This study examined how lower-income mothers engage in emotion work in order to feel like good mothers within broader contexts of stigmatization, economic insecurity, and precarity.
Despite the pervasiveness of the intensive mothering ideology, research shows that lower-income mothers in the United States also routinely diverge from the ideology’s norms due to structural and cultural factors. In doing so, these mothers simultaneously work to reframe and negotiate what it means to be a good mother. While scholarship reveals how mothers cognitively and behaviorally carry out this work, less attention has been paid to how mothers perform this work on an emotional level.
Drawing on in-depth interviews with 33 lower-income mothers in the San Francisco Bay Area, this study investigated, through the lens of maternal foodwork, how mothers work on their emotions to feel like good mothers. Data were analyzed abductively.
Mothers worked on their emotions as part of an effort to negotiate what good mothering looks like and to feel like good mothers as they performed maternal foodwork. To do so, mothers engaged in the gendered and classed emotion work strategy of downscaling. Downscaling involved working to inhibit negative emotions and evoke positive ones. Downscaling was facilitated by three key approaches: reflecting on harder times, redefining good foodwork, and leveraging social comparison.
Downscaling serves as a rational, effective emotion work strategy to help mothers navigate ongoing hardships, cultivate a positive maternal identity, and feel like good mothers within contexts of stigmatization, economic insecurity, and precarity.