Women’s Work and Food Allergies

I’ve recently begun transforming my dissertation on food allergy activism in the United States into a scholarly book manuscript. One of the main concerns of the book is, how does raising food allergic children reproduce and intensify gendered divisions of labor in the home?

Marxist feminist thought has been concerned with questions like this since the 1970s. Two observations ground their perspective: first, that women’s labor in the home isn’t treated as “work” and is unfairly uncompensated; and second, that this unpaid home work is what enables society to run smoothly, because by bringing up the next generation this work reproduces the social and economic system we call capitalism. I see both of these social facts in play for families with food allergies in the United States.

Women’s Home Work is Labor

American society does shockingly little to support mothers raising children, even those who don’t have food allergies or disabilities. I don’t think this can be repeated too many times, or too insistently. Children can be sent to school starting around age 5 or 6, but that only covers part of the day. After-school care is mainly private, costing thousands of dollars a year. After school programs abound, but they usually come with additional expenses and parental time commitments. And until age 5 or so, families are completely on their own with finding someone to care for their children during the day if the need to work or have time to get things done on their own.

Because American society maintains that women have a “mothering instinct” that makes them more fit than men to be the primary caretaker, these become a problem for women to solve. We solve it by reducing our working hours or leaving the workforce after childbirth, giving up economic and social independence for the sake of children.

When you add in food allergies, it gets even more complicated. Which babysitter can you trust to follow necessary rules for buying and preparing a child’s safe food? Which after school program will reliably serve nut-free snacks? How does one come to trust anyone else at all after watching one’s child gasp for breath during a reaction in infancy?

Many mothers (but very few fathers) of food allergic children find themselves unable to work because of the extra burden they feel to care for their kids. They can’t afford high-quality care when they need it, or don’t trust what care is available to them where they live, or both. It is also very socially isolating. They give up much of their social life and economic power to care for their children, often to a much greater extent than their friends with non-allergic kids.

Mothers of allergic kids must become uncompensated super-caretakers, managing the normal demands of childrearing while also putting in extra work to learn how to keep their kids safe and ramping up their hours of labor in the home to do all the extra things that need to be done. Health status and pre-existing expectations of women’s responsibilities in the world intersect to make motherhood an even more oppressive and isolating force in a woman’s life than it already is in the United States. Gendered caretaking roles and expectations are reproduced and intensified in the crucible of family life with an allergic child.

Labor in the Home Reproduces Capitalism

So that’s how caring for food allergic children reproduces gender. But what does capitalism (the other piece of the Marxist feminist framework) have to do with it?

Raising food allergic kids is expensive. It means buying new things, buying higher quality things, and buying more expensive things that are guaranteed to be safe. Gluten-free flour is expensive. High-quality vegetables from a boutique store that has rigorous hygiene standards in the stock room and on the sales floor are expensive. Time-saving, allergy-friendly, safe foods that allow a mother to cut out some of the steps of meal prep are more expensive than standard products. New stainless steel cookware that doesn’t hold on to food particles (something Teflon is notorious for in this community) is expensive. Frequent doctor’s appointments and multiple sets of epinephrine auto-injectors are expensive. HEPA-filter vacuum cleaners and new HVAC systems are expensive, as are maintenance on those infrastructural elements.

The growing number of options for convenient foods and medical interventions has not helped reduce the financial pressure. Food manufacturers have figured out that allergy-friendly food is a growth industry. But while there are now many more choices for specialty foods, they are not decreasing in price for consumers. And no one in the food allergy community should ever forget that the introduction of the Auvi-Q by Sanofi, which entered into competition with Mylan’s EpiPen, set of an arms race of rising prices, which were only partially offset by discount coupons for certain consumers. Now many people are struggling to comfortably afford the number of EpiPens they need. Food allergic people have yet to see whether new schemes that are said to promise lower prices for this necessary medication, like Mylan’s release of a generic EpiPen, will have any impact on out of pocket costs to families in the long term.

Part of living with food allergies in the United States (though the extent can vary by individual) involves buying high-priced medicines, objects, and foods, which opens up new markets for manufacturers. Raising allergic children, for whom parents must buy many products for a wide variety of medical and personal reasons, provides new markets for targeted products designed to mitigate the burdens of life with food allergies. And since everything one learns to need in order to manage the condition is so expensive, it further ramps up the pressure on family members to find ways to earn money, providing intensified economic and moral justification for the sale of one’s labor on the open market. Finally, allergic children may be patterned to seek solutions to their condition on the open market when they are on their own.The care work of raising allergic children thus contributes to the reproduction of capitalism in a number of ways.

In the end, mothers, more than anyone, bear the financial and social burdens of a system with no support for childrearing and few meaningful ways to ensure the personal safety of allergic kids that are more effective and efficient than buying more things. I rather doubt that this is the best future we could possible make for people with chronic illnesses and disabilities.

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