these mothers went further by advocating policy reforms to enable care that are pertinent in the light of pandemic recovery. Their policy solutions tackled material conditions of work, income and hours to enable them to care optimally as they desired. These included employment and welfare reforms; greater control of food industry; focus on community and schools, including family eating clubs, redesign of high streets and universal free school meals. Schools and community venues could be spaces for their involvement through parents’ forums in food policymaking. This suggests that a political ethic of care should be central to policy, with possibilities for a new social settlement for ‘unproductive creativity, care and participation’ as advocated by Cootes.

Dr Sharon Noonan Gunning is a policy researcher, lecturer and community organiser. Sharon is currently teaching Sociology at City University London. Building on 20 years experience of food policy, in 2018 she gained her PhD from City University, London for qualitative, critical research in: ‘Food-related obesity policy, parents and class: a critical policy analysis exploring disconnect.’ Prior to this, Sharon holds 10 years experience as an NHS Dietitian, specialising in ‘child obesity.’

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