“It seems hard because it is”: How feeding roles change with someone who is sick

When I was a doctoral student, I remember how members of our cohort struggled to articulate our research questions so we could get on with information or data gathering. When we asked our supervisor what we might be doing wrong or what we could do to move the process along he replied, “It’s OK, getting to the question seems hard, because it is”. What was a relief to learn that our struggles had been and were shared by many others. Finding the right words to convey the depth of meanings in our research topics was challenging. I use this exact phrase when working with students who are learning about research methods; they too find it encouraging to know that what they struggle with is a struggle for most others. So it is with feeding a loved one who is sick (FLOWS), it seems hard because it is.

In this and some following blog entries, I outline some aspects of the nature of feeding in households generally and then how these change when someone experiences a change in health status. What I am referring to is those situations when, because of change in health status, a person experiences changes in whether, what, and how they can eat.

For clarification, this may mean that someone is living with an illness or is ‘sick’; it is important to note that some people living with changed health status or illness do not consider themselves ‘sick’.

Feeding and Eating Roles: Although this doesn’t hold for every situation, typically in a household, there is someone who holds the primary feeder role. This person knows what all the food is in the cupboards, fridge, and freezer. They know what cooking equipment they have and where it is. They know what food needs to be eaten before it spoils. They know who likes what and household favourite foods and dishes. They have the dual responsibility of aiming to satisfy each person in the family or household and to create unity as a family or household through serving a meal everyone will like. This is what Marjorie DeVault in Feeding The Family: The Social Organization of Caring as Gendered Work (1993) referred to as ‘constituting family’. She wrote:

Households are quite varied, homes for motley groups of actual individuals with their particular quirks and idiosyncracies. Both inclination and necessity produce variation in daily activities within and among households. But the work of “feeding the family” tends to collect these unruly individuals and tame their centrifugal moves, cajoling them into some version of the activity that constitutes family. Because this work of social construction is largely invisible, such efforts simultaneously produce the illusion that this form of life is a “natural” one. (91)

There may the others in a household who participate in food getting and preparation however, they do not have the primary feeder’s thorough knowledge of the foods or equipment in the house. And then there are the ‘eaters’, those for whom food and meals materialize without them putting any effort into food getting or preparation.

I was explaining this idea to our local writing group; one of the members recounted the time that she had ‘lost her cool’ related to this division of labour. After letting her husband know for the 4th time that dinner was on the table, she had ‘lost it’ telling him it must be nice to just show up for a meal without doing any of the work. I recognize that frustration as I am sure many readers do.

What’s ‘hard’ about feeding a loved one who is sick?

When someone is sick in a household, feeding and eating roles often and usually do shift. If the person who held the feeder role is too sick to carry on in that role, someone or several people step(s) in to get food into the house and/or to make meals. Friends and family often offer food as gestures of help. Long ago (so long ago that I cannot locate the reference), I read about some research on the sociology in illness where the researchers found that the nature of these gestures of help vary with the gender of who is sick and who holds the feeder role. They found that typically, when the feeder was sick (who, most often in their study was female), people from outside the home (family members, neighbours, friends) offered lots of support to her partner. When a male partner was sick, the female who had the feeder role got less support. I can imagine that, as it was for me, this is infuriating for some readers. Note that the researchers studied heterosexual, cisgender couples. When we consider gender and sexuality, the picture would be more complex.

The changes in feeding roles that happen because of illness or changed health status are unique for every household. What is common is that there is change. For people who have had the feeder role, feeding a loved one who is sick may require making different food or making food differently. There can be changes in tolerance of food depending on its consistency, changes in appetite, flavour, aroma, and more. The change is that what was familiar in getting food into the house and serving it no longer works.

For someone who has not had the feeder role and now has that responsibility, it can/does feel awkward. For those readers who, like me, have had the primary feeder role for decades it may seem difficult to believe that there are people who have never made a sandwich or turned on a stove or used a microwave or made toast. When people who are new at the feeder role face the enormity of the oft-repeated responsibility of obtaining, preparing, serving, and sometimes physically feeding food, it can be overwhelming.

And then there is the change that happens for the person who had the feeder role who is now living with changed health status and no longer able to perform that work. Surprising to me when I started research in this area was how much the people who held the feeder role hung on to it even though they were seriously ill. From this I learned about ‘feeder as identity’, that a person’s role as feeder in their household was far more than functional, it was foundational to their sense of self.

I have aimed to provide insight into why I say, “Feeding a loved one who is sick feels hard because it is”. I have outlined the disruption(s) that takes place in households when feeding roles shift owing to illness. In future blog posts, I will describe how changes in feeding rituals and routines further contribute to disrupting what was normal in a household.

Wishing you all the best.

 DeVault, Marjorie. Feeding The Family: The Social Organization of Caring as Gendered Work. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1993. Print.