|Cousin Mary teaching my dad and me|
her mother's secret kata recipe
(Photo by Kevin Miller)
In Part 3, I want to break down the argument presented in the study, “The Joy of Cooking?”, step by step. First, the authors assert that working mothers feel duty-bound to cook because of pressure from a traditional ideal of motherhood coupled with pressure from various “food gurus” who are advocating for Americans to cook more often at home. In the course of interviewing women to support this theory, they also uncover several barriers that make cooking difficult for their interviewees: poverty, work pressures, transportation, housing, child care. Finally, they propose a number of possible “creative solutions” to feed families without forcing mothers into the kitchen.
The authors of the study seem to contend that no working mother wants to cook, but does so due to external obligations. They write, “Mothers felt responsible for preparing healthy meals for their children and keenly experienced the gap between the romanticized version of cooking and the realities of their lives.” Women are feeling even more pressure, they argue, because “modern-day food gurus” such as Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Rachel Ray, as well as political figures like Michelle Obama, “advocate a return to the kitchen.” (I’m just going to note here that Pollan’s book, Cooked, includes a gender analysis that demonstrates he is aware of these issues.)
Of course, the ideal of motherhood exists; of course, mothers constantly feel guilty for not living up to it. But to say that mothers are manipulated to this extent simply by unrealistic standards is to ignore the ways that we defy these standards on a daily basis. A search for “good enough mother” turns up the words of many mothers who are rejecting the ideal. Periodically, studies come out that “prove” that stay-at-home mothers are best for their children, or that day cares will damage children irreparably. Do working mothers feel horribly guilty when these studies come out? Yes. And then they go back to work, either by choice or by necessity, knowing that their work is helping their children by providing the financial support they need and by modeling working womanhood. (And those studies get refuted.)
So while I don’t deny that ideology is a factor in mothers feeling oppressed by cooking, I would add that to pin the blame solely on idealized motherhood and foodies is to miss the point.
If the ideal—and the sexism contained within it—is truly at issue, then how do partnerships that are less traditionally gendered look? I asked several mothers and fathers about how they divide cooking and other domestic work, and I received a range of responses. (Because this post will be long, I’ll include direct most quotes in a coda to this series.) I heard from stay-at-home and work-at-home dads who actively enjoy and take pride in cooking. I heard from opposite-gender couples who split cooking 50/50. I heard from same-gender couples where one partner did most of the domestic tasks. I heard from single mothers who are struggling to do it all. From a small sample, I received a breadth of possible family configurations, each negotiating cooking and domestic tasks in their own way.
In the diversity of responses, one consistency stood out for me. Many women in opposite-gender couples, who had generally egalitarian relationships, said they cook because their male partners simply lacked know-how. No one had taught their men to cook when they were young. As adults, the men had little time or motivation to learn, so if their female partners wanted to eat decently, then they cooked.
If families abandon cooking entirely, then we lose one path to gender equity: men who cook. I am fortunate that my son loves to help me in the kitchen. I count teaching him to cook amongst my small, daily feminist acts. One day, after picking up my son from preschool, my daughter asked him, “Do you want to play ‘Frozen’?” “No,” my son replied. “I want to help Mama make dinner.” Heart cockles: warmed.
If gender dynamics and motherhood ideals can’t fully explain the problem of working mothers and cooking, what else is at play? One clue is revealed in this quote from Elaine, a white, middle-class married mother interviewed for the study: “When we get home it’s such a rush. I just don’t know what happens to the time. I am so frustrated. That’s why I get so angry! I get frustrated ‘cause I’m like, I wanna make this good meal that’s really healthy and I like to cook ‘cause it’s kind of my way to show them that I love them, ‘This is my love for you guys!’ And then I wind up at the end just, you know, grrr! Mad at the food because it takes me so long. It’s like, how can it take an hour for me to do this when I’ve already cut up the carrots and the celery and all I’m doing is shoving it into a bowl?” (emphasis mine)
Elaine says herself that she likes to cook, but she is frustrated that she doesn’t have the time to cook the way she wants to for her family. I hear her longing for a certain kind of connection that a home-cooked family meal can bring, but time pressures turn a leisure activity into a stressful obligation.
The study authors themselves name many of the barriers to cooking: food costs, particularly for healthy foods; basic food insecurity; long work hours; unpredictable schedules; differing family schedules; inadequate transportation; and long commutes to work. Some mothers live in particularly dire situations: “During the month we spent with Flora, a poor black mother who was currently separated from her husband, she was living with her daughter and two grandchildren in a cockroach- and flea-infested hotel room with two double beds. They prepared all of their food in a small microwave, rinsing their utensils in the bathroom sink.”
Is cooking really the problem here?
Would Flora benefit more if she were released from a gendered obligation to cook? Or would she perhaps find more relief if her city had a program to house the homeless like Salt Lake City’s?
|Sign from the New York City strike |
of McDonald's workers this summer.
(Photo by Annette Bernhardt,
from WikiMedia Commons)
Moreover, employees do not get regular shifts. Instead, every Saturday evening, hours are posted for the following week. Each worker receives a thin strip of paper with her or his schedule. Imagine what this unpredictability means for parents trying to arrange child care.
As if this level of exploitation isn’t enough, some workers don’t even get paid for the hours they put in. Finnegan reports, “Two former McDonald’s managers recently went public with confessions of systematic wage theft, claiming that pressure from both franchisees and the corporation forces them to alter time sheets and compel employees to work off the clock.”
This kind of treatment is inhumane, for parents and non-parents alike. And it isn’t just the fast food industry. American workers put in longer hours for less pay than their counterparts in other developed countries, and they also take fewer vacations. No legal limits exist to prevent American workers from answering e-mails and analyzing spreadsheets when ostensibly having family time at home.
Rather than an accusation against cooking for causing misery amongst working women, I would like to see an indictment of a brutal work culture engendered by skyrocketing inequality. I would like to see an examination of farm subsidies that make processed foods artificially cheap while making raw foods unattainably expensive. I would like to see a report on the economic conditions that create food deserts in certain neighborhoods when food is so abundant in others. I would like to see a denunciation of a political climate that makes raising the national minimum wage to a paltry $15/hour an impossibility. I would like to see rage against weak and ineffective initiatives to end poverty while the top 0.1 percent continue to attain new heights of wealth.
The study authors suggest in their conclusion a variety of “creative solutions” to feed families healthy meals without continuing to overburden mothers. They suggest town suppers and healthy food trucks, to-go meals that parents pick up at their children’s schools to heat up at home.
While I am interested in collectivist solutions, the logistics bring up more questions. Where would the food come from? Who would grow it? What food traditions would be represented? How would it all get funded? If families buy the meals, how could the meals be affordable yet made with good quality, fresh ingredients?
The main question I have is, who would prepare these foods? How much would they get paid? What hours would they work? Because I can imagine, all too easily, that these programs would rely on part-time workers juggling two jobs, some of them parents. Parents who would work long hours to prepare food for parents, who are working too much to prepare food. Alternatively, I can imagine stay-at-home moms being asked to volunteer their labor, just as they are tasked with filling in labor gaps in their children’s schools.
This isn’t a solution. It’s a displacement of the problem.
The answer to the question, “Why do working mothers find it so hard to cook?” is not an easy one, but cooking itself is not the problem. The way most Americans, not just working mothers, find it difficult-to-impossible to engage in one of the most fundamental human activities is but one symptom of a cancer in American culture.
So what can we do? We can insist on connection. We are all linked: the farmers who grow our food, the migrant workers who harvest it, the drivers who transport it, the grocers who stock it, the corner-store owners who sell it, the food workers who prep and cook it, the parents who bring it home, the children who either eat it or complain about it.
Cooking can be feminist or anti-feminist. But insisting on a more just and equal world is feminist to the core.