17 December 2014

Letters About Homework

Photo by Kevin Miller
Two letters I have written to my daughter’s teacher regarding homework. 

I want to emphasize that, overall, we are very pleased with her school and their educational approach. I am posting these letters primarily because I believe that the escalation of homework in the American educational system, starting at earlier and earlier ages, is detrimental to the overall development of young children. I hope these letters may help other parents who feel their children are overburdened. 

(Throughout, I have changed my children’s names to the pseudonyms I use on my blog.)

 Letter 1

(Excerpt from an e-mail to our principal in which I copied the original letter to my daughter’s teacher and added the paranthetical paragraph.)


Regarding homework, we have settled on a policy at home: If Silver wants to do the homework, we do it. If she doesn’t want to, we don’t. 

We arrived at this policy based on three things: 1) The research on the utility of homework in elementary school does not demonstrate any clear benefit to the student’s academic progress, much less to her social/emotional development. 2) On the other hand, research into the benefits of free play for young children demonstrate that children develop a range of skills, both emotional and intellectual, through unstructured, self-directed play time, something that Silver does not get at school. Most importantly, free play contributes significantly to self-regulation. 3) We struggle with Silver in several ways daily—to get out the door on time, to fulfill her (very basic) chores, to get along with her little brother, to stay within our agreed limits—and because we use positive parenting methods, each of these struggles can take a long time. Because of the points above, we are not willing to add homework to the list of struggles in our household. 

(An additional thought I did not include in the original email: Much of the current educational advice on homework—which seems to be a compromise, not a research-based conclusion—is to assign 10 minutes per grade level, e.g. 10 minutes for first grade, 20 for second grade, etc. I understand that, ideally, the HW packet would allow for work to be parceled out over a few days. This is not how it works for Silver. Silver either wants to sit down and complete her entire packet at one time—and gets extremely frustrated if the packet is too long for her to complete in one sitting—or she does not want to do it AT ALL. In this way, I feel she is often “set up” for HW failure.)

Articles on HW: 

Homework: An unnecessary evil? Surprising findings from new research (Kohn 2012) 

Studies support rewards, homework, and traditional teaching. Or do they? (Kohn 2011)

Is homework necessary?

Should I stop assigning homework? (written by a teacher)


What the research says about kids and homework

Less work, more play: A Quebec elementary school bans homework for the year 

Forget homework: It's a waste of time for elementary-school students  

Articles on free play: 

The American Association of Pediatrics on the importance of play  

The serious need for play in Scientific American (I can get the full text for you if you like) 

Scientists say child's play helps build a better brain from NPR 

All work and no play: Why your kids are more anxious, depressed from The Atlantic 

Old-fashioned play builds serious skills from NPR 

Article on happiness: 

Emotional health in childhood ‘is the key to future happiness’ (findings from the London School of Economics, not exactly the most sentimental bunch)

Daydreaming:

Teach Kids to Daydream: Mental downtime makes people more creative and less anxious



Family time
Photo by Kevin Miller
Letter 2 

(To my daughter’s teacher.)

I am writing to continue our discussion about homework. 

First of all, I have to say that this week’s packet is excessive. It would be for a 7-day week, and it is even more so for a 5-day week. There are a total of 7 open-ended questions throughout the packet. The character study alone would be sufficient for this week’s work. I described this week’s packet to my parents’ group on Facebook, which includes parents from all over the country (most of them academics). Other parents of first graders were unanimous that the homework was far above what their children are assigned. (“Mine has 20 minutes of reading Mon-Fri., nothing more.” “That is waaay too much for 1st grade.” “That HW seems like a TON. I know my son would lose it before it was done.”) 

I read the updated December 2014 guidelines for homework. I feel that my main concern was not addressed by the new policy. 


No mention is made of the amount of homework. Silver and I get home at 3:30 p.m. We pick up her little brother at 5:00 p.m., and when we get home, their routine is to help with and eat dinner, take a bath, and go to bed. This leaves a maximum of 1.5 unstructured hours of time that she and I have together during the day. If homework takes 20 minutes per day, that can reduce our unstructured time together by nearly 25 percent. 

Secondly, I still cannot in good conscience force my 6-year-old child to do her homework. If she wishes to do the homework, I am happy to sit with her and help her with it. If, however, she wishes to engage in pretend play, or draw, or lie on her bed and daydream (all her preferred after-school activities), I believe—and will continue to believe—that these activities are more healthful and vital to her intellectual and emotional development than homework. 

I base this not only on my knowledge of my own child and her emotional needs, but also on the extensive research—some of which I shared with you and [principal]—that finds that children (not just my own child, but ALL children) need free-play time and space to daydream. The research on the benefits of homework to elementary school-aged children is nowhere near as robust. I vaccinated my children because scientific evidence overwhelmingly tells me that it’s the best way to keep my children from suffering from common, terrible childhood diseases. My position on homework is similarly formed. 


According to the guidelines, homework is supposed to develop “‘21st century skills’ such as curiosity, imagination, critical-thinking, creativity and innovation, initiative, effective oral and written communication, accessing and analyzing information, agility and adaptability, and collaboration.” Need I point out that play develops all these skills, and even better, the child develops them on her own initiative

I had an extensive talk with Silver yesterday about homework. She has a new plan she wants to try in the new year, but she is adamant that she has no interest in doing any homework before Winter Break. If there are consequences for opting out of homework, please let me know. 

Free play
Photo by Anoosh Jorjorian
As an example, here is what we did yesterday instead of homework: We came home. I asked Silver if she wanted to do homework. “No,” she said. “I want to play with you.” “What would you like to play?” I asked. She went to our Ideas Box, a box that holds scraps of paper where we had written ideas for pretend play. We pulled out two, and Silver decided she wanted to do the idea where we pretend we are on the moon. “Let’s make space suits!” she said. We ran around the house gathering materials for space suits, including helmets and air tanks. Then we made the rocket ship by spreading out a blanket to form the wings and positioning two chairs. Silver found a yogurt top to use as a steering wheel and a drum mallet to use as the thruster. She grabbed silk cloths to serve as seatbelts. 

We blasted off. We talked about how the ride was bumpy while we were in the atmosphere, but when we reached space, it became smooth. We landed on the moon. We put hula hoops around our waists to serve as tethers that would keep us from losing the rocket ship. We jumped around the play room in “low gravity.” Then Silver decided that it was time to go to the Space Station. We went into the space station and then could move normally because of the artificial gravity. We ate a dinner of astronaut food and went to bed. 

Then it was time to pick up Ocho. 

When we got home, Silver texted a short shopping list to Kevin [my husband]. She got mad when I told her to brave spell “carrots.” We talked about why she needs to brave spell, and she did it, but she was still angry about it. Ocho wanted to read a book. I told Silver, “We have had play time, but Ocho hasn’t had any time with me yet, so I need to sit with him and read a book.” Silver did not like this plan. We talked about whether she wanted to go to her Peace Corner. She did not. She sat with us while I read one book. Ocho wanted another book, but Silver wanted to play a matching game. “Why don’t you get the game and set it up while I’m reading the book to Ocho? Then when the book is done, the game will be ready.” We agreed to this plan. Silver set up the game. She didn’t want to wait until the second book was done, but eventually she sat next to me while I finished the second book. 

Kevin came home and played the matching game with the kids while I made dinner. When the game was done, Silver cut up some green beans and helped set the table before we sat down to dinner. 

Yesterday was a good day, and I feel like Silver got everything that she needed: connection time with her family, opportunities to practice emotional self-control, chances to provide help and feel a sense of responsibility, and—most of all—time to exercise her body and her rich, abundant imagination. I hope you understand why I feel that the time we spent yesterday could not possibly be better spent doing homework. 

Yours sincerely, 


Addendum 

My description of the HW packet (5 days instead of 7 due to Winter Break starting):
2 math story problems; emotional/social exercise where kids read 2 sentences, figure out which is the “accident” then answer 3 questions about how the kids in the scenario feel and what they should say; “character study” where kids read a book, draw the main character and come up with 3 adjs to describe her/him, answer 2 questions about the character, then do 2 beginning-middle-end exercises; and finally a “talking question”: If you could only keep 1 toy, which would it be and why? 


Additional thoughts

- Several articles have been published on whether ADHD is overdiagnosed in the United States due to school models that keep children—particularly boys—sitting for extended periods of time that are inappropriate for their developmental levels. Some have theorized that a lack of exercise and free play may also contribute.

- Two countries lead in education worldwide: South Korea and Finland. Their methods are drastically different. South Korean students succeed, but at a high cost to their students in terms of well-being and happiness. Finnish students, on the other hand, dont start school until age 7, and they build in frequent free time and include non-academic activities, and teachers are concerned with developing well-rounded children.  

Please add your children’s experiences with homework, links to further research, or relevant articles in the comments!

28 November 2014

Thanksgiving 2014

Collage by my daughter
My Facebook post on Thanksgiving this year:

I hate the myth that this holiday is founded upon, a sanitized story of cooperation that is more palatable to tell our children than the real story of genocide. I love the actual proceedings of the day: cooking and eating delicious food, spending time with family, appreciating what we have and the people we love in our lives. I despise the fact that some corporations require their employees to work on this day. Workers who "want" to work on this day because they can earn time-and-a-half and more should be more fairly compensated throughout the year so they can have holidays off, as the word "holiday" requires. Workers who want to spend this day at leisure with their families should have the unassailable right to do so. On this day, I try to recommit to noticing daily what a wonderful life I have, at the same time that I recommit to doing everything I can to make the world around me a more fair and just place. May today bring all of you a good meal and the warmth of love.

27 November 2014

My Thoughts on Cops, Race, Ferguson, Justice, and Whose Side I'm On

A demonstration in New York City protesting
the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO.
(Photo via WikiMedia Commons)
When I was about 18, I got into an argument with my best friend* over an article about a man who committed suicide by cop. 

I said something like, “It’s disgusting that getting shot by the police is so predictable that someone can actually plan to commit suicide this way.”

My friend countered, “You know who I feel sorry for? The cop. Imagine having to live the rest of your life knowing that you killed someone just doing your job, and that person used you to commit suicide.”

I don’t remember what I replied to him, but I remember still feeling angry and unconvinced. My friend is white. I am not. That day, I was unable to articulate to him that race had everything to do with where our sympathies lay.

Nevertheless, my friend’s words stuck with me.

I actually have family members who were cops—family members who are not on the brown side of my family—but I have never talked with them in depth about what it was like to be on the job. One of them said to me, “It’s pretty much like [the reality TV show] Cops.” Having seen snippets of the show, I was afraid to ask more. I was too much of a coward to confront the possibility that people I love might be doing things that would enrage me if I knew. (We already have plenty we disagree on.)

I have also met cops that I like (usually police of color), who have been personable, fair, and concerned, who have
exactly embodied the ideal of law enforcement as it should be.

Sometimes, news of a policeman killed during duty has sent me into a reverie, trying to imagine what it would be like to have every work day present the possibility of death. I have read writings by and about cops, describing how seemingly innocuous situations can turn bad, or how someone who presents as non-threatening might be extremely dangerous. I can sympathize with the idea that confronting the worst side of human nature, day in and day out, can taint a person’s view of the world and transform every individual into an object of suspicion.

Since Monday, I have been reading with a kind of grim resignation everything I can about the killing of Mike Brown. I read Officer Darren Wilson’s testimony, which I don’t believe for a minute, and Dorian Johnson’s testimony, which includes details that comport exactly with my own experiences of cops’ attitudes and speech with me and with other people of color.

These two accounts encapsulate two world views. In the first, Mike Brown is the belligerent aggressor, who escalates nothing into something, who is huge and terrifying, and Wilson must defend himself. In the second, Darren Wilson is the demon, and Brown must fight for his life.

The two accounts are parallel, yet mirrored. But no matter which account the reader believes, the end is the same: Wilson has a gun, and Brown does not. Wilson gets a hearing, but Brown gets executed.

The gap between these two accounts seems like a chasm. After all, they can’t both be true.

But I wish cops could understand that what they feel—being on high alert, aware that people going about their business might be hiding a threat, knowing that any day they could die at the hands of someone irrational, stupid, or hot-headed—is exactly how African Americans, especially black men, feel around them.

Cops and black men are having parallel yet mirror experiences of each other.

On the face of it, this could provide some common ground, the beginning of understanding. In reality, we know that the construction of race, a construction hundreds of years old and woven inextricably into the fabric of Western culture, functions precisely to perpetuate the divide. An illusion with very material consequences.

I have lived in places where police are not upholders of the law, but agents of bribery and corruption. The kind of life most of us want, with stability and security, is only possible in our current society with a professional, trained, and funded police force. 


It’s hard to hold both ideas in my head, that I want to have cops patrolling my streets at the same time that I also fear them, not just for myself, but for my some of my friends, and some of my kids’ friends who are brown and black boys and will grow up to be brown and black men. I can feel sympathy for an individual cop in a tight situation having to make a tough call (and let me be clear that Darren Wilson is NOT that cop). But such sympathy cannot erase the continuing rage I feel at an institution that regularly mows down men of color and  incarcerates them at a staggering rate.

I don’t have a solution. Rational discussions and state-sponsored “conversations about race” serve mostly to create the appearance of progress and building bridges without shifting the institutional bedrock that supports the structure of the status-quo. Violence usually hurts communities already suffering the most, but sometimes it is the only language that state power understands and responds to. (I am not calling for violence. I am simply looking at history.)

I do know that if cops have any kind of sincere desire to change this dynamic, it is incumbent upon them to listen and learn. Cops have power and resources; impoverished communities do not, which is why the equation of armed white cop + unarmed black man ends with the same tragic result again and again (while armed white men roam freely).

Ultimately, what police are supposed to stand for and what people in the streets are calling for is the same thing: justice. But the scales are weighted, and Americans need to take clear-eyed look at the ways race creates that imbalance. The scales have never hung equal, but until they do, we will have no peace.


* Read about my run-in with a cop and a vigilante with this same best friend here, as part of my reflection on the injustice of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case. 

LINKS:

A petition to President Obama and the US Attorney General to press federal charges against Darren Wilson

A wishlist of books for the Ferguson Library

The NAACP march, Journey for Justice, beginning on Saturday, November 29
 

19 September 2014

Is Cooking Anti-Feminist? Part 3

Cousin Mary teaching my dad and me
her mother's secret kata recipe
(Photo by Kevin Miller)
Continued from Part 1, where I explore the connections between cooking, work, and leisure, and Part 2, where I unpack the dynamics between cooking and gender in my own family history.


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)
At the same time I read this study, which features at least four parents who work in the fast food industry, I also read William Finnegan’s article in The New Yorker about the efforts of McDonald’s workers to unionize and raise the minimum wage. Most of the workers he interviews have jobs at two different locations, if not three, and yet their hours are held under forty hours a week to keep them part-time. One mother who has worked at McDonald’s for fourteen years makes $8.50/hour, a 50 cent increase over the base pay—which is minimum wage—in a city where a living wage for a single parent with a child is calculated to be $30.02/hour. Finnegan writes, “American fast-food workers receive almost seven billion dollars a year in public assistance,” which includes food stamps. 

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.

16 September 2014

Is Cooking Anti-Feminist? Part 2 (#365FeministSelfie 2)

#365FeministSelfie, August 26
Banana muffin for my son's birthday
celebration at school
Continued from Part 1, where I explore the connections between cooking, work, and leisure.

Second in my #365FeministSelfie series 

I grew up with three main parental figures in my life: my mother, my father, and my paternal grandmother. Their stories illustrate three very different narratives of gender and cooking. 

My grandmother cared for me nearly every day after school and many weekends. In Armenian culture in general and for my grandmother specifically, food held a central place. She turned out traditional Armenian dishes—tas kebab, kefta, dolma, yalanchi—dishes that could take all day to prepare, without even calculating in the time to grocery shop and clean up. She also made decent American fare: spaghetti, meat loaf, chicken marinated in red wine, garlic, and a little brown sugar. 

Both of my parents could count on her to feed me if they were unable to pick me up before dinnertime. She would call me to the table; when I lagged, she would inevitably chastise in her Long Island accent, “Anoosh, it’s gettin’ cold!” Obviously, my grandmother could cook like this, and care for me, because she was a housewife. For her, this represented a step up from her pre-married life, when she worked to support her parents and younger brother during the Depression and World War II. 

My mother, on the other hand, held a full-time job as a middle- and high school teacher at a K–12 private school. On the nights she fed me dinner, we ate primarily what I call insta-food: buckets from Kentucky Fried Chicken, packets of ramen embellished with chopped scallions and cubed spam, frozen fish fingers. I remember my mother saying to me once with irritation that when she was married to my dad, he expected her to put on dinner parties. As with many second wave feminists, my mother embraced the life of a professional at the same time she rejected the foremost task of the domestic: cooking. 

My father, on the other hand, had a reverse experience. Naturally, he had expected to lead a professional life. He had not, however, expected to find himself the sole caretaker of his child for half of every week. Raised on my grandmother’s cooking, he felt obligated as a parent to provide home-cooked meals. At a time when men were being encouraged to “embrace their feminine side,” my dad decided to learn how to cook. On weekends and when I was with my mother, he would put on an apron and cook up giant pots of staples like spaghetti sauce, black bean soup (a dish he’d eaten while in Peace Corps in Costa Rica), tas kebab, and adobo (a Filipino tradition from my mother’s family) and store portions in the chest freezer he kept in the basement. (He learned this from my grandmother, who likewise had a second freezer built like the obelisk from 2001: A Space Odyssey.) Dinners at my dad’s were always a complete meal: protein, starch, and a vegetable. 

When I reached high school, my dad made a new household rule: whoever cooked, the other person had to clean up. I had never felt particularly drawn to cooking, but I knew which side of that equation I wanted to be on. I pulled down cookbooks from the shelf over the telephone and started searching for easy recipes. 

And I liked it. 

Cooking took thought, but in a different way from, for example, writing an essay for an Advanced Placement course. I had the satisfaction of accomplishing something material, but without the drudgery and dirt of other types of housework. Cooking could be artistic, both in flavor and in visual appeal. It could be improvisational and experimental. And it created connection, whether it was simply a shared meal with my dad, or a batch of cookies that I gave out to friends. 

#365FeministSelfie, February 3
Making quiche, a recipe
my friend Zara gave me
The act of cooking itself created connection, too. I might spend a Saturday afternoon with my grandma as she baked a batch of churag, a kind of sweetened bread. Many recipes for churag exist, but my grandmother’s recipe was specific to her origins in Marzevan, a town near the Black Sea. Although she grew up in Istanbul, her family kept their country recipes. As we braided dough, she would tell me about her years in the orphanage after her family migrated to the United States to escape the Armenian Massacre, or her cross-country bus trip to California, or her journey to become an artist. Cooking was both the opportunity and the vector to pass down family history. 

As I’ve recounted before, my mother and I had a fractured relationship during my childhood (better now). Some of my best memories, little islands of ideal mother-daughter moments, are baking with her, the one cooking activity she seemed to enjoy. Every aspect of sifting flour—the click-click-click rhythm of the handle, the sight of flour piling up in a drift, the dusty itch in my nose, and the anticipation of cake—is suffused with feelings of love and comfort. 

I can’t help but want to pass this down to my own children. 

Cooking is a microcosm of my family’s dynamics. It promotes tolerance of difference, because my husband is vegetarian and I am not. It embodies my family history through smell and taste. It retains the identity and memory of my immigrant origins. It symbolizes our togetherness and our cohesion as a family, not only when we sit down together to a meal, but also as we assemble it together, sometimes with a lemon from our tree or tomatoes from our garden. 

It can also provide a platform for strife, which is still a part of family life. Sometimes I want my kids to help, and they don’t want to. Sometimes they want to help, and I just want to make a meal in peace, alone. Sometimes I create a dish with love and devotion, and they just don’t like it. 

On the other hand, I have those times when my son says, “Thank you, Mama, for making a yummy dinner!” 

I persist in the face of my children’s disapprobation of my cooking because I want them to know that if you live a rich and varied life, you aren’t going to like everything. 

When I lived in Senegal, I ate some things that I did not care for: a slimy okra-based dish called suppu kànja, dried sea snails called yéet. In Fiji, I downed some chicken livers that not even cumin, coriander, and turmeric could make palatable for me. These were meals I ate in people’s houses, people who were not rich by the standards of their own countries, much less ours. The women prepared food for me with kindness and generosity, and yes, it took them hours to make, and to turn up my nose at it would have been the pinnacle of ingratitude. (These dishes were the exceptions—in the main, I love Senegalese, Fijian, and Indo-Fijian cuisine.) 

The first time I tried bitter melon at my great-aunt’s house in Hawai’i, I didn’t like that, either. Everyone laughed as my mouth puckered and my eyes started to water. When I was served bitter melon in Fiji, I was prepared for it, and I started to acquire a taste for it. Eventually, I learned how to prepare it myself, and I found a recipe for it I like. (My husband is still resisting its charms, however.) 

Cooking is not just about feeding the body. Food is heritage, tradition, family lore. It holds valuable knowledge about plant variety, preparation, and use. Our farms are becoming vast corporations; our fields are becoming monocultures. Do we want the same to happen to our kitchens and our bellies and our palates? 

I feel very lucky to live in a city where I can find nearly every ingredient that I can imagine to cook with: grape leaves for dolma and yalanchis, bitter melon for ginisang ampalaya, epazote for beans, cassava for Fijian pudding and West African stews. I can’t find these in my local supermarket, but instead must go to “ethnic” groceries and farmers markets. The simple act of food shopping ties me into the specificity of my place: people, communities, traditions, and economic networks that are marginalized yet still so central to what makes Los Angeles, Los Angeles. 

And so I choose to keep cooking. But for many mothers, to cook or not to cook is not a choice they can make, but a decision bounded on many sides by traditional sex roles, economic pressures, food insecurity, and poor urban planning. In Part 3, I address the authors argument point by point and examine some of the structural barriers to cooking, as well as some of the ways parents are trying to reconfigure domesticity to be more gender equal.

15 September 2014

Is Cooking Anti-Feminist? Part 1

Barefoot, pregnant, in the kitchen... and feminist
(Photo by Kevin Miller)
Barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen... the iconic image of a woman in need of feminism. Interesting to me that we say “in the kitchen.” “Barefoot” is self-evident, as is “pregnant.” “In the kitchen” is oddly coy. What is she doing in there? Well, she could be doing a lot of things, just as I do: washing dishes, paying bills, chatting with a friend. Doing a science experiment with a child. Heck, she could be sitting at the counter with The New York Times and a cup of coffee. 

But we know that’s not what she’s doing. We know she’s cooking. 

Recently, three sociologists at North Carolina State University published a study entitled The Joy of Cooking? pushing back against the narrative that a home-cooked meal is an essential part of familial harmony and a key step in reforming the food system. “The message that good parents—and in particular, good mothers—cook for their families dovetails with increasingly intensive and unrealistic standards of ‘good’ mothering.” This ideal, they argue, serves only to push working women back into the kitchen, where they find cooking unfulfilling. Moreover, their efforts are often met by family members with disinterest or complaints. Cooking, they assert, only continues to oppress women. 

A few writers picked this up, including Amanda Marcotte in Slate and Anna North in The New York Times. Predictably, a conservative in “The Federalist” responded: “It’s I guess what you can expect from feminists—sniping that the stress for women of at-home cooking isn’t worth the benefits.” 

So is cooking anti-feminist? 

I have certainly had my share of family meals where I have labored over the actual cooking—never mind the shopping beforehand—for at least an hour, only to have my efforts rebuffed by my kids. I have certainly experienced my share of anger and frustration over it, seasoned with the peculiar bitterness that comes from the ingratitude of children. I actively dislike cooking with my kids, because it takes twice as long, and the resulting mess is twice as big. I am a work-at-home mother, which means that my work hours end when school does, and shopping and food prep, tasks I accomplish faster and more easily without offspring, take a bite out of my precious work day. 

Yet I am not ready to concede the kitchen. 

What makes cooking oppressive? The authors detail the challenges facing the women they interviewed: unpredictable work hours, long commutes, difficulties procuring fresh foods and using them before they spoil. Cooking, they argue, is an unnecessary stressor in these women’s already-overburdened lives, so why not just taking cooking out of the equation? 

The irony is that at least two of the women, Wanda and Leanne, work in fast food, as does Wanda’s husband, while another, Greely, has her own catering company. They can’t cook at home because, between work hours and commuting, they are too busy providing food for other people—perhaps some of them overburdened parents like themselves without time to cook. 

The line between domestic work and wage work is highly charged for women, and is further tangled up in class and race. A century and more ago, upper-class women, usually white, were expected to eschew all forms of work. “Housekeeping” for these women meant managing the servants, who performed all the actual labor of domestic tasks. In contrast, middle-class women handled much or all of their own domestic work. Their exemption from wage work delineated their difference from lower-class women. For women of the lower classes, of all races, domestic work was wage work. One glaring exception, pre-Civil War, was enslaved women, who received no wages at all for the tasks they performed, either in the house or in the fields. African-American women who were freed still performed domestic tasks, but freedom made the difference in doing the work for nothing versus doing the work for pay. 

During the first and second waves of feminism, many white women agitated for the right to work; many women of color, on the other hand, wanted the right to leisure. Since then, women have gained the right to wage work—if not to pay equity with men—but the right to leisure remains elusive for many in the United States, women and men. 

Is cooking work or leisure? It can be hard to say. For a cook at McDonald’s, providing food is her job. When she comes home, the pressures that spill over from her wage work—time constraints, financial limits, physical exhaustion—make cooking stressful and anything but leisurely. 

What about a stay-at-home mother? For her, cooking might be a leisure activity and a pleasure, a domestic task she chooses to do. Alternatively, maybe she works—and cooks—at home because child care costs more than she would earn out of the house, and so economic necessity makes the choice for her. Either way, she does it and receives no compensation, even though the annual value of a stay-at-home mother’s labor is calculated to be $112,962

When parents work outside the home, the family often outsources those jobs and pays for them. Restaurant workers (likely immigrants of both genders) prep and cook the food. Day care workers or nannies (usually women) care for the children. Maids (women again) clean the house. When these jobs are paid, they count as part of the GDP

But to reduce cooking to labor is to collapse it into a singular, capitalistic dimension. Food and cooking have larger resonances than simply economics, however, as the study authors acknowledge when they discuss the ideological values placed on “the family meal.” Yet even this analysis is reductive and ignores the many other possible emotional and cultural dimensions of food, cooking, and the struggle for gender equity. 

In Part 2, I unpack the relationships between cooking and gender by recollecting my own experiences with cooking, food, and family from childhood.

In Part 3, I respond to the authors argument point by point. 

31 July 2014

Kids > Advertising

Photo by Haan-Fawn Chau
My latest piece on Zócalo Public Square: Your Edgy Billboard Is My Kid’s Nightmare. An abridged version of the article appeared in Time. I discuss the billboards advertising FX’s show, “The Strain,” that frightened young children all over Los Angeles, and respond to the CEO, John Landgraf, who said, “We had to terrify some children in order to launch this show, but I think it was worth it. Just saying.”

If you care about this issue, here are more resources:

1. Sign the MoveOn petition, “Ban Violence and Sex on Billboards (California)

2. Join the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (national)

3. Support Ban Billboard Blight and follow their calls for action (Los Angeles)


To take action on an offensive outdoor advertising campaign in your city:

1. First, call the company responsible for the ad campaign (in this case, FX) to demand that the ad copy be replaced with less offensive content. Be sure to follow up. FX announced that the ads for “The Strain” would be pulled, but most remained up until after the show's premiere nearly a month later. 

2. Call your city council to complain about the ad campaign and urge the council to put additional pressure on the media company to pull the offensive copy. The council will be effective and responsive in direct proportion to the number of constituents who call in.

3. To target a specific billboard, call the outdoor advertising company that owns the billboard. 

4. Continue to advocate for stronger regulations on outdoor advertising.