One of the weirder parts of my life as a rabbi’s wife, particularly of a rabbi who’s really good at his job, is constantly being told how amazing my husband is. (I happen to know it’s not just me either. A friend, and fellow rebbitzen, once confided in me that she had to seek out therapy for the damage to her own self-esteem since she received far more compliments on her husband then herself.) Congregants, women in particular, will leave his office after a particularly deep and meaningful conversation with both stars and tears in their eyes, and say, “Wow, he is so wonderful. Is he like that at home?” But, it is usually the older women of my parents’ generation that will ask the follow-up question, “But can he cook, too?”
In case you were also wondering that, let me ruin the suspense…Yes, he is a really great guy, fabulous partner, and an awesome father. But, no, he can neither walk on water (I know, wrong religious reference, but Jesus was a Jew too), nor can he boil it. Ok, perhaps that is just a euphemism; he can make a pot of spaghetti and open a jar of sauce. But that’s truly about the extent of his cooking skills.
He’s good for the first night of me being too sick to make dinner for the kids, but usually by the second night he’s standing at the bedroom door demanding to know how it could possibly be that I am not better yet. Should I (rarely) need to go out of town for a couple of days, I’ll cook ahead of time and leave the fridge well stocked for him. Inevitably, it is still too much work to bother heating it up, so he will instead text me pictures of the kids from the local diner, proudly showing me that at least he remembered to order them fruit with their French fries.
My whole family will tell you without hesitation that I am undoubtedly the shopper, cook, and provider of meals. Most of the time, I don’t mind. This is something that I happen to be pretty good at, and my husband, despite his many other fine qualities, just isn’t. I might not be winning any home chef of the year awards, but I will say that it’s entirely possible that my husband married me for my cooking. (Then again, if you consider that he can pretty much only make pasta, this really isn’t saying much!)
It’s the feminist in me, and the part of me that still struggles with being just a stay-at-home mom, that has a problem with it. My generation was raised to believe that men should share equally in household duties, including the cooking, and women could participate as actively as they chose in the workplace. As Ayelet Waldman describes in her book, Bad Mother, we were the kids raised on “Free To Be You and Me”, and as this article in The Atlantic explains, we were the college students who read Arlie Hochschild’s book, The Second Shift, in at least one, if not multiple classes, and the adults who thought they would be leaning in and reaching upper management between getting married and having babies. But, as the article also points out, life for many of us didn’t exactly work out as planned.
Most of my childhood years were spent in a single-parent home, headed by my father—particularly if you count the years that my mother was ill, and he picked up the slack in household chores and child-rearing. The old ladies of the synagogue I grew up in would pull me aside with concerned looks on their faces and ask, “But who feeds you? What do you eat?” I always found this amusing because none of us looked particularly underfed, and because my father was an excellent cook. In fact, he taught me much of what I know about cooking today. I can only attribute my skill at “refrigerator cleaner dinners” to him, as he was the master of looking at what appeared to be an empty fridge and miraculously producing something delicious out of old jars of grape jelly and salad dressing.
I would say that above all else, it was he who taught me how to show love and care through food. Dad’s famous Bolognese could elevate the most ho-hum plate of spaghetti into our favorite meal. His French toast (always for dinner, never breakfast), with just the right amount of cinnamon, and the perfect proportion of egg to bread, could cheer me up at the end of a long, hard week. And when we were sick, nothing made us feel better than his homemade chicken soup. (We always used to joke that my dad was the best Jewish mother around!)
But, even he, who cooked far more than my mother, still falls into the trap of believing that cooking for the family is women’s work. I recently attended a family funeral, after which we returned to my dad’s house for lunch. We were laughing about an extended family member who, despite being skinny as a rail, is known for gorging himself at every such occasion. “That’s because his wife doesn’t feed him enough at home,” my dad said. “Seriously, dad?,” I asked. “He could cook for himself, you know!”
He agreed, though somewhat reluctantly, and with that subtle air of confidence that he wasn’t entirely wrong about this. Despite his own personal evidence to the contrary, he still maintains generational attitudes about the division of household labor. And, while the sociologist in me can call it out immediately, with a healthy dose of exasperation, the stay-at-home mom in me still sometimes believes it too.
Continuing my “food is love” theme from last week, I can say with complete honesty that I am guilty of using food to show love. I, too, enjoy cooking my kids’ favorite foods, and witnessing the pleasure on their faces as they gobble it down. There are few things as gratifying as watching your children struggle to stop shoveling food in their mouths long enough to actually thank you for dinner. And, I do sometimes really think that the most direct way to my man’s heart is through his stomach, cliché though it may be.
There is also no doubt that I use food to establish my worth as a stay-at-home mom. Research shows that household duties take as much time per week as paid labor, possibly even more if you include the “mental labor” or “invisible work”, which refers to the planning and coordination of tasks. Yet, I still often feel the need to demonstrate that I have not spent my day watching TV and eating bonbons on the couch. Working moms might not be expected to do more than get a reasonably complete and healthy meal on the table, and as Rachael Ray always suggested on her 30 Minute Meals TV show, they shouldn’t be afraid to “take a little pre-packaged help from the grocery store”. But not me. I have all day to plan elaborate menus, with a high degree of technical difficulty and topping the nutritional scales—even if my kids won’t take so much as a bite of that weird looking stuff on the table. But on those days, it isn’t really about them; it’s about me, trying to figure out how I fit into this divided world of super-mom working mothers or perfect June Cleaver stay-at-home moms.
It isn’t surprising to me that it is the older ladies who want to know whether my husband can cook. These are the women who either narrowly missed the gender revolution of the 1960s and 70s, or jumped right on the feminist, professional track, only to find they were coming home to the same roles and expectations as those who had spent all day there. These are the women who confide in me, the rabbi’s wife, that if they had to do it all over again, they would make different life choices. They confess to me with an unmistakable “been there, done that” attitude that when their spouses die, they never want to get married again.
No, it isn’t surprising at all. What is surprising is how little distance we’ve covered since then—some might even say we just made a really big circle. And, these days, I can’t help but feel as though I’m standing right in the middle of it.