Food Allergies Are Hard Work!: Food Allergy Management as Domestic Labor

Last week I talked about the focus on the family and children in public conversations, advocacy efforts, and research projects concerning food allergy. My gut says that there are some biological reasons for this (many times food allergy is first diagnosed during childhood), but also some social and ethical reasons (caring for children is a high priority and a moral obligation in societies throughout the world). I’m still trying to figure out how to put it all into words. Thank you to everyone who took the time to read, comment, and share that post!

Today I want to think through something that is related to my earlier post: how food allergy impacts domestic roles and responsibilities within families or households. This is another “out on a limb” post, so please bear with me and offer any suggestions you might have in the comments!

Food allergies necessarily impact domestic (that is, home-related or home-based) routines because they affect what people can eat and how they must prepare their food. There’s tremendous interest in talking about food preparation among the many bloggers that I follow and the people that I talk to about food allergy. There are a number of cookbooks that go into great detail about how to cook without certain allergens. Many bloggers document their adventures in cooking without wheat flour or cow’s milk on their blogs, and sometimes even post tasty pictures of their creations on Twitter. For me, one of the most memorable accounts of learning to adapt to food allergies in the family kitchen is Susan Weissman’s narration of learning to bake an allergy-safe cake for her son in her excellent memoir Feeding Eden. Food is an important part of domestic life, and food allergies dramatically change what can be eaten and how. Talking about food preparation – sharing tips, recipes, and safe ingredients – seems to be both a way for people to learn how to adapt their routines and a way for people to socialize and connect with others managing food allergies in their households.

On the research side, I’m fascinated by the fact that there is quite a bit of research that’s done on the best hand-washing, table-washing, and dish-washing techniques for removing allergens. My impression is that such applied research is not typically carried out by physician researchers in the context of other specialties or diseases; it’s often social scientists like me who carry out such research, and the findings don’t always get well integrated into medical practice. Yet for food allergy, since the challenges of the disease arise in ordinary, homely situations and there is no clear pathway to a cure, managing everyday situations and techniques like handwashing has become part of the medical orthodoxy and a topic of medical research.

One social science researcher in particular inspired me to pay attention to how domestic techniques are important for the medical management of food allergy. I will connect this research back to food allergies and domesticity, but first I’ll go on a detour to explain the work on its own terms.

In a 1976 article in the Science and Technology Studies (STS) journal Technology and Culture, titled “The “Industrial Revolution” in the Home: Household Technology and Social Change in the 20th Century,” historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan wrote,

It seems odd to speak of an “industrial revolution” connected with housework, odd because we are talking about the technology of such homely things, and odd because we are not accustomed to thinking of housewives as a labor force or of housework as an economic commodity – but despite this oddity, I think the term is altogether appropriate.

Though she makes her argument using Marxist language of “commodities” and “labor force,” Cowan is making a series of simple points in this passage and in the article as a whole. First, she asserts that housework is real, hard work. She analyzes the way new household technologies like the refrigerator and the vacuum cleaner were advertised as time-saving devices when they were introduced to the general American public after World War II. However, as these devices made certain tasks easier to do, the social expectations of what an appropriately “clean” house should look like became more exacting. In the end, women were not liberated from housework in the post-war era; instead, they were expected to carry out a greater number of tasks to keep a cleaner home. In essence, work was intensified in the post-war home, just as economic productivity was intensifying in industrial and service sectors outside the home. “Women’s” technologies were real technologies that fueled broader economic growth and were used for real work – though work that was not directly compensated – in the home. Yet it’s rare that we think about housework as being as important as work performed outside the home, and rarer still for us to think of people whose primary job is caring for others as “workers.”

But work in the home had a different “emotional context” than the work carried out in the factory or the office, in Cowan’s view. She writes,

[I]nstead of desensitizing the emotions that were connected with household work, the industrial revolution in the home seems to have heightened the emotional context of the work, until a woman’s sense of self-worth became a function of her success at arranging bits of fruit to form a clown’s face in a gelatin salad. 

In her acerbic way, I think Cowan is hitting on something that still resonates with women today, especially moms, and perhaps even more particularly moms who take the lead on managing illnesses or crises at home. Here, Cowan is reminding readers that even though housework is work, it is a kind of work that carries an extra emotional (and I might add, moral) component. Housework is part of maintaining household order and projecting a sense of control over the household space; it is also about keeping family members and other visitors comfortable and safe. Doing housework well can be a way to show that you care about family members, or about your mom, cousin, or friend who is coming to visit for a week. But it can also be a trap: since the standard for “good” is always getting better as more technologies make simple tasks easier, it’s easy for a woman (or, today, a homemaker of any gender) to feel guilty and powerless when they cannot live up to those standards.

And now back to food allergy!

These themes are present in the work of writers who write about food allergies today. One example of this is Heather Hewett’s article in the Summer 2014 issue of Allergic Living, called “Good Enough Mother.” In that article, she talks about how difficult it is to stop blaming herself for small mistakes she makes with helping her kids manage their food allergies, even when nothing bad happens. In particular, she asks, what would it mean to be a “good enough” mother of kids with food allergies instead of a perfect mother of kids with food allergies? If everyone stays safe and happy, is there some way to let go of the guilt of failing to be perfect?

To me, it seems like there is a connection between the highly academic point that Cowan makes – domestic work is real work that causes women extra guilt when they fail to live up to contemporary standards of cleanliness, which are always getting harder to attain – and the highly personal narrative of learning to accept being “good enough” that Hewett offers in her essay. Managing food allergies through rigorous cleaning and cooking regimens is hard work that often seems to fall to food allergy parents, and it usually goes unrecognized by the broader public. In today’s world, communities like food allergy blogger circles online or the community of food allergy educators allow people to come together and share their experiences, allowing people who manage households shaped by food allergies to be recognized for their hard (but mostly invisible) work. Research on practical food allergy management techniques, like the most effective ways to clean surfaces or wash hands to remove allergens, also seems to validate the work and experiences of food allergy parents.

What do you think about the connections I’m trying to make here? Has managing food allergies complicated or intensified your domestic routines, such as cooking, cleaning up, and personal hygiene? Has scientific research helped practically, or helped you feel less isolated when faced with the challenges of managing food allergies? Have you found a balance of vigilance and acceptance that is “good enough” for you? Please share or contact me with comments or ideas!

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