Thirty-five employed mothers and 34 employed fathers from 25 to 51 years of age participated in this study (). Participants self-identified as belonging to one or more of the three main racial/ethnic groups in the research community: black, white, and Latino. While most participants had a spouse or partner living with them, 15% of fathers and 46% of mothers were single parents. While all participants had one or more children 16 years of age or younger living with them, some shared child custody with ex-partners. At least two-thirds reported household incomes below the county median (2000). Study participants worked 20 or more hours a week in service, clerical, retail sales, and production jobs, the four lowest wage occupational groups in the research area. Participants’ jobs reflected gendered occupational patterns in the research community (2001). For example, we recruited fewer women than men in production and more women in clerical positions. Seven participants held more than one job, and participants worked a variety of weekly and daily schedules, with about a third having variable work schedules.
Characteristics of Study Participants
A spillover framework for the integration of work and family on food choices
The low-wage working parents who participated in this study presented daily work and family lives filled with competing demands on their time, energy and sense of well being. Participants presented influences on their food choice strategies within each of these role settings and as a result of overload from the two roles combined. Study participants described primarily negative, but sometimes positive, spillover from work to family and family to work and role overload from the two combined as a process with three components: 1) affect or feelings, 2) interpretation and evaluation of feelings, and 3) behavior, in the form of food choice coping strategies. This spillover process was presented as reciprocal among the three components; food choice coping behaviors were interpreted as both the result and source of threats to family roles and contributors to feelings of guilt or satisfaction arising from work-family spillover and role overload.
Work conditions and processes affecting food choices
Study participants presented work conditions as stressors on both food choices at work and outside of work. Job conditions that were portrayed as sources of stress and negative spillover from work to home included: job schedule (overtime, hours, shifts, varied schedules); travel on the job; lack of job security; low pay; lack of job flexibility; and distance of the job from home. The characteristics of the food available at the workplace also contributed to job dissatisfaction; this included: high availability of baked products and sweets, food used as a reward by supervisors, high food costs, low food quality, and concerns about the safety of the food available at work. Participants also described social processes at work as contributing to their experiences of job stress. These included: a stressful work climate, job strain including high physical and mental demands of work; and low job satisfaction.
Examples of negative spillover dominated the interviews. The few positive examples of spillover from work to family included the inverse or absence of negative spillover factors, specifically: free or low cost food at work, job flexibility that allowed time during the workday for family or personal tasks or for personal down-time; a positive work climate, and a feeling of job satisfaction.
Family conditions and processes affecting food choices
The participants described some family conditions as sources of stress and negative spillover from home to work. These included: being a single parent; having young children; lacking help with food at home from a partner or other family member; a partner or a child with health problems; caretaking responsibilities for other family members; inadequate household income; long distances from work and child care; and limited transportation. Other conditions portrayed as challenges to food choices at home included: a partner’s work schedule that interfered with help at home or presence at mealtimes, family or child activities that competed for mealtime (e.g. sports), marital and family strain, low marital or parental satisfaction, and lack of family support for healthful food choices.
Participants less frequently brought up positive spillover from family to work. Family conditions that contributed to positive spillover from family to work included the inverse or absence of many of the negative conditions, specifically, regular help from partners, extended family and friends with food and eating; foods or meals brought from home to work; flexibility in the family schedule that allowed more time to get ready for work or time for oneself; living close enough to work to come home for meals or to start meal preparations; and having enough household income to allow for a broader range of food purchases at work.
Individual characteristics and food choices
These working parents also identified personal physical or mental health status, food and nutrition ideals, food-related skills and pride and satisfaction with cooking and food preparation, and life course food experiences as shaping the way they managed food and eating in the context of work and family responsibilities.
Characterizations of work-family spillover
The participants described work-family spillover as a process with affective, interpretive, and behavioral components, interacting in a reciprocal manner, which parents experienced primarily as negative, and more rarely as positive, influences on food choices. Spillover was most apparent at transition times, either before work when parents were trying to get everyone fed and “processed” for work or school, or after work when they were trying to fit in all of the family evening activities and get the children to bed. During those transition times a meal was often portrayed as just one more thing to get done.
In addition to directional spillover effects from work to family or family to work, many of these working parents described feeling pressures on food choices from the overload of their combined work and family roles.
In the affective domain, these parents described negative feelings of being “used up,” “too tired to eat,” “chaotic,” “always tired,” “exhausted,” “too rushed and too hurried to eat,” “stressed out,” and “guilty.” A few described positive feelings of pride in food management skills, being personally energized by work, or feeling relaxed about time. “Crazy days” when demands outstripped available resources were the rule rather than the exception for most of these employed parents. A married father in the study described his feelings on these days:
We’re all so frustrated and tired that nobody wants to make anything. Nobody wants to go anywhere to get anything. We’ve basically skipped a meal. It’ll be like okay, whatever you want, eat it.
A single mother described her feelings about work family pressures:
Every day’s pressure, it just wears and tears on you, and a lot of times you do take it home…cause you’re so tired, you can’t do as much with your kids as you should…with me being a single mom, my kids are relying on me, and I’m relying on my job.
In the interpretive domain, participants interpreted and evaluated these feelings from work or family. Mothers and fathers who presented negative interpretations of work or family demands explained that they did not have the time or energy to be good parents and feed their families ‘right,’ to enjoy food and/or cooking with their families, to make healthful personal food choices or to make time for personal recreation or relaxation.
One mother said: “you feel kinda sad because your kids just ate fast food and leftovers.” Another mother regretted the loss of meal time together: “I think the other compromise is not being able to slow down and eat together.” A third mother compromised on her own diet: “I’ll make them [children] eat and then I eat junk.”
Mothers and fathers presented somewhat different interpretations of spillover. The working mothers in this study interpreted compromises in food choices as conflicting with their personal expectations about maternal roles such as preparing healthy family meals that children liked, eating meals with their children, and knowing what their children were eating. For some mothers, making sure their children went to bed with “something on their bellies” was the best they could do most days.
But they’re eating. You know and they’re eating something that’s not necessarily bad but it’s not as good as what I could be making either. So that does kind of bother me.
The fathers in this study were less likely to raise the issue of parental satisfaction when talking about work and family spillover and eating. Many of these fathers, particularly those who worked early morning hours, late shifts, or lots of overtime, missed being able to eat meals with their families. But fathers generally focused on missing the family time, not on the food or the opportunity to prepare food for the family. One single father of two who worked two jobs and was at home for dinner only twice a week was hard pressed to describe what his children ate, but he did not portray this as a concern.
Participants who drew positive interpretations of work and family demands sometimes described time pressures as manageable because of their personal skills in planning meals, managing their time to shop for groceries on work breaks, or bringing leftovers from home to eat at work. However, this planning sometimes took a considerable time commitment. One mother often spent her day off partially cooking and packaging meat so that her daughter or husband could prepare dinner quickly on weeknights.
Behavior: food choice coping strategies
In the behavioral domain, participants described four main categories of food choice coping strategies to manage the integration of work and family roles, and one category of adaptive strategies to change work and family conditions. The five categories of coping strategies are shown in . Exemplar quotations are provided in the table to illustrate each strategy, but each strategy presented was described by multiple participants. The four main categories of food choice coping strategies included: 1) managing the feelings of stress and fatigue from spillover (treating, parallel eating and compensating), 2) reducing the time and effort used for food and meals (skipping meals, simplifying and speeding up, multitasking, planning ahead, and getting help with food), 3) redefining and reducing expectations (redefining eating together, serial eating), and 4) setting priorities and trading off (prioritize food and eating, trade off). Most of these coping strategies were aimed at managing the feelings of stress arising from spillover and overload and reducing expectations – not with addressing the sources of spillover and overload.
Food Choice Coping Strategies
Only a few participants related long-term adaptive strategies they used to try to ease conflict between work and family roles. On the work side, some participants told of leaving or planning to leave a demanding job for a less demanding one or changing a job shift to allow more coordination with a partner. Other adaptive strategies reported by parents included restricting weekly time for activities outside the home such as sports, or taking advantage of work flexibility to bring their children to work. A few single parents had romantic partners who helped with meal preparation or cared for their children.
A single food choice practice sometimes met a variety of needs. For example, fast food was variously described by parents as a strategy to cope with work fatigue or strain, to speed up a meal, to treat the family, or to have relaxed family time together. Takeout or fast food meals were described both as ways to speed up meals as well as sources of stress. For some of these parents, especially mothers, quick meals were sources of stress because they were not consistent with their food and eating ideals and threatened health and nutritional status for themselves and their children. These threats fed back into the interpretive and affective domains as feelings of “guilt on the mom” or dissatisfaction about having no time to eat “like I should.” One mother said that she had “sacrificed that as far as me eating [healthy]. I’ll just grab something.”
Many of these low-wage workers also described money pressures and short-term and insecure jobs that restricted food choices. At least half of the participants had worked less than a year at their current jobs, some for less than a month. Some parents described holding on to less desirable jobs that paid little and restricted family time in the hope that these jobs would lead to something better. This was a particular burden for single parents, especially for single mothers. Troubled family relationships also placed a limit on the amount of help available at home to some parents. Many participants described detailed strategies for saving money on food purchasing and provisioning at home and at work (e.g., shopping at discount stores, skipping meals, limiting eating out or takeout food).