Friday, August 13, 2010

In the Kitchen

This past Sunday, in honour of my 31st birthday, my husband presented me with three perfect (and completely of-his-own initiative) gifts: an 8-lesson mp3 Introduction to French, the 75th Anniversary Edition of The Joy of Cooking, and Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

The mp3's are to help me practice French with our oldest son, who is in French Immersion at the elementary school two blocks from our house. The cookbooks are a tribute to my twin passions for cooking and the movie, Julie and Julia. I love languages, and I love cooking, so needless to say I was thrilled with all three gifts.

These aren't the first cookbooks Matt has given me. The first came at a very, very different season of our lives, when we were dating long distance and finishing our final year of university. Matt and I met while we were on a study abroad program in Israel in 1999. We started dating shortly thereafter, and it was for Christmas of 2000 that Matt gave me my first cookbook: Cooking for Dummies, an ugly, unhelpful cookbook with unhelpful, unappealing recipes. As an added touch, the cookbook came wrapped in two frilly aprons.

I stared at the gifts in disbelief for a few minutes. And then, I threw them across the room.

Matt very nearly lost his girlfriend over that cookbook and those two aprons. We were in a rocky stage as it was and the gifts made it ten times worse. Of course, it wasn't the cookbook per se that sent me reeling, or the aprons themselves. It was everything that I saw wrapped up in them, particularly at that vulnerable, volatile stage in my life when I was trying to figure out what Matt expected of me as his future wife and what I expected of myself. Grad school, not the kitchen, was on my horizon. Ministry, not housework. And with those aprons and cookbook I really wondered: was Matt for me or against me? They did not feel like encouragement but damnation, a push back to a lifestyle I did not want, a servitude I could not embrace. And so I (quite literally) threw them off...

I was a bona fide female dualist: In my mind women either liked to cook, or liked to think; you were either happy in the kitchen or you were happy in a "worthwhile" profession; you knew how to prepare food well (thereby enslaving yourself to your husband and children) or you refused to learn how to prepare food well (and, in some strange way, were free). It's hard for me now, ten years later, to re-enter that mindset. Even as I write my stomach churns with the ferocity I felt as an early-twenties woman about any suggestion that I "belonged in the kitchen". I didn't want to be there, ever. I needed the freedom hard-won by generations of women before me, and somehow the kitchen (and my presence in it) was a threat to that freedom.

I don't feel that way anymore. Obviously, since I am so jubilant about the cookbooks that will keep me longer in the kitchen! What changed?

First, I was given space and time (without expectation to change) by my husband. And in that space and time I discovered the "Joy of Cooking." Not the cookbook, of course (if you were paying attention you'll know I just got that a few days ago). But the joy of cooking itself. Cooking, it turns out, is a good thing to do; a life-giving, ordinary venture set amidst other necessary, sometimes life-draining ventures that come with Mommy/Wife/Foodie territory.

The road to that discovery was greatly helped by the grad class I took on Women's Faith and Development. I could probably post every day for a year on the gems I unearthed in that class. (Maybe that should be my next post-series?) Among the many gems, one that I carried around for years afterward came from a fellow student, while we all sat enjoying a meal together during a class break. She, like I, had first avoided the kitchen as a liberated young woman and wife. She, like I, had encouraged her husband to do most of the cooking as a tangible sign of their egalitarian state. But, a few years into their marriage, she had re-entered the kitchen, and during this meal we were sharing some of her delicious home-baked bread. And as we munched, we mused over the whys and hows of her cooking and its place in her life now.

"I think I first had to be able to choose not to cook, so that I could freely choose to do it now," she said. "I needed to be able to cook not because it was expected, not because I had to, but because I wanted to."

I agree. Maybe it seems silly to need the freedom to choose what, the world over, is assigned to women. But I am thankful for the choice. Just as a teenager sometimes needs to leave the home in order to grow up and appreciate his or her parents, I think women sometimes need to leave their historically prescribed roles in order to return to them in freedom and appreciation.

Barbara Kingsolver, in her magnificent book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle puts it this way: "Cooking is a dying art in our culture. Why is a good question, and an uneasy one, because I find myself politically and socioeconomically entangled in the answer. I belong to the generation of women who took our youthful rallying cry: Allow us a good education so we won't have to slave in the kitchen...But kitchens where food is cooked and eaten, those were really a good idea. We threw that baby out with the bathwater. It may be advisable to grab her by her slippery foot and haul her back in here before it's too late."

And so I shall.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


"Isaac's mom!" our neighbour girl called to me a few weeks ago when I came outside to check on my boys. I have been "Isaac's mom" to her for the four years we've lived here, and despite having added two more sons to my brood will probably remain "Isaac's mom" until we move away.

"Yes?" I asked, looking out from our upstairs porch to where she stood, on her upstairs porch.

"Is it hard taking care of three kids all by yourself?"

Her question caught me off guard for a few seconds...she knows I'm married, even knows Matt (or "Isaac's dad" as he of course is called). But then it struck me, as I looked at her and she looked at me: in her eyes I was taking care of the kids all by myself. And I answered, "Yes. Sometimes it's hard," before returning inside to do the rest of the housework.

My neighbour girl, like many in Vancouver, lives with her extended family. Grandma, grandpa, two sons, their wives, and the grandkids all together in one of the two-story houses you find throughout the city. Our neighbours on the other side are another family who live "on their own", but Grandma and Grandpa are over every day--literally, every day--to help cook, clean, and take care of the grandkids. Both families are new immigrants to Canada.

And then there's us: the North American, nuclear-family-with-no-other-family Smedleys. No aunts, no uncles, no cousins around. Grandparents come once or twice a year. I remember a time when I felt like that was normal, but the longer I live here the more abnormal it feels. Especially with three little children to take care of. I have several friends here who are also "on their own", separated from their extended families by oceans rather than land borders. And they have all, by right of that fact, limited their number of children to two. "It's too hard!" they complain after I tease them about adding another baby into the mix. "If I was back in my home country, no problem. But here I am all by myself."

They've said that for years, but it wasn't until this month that I really understood them. I went to stay with my sister and her family last month. We were in the same house for two weeks: my sister, her husband, myself, and the six kids between us. It was, as you would expect, chaos half the time. But it was manageable. My sister had to have mom and I (and a good, practically-family friend) stayed with the kids. She brother-in-law and I took care of the kids while she did. Errands had to be run, kids had to be bathed, food had to be cooked, but just having one extra adult in the mix made it all so much easier. And the best part was the lack of awkwardness I have always wrestled with when asking my very good, helpful friends here for back-up. I could, without guilt, throw my baby to my brother-in-law. I could, without guilt, ask my sister to check on my older kids while I cooked dinner. I could, without guilt, leave my kids with both of them so I could run to the grocery store. And I was with the people I loved all day, every day, working hard until the evening when we could settle down together to a movie or a game.

My return home, back to reality, was a painful one. I was very, very glad to see my husband again. But the first night I was home, he took the older boys to the park while I cleaned up the kitchen. And the baby started crying. And there was no one to take him so I could finish. And that simple circumstance, so normal to me for much of my motherhood, suddenly crushed me. I wanted my back-up, I wanted my family. And they were, by their choice and by my own, not around. Such is the nuclear family of 21st century North America.

When Matt returned from the park he found a weepy wife. A wife pondering her neighbour girl's weeks-old question, "Is it hard raising three kids on your own?"

Yes. It is.