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  • Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth?: Mothers’ Authority on Food and Feeding
  • Andrea Davies (bio)

“Today’s woman is also told she has it all— and there are times when she would give anything for a refund.”1

In the UK, it is often said that although babies are hard work, it is much easier for mothers these days. A mother is stretched thin by the physical and practical demands of caring for her baby, dividing her time between feeding, changing nappies, and comforting. But today, she is reminded, there are disposable nappies, automatic washing machines, tumble dryers, baby wipes, chair swings, and microwave sterilizers to ease the physical and logistical burdens of mothering. Our mothers and grandmothers had terry towelling nappies, lines of washing that were difficult to get dry in rainy British weather, at best, a twin-tub washing machine, containers of Milton sterilizing fluid littering an otherwise orderly kitchen, and, certainly, few toys or babysitting devices, such as swings, which could distract the baby while the mother attends to her chores. These products, otherwise known as mothering aids, ease the burdens of motherhood, and also give mothers choices. We can, for example, choose between terry towelling, disposal, eco-disposal, and new cloth nappies. It would seem that the availability and choice of products has given mothers more control over their mothering, and it can also be said that these products empower mothers. But, do they?

This essay seeks to explore how products designed to make life easier for mothers affect women’s experiences of mothering. The context and analysis of this article are bound to the cultural and retail context of the UK. It takes food as its focus, specifically the task of introducing solid foods to babies, in order to examine whether mothers are somehow empowered by being able to choose to use, or to choose not to use, prepared baby foods.

These issues are my daily concern. I am currently on maternity leave following the birth of my second son, Arthur. He is 7 months old, and we began weaning six weeks ago. My eldest son, Harry, is three. Harry was also weaned to solid foods at five and a half months. For Harry I cooked all my own food, and when I used prepared baby food because it was convenient, he refused it. For Arthur I wanted the opportunity to use prepared food because our lives are busier than ever.

Mother nature: locating responsibility for feeding and nutrition

We regularly refer to “Mother Nature,” and evoke mothers (e.g., “Mother Earth”) as central imagery in harvest festivals and thanksgiving celebrations. It seems to be the natural order of things for mothers to be concerned with the nutrition of their children. The relationship between food and motherhood begins while the woman is planning a pregnancy, is consolidated while carrying the child, and is established as fundamental to being a good mother by the time the baby is born.

Before pregnancy many women prepare their bodies by taking dietary supplements. When they find out they are expecting a baby, they become intensely aware of their bodies in a new way. Thinking of her body as a vessel carrying important cargo, a pregnant woman finds everyone around her is also attentive to her health. Her body, once private, is now public. She is often bombarded with questions, like “Do you have morning sickness?”, “Are you tired?”, “Are you eating well?” It can seem that everything is related to diet. Morning sickness can be alleviated by ginger tonics; caffeine should be avoided because of links to miscarriage; the growing fetus will need at least the 5 recommended daily intakes of fruits and vegetables; and, of course, there is a list of foods that are off the menu for 9 months, including alcohol, caffeine, soft cheese, patés, raw shellfish, and top-feeder fish.2 Few people ask the mother-to-be about what is going on in her mind: what are her hopes and fears for motherhood? All attention is focused on her body and how she is caring for it. The underlying assumption is crude. What is ingested by the mother-to-be will impact the baby...