For Mother’s Day last year, I asked my mother-in-law, Maddy, for an apron. It was an innocent enough request. I spend a lot of time getting dirty in the kitchen, and I wanted to keep my extensive collection of jeans and t-shirts free of stains. I’ve never been overly concerned with my wardrobe, but it’s nice to feel presentable at school pick-up time.
The conversation with my mother-in-law was not what I had expected.
Maddy is a product of the feminist 60s. She and her friends marched straight out of the kitchen and into the workplace, insisting that women could raise a family and build a career simultaneously. Then they set out to manage all the insanity that that entails. I am forever indebted to her generation for their bravery, and I understand the ongoing struggle for gender equality.
Today, the idea of a reasonably intelligent modern woman enjoying the kitchen life, and being fulfilled with all the richness that the rest of family life has to offer, is not simply atavistic to my mother-in-law – it is an assault on all that she fought for. In her world, mothers (working, stay-at-home, and those forging their own hybrid paths) are supposed to be able to put a warm, nutritious, at least semi-homemade meal on the table each night for their families. But they aren’t supposed to relish all that time spent planning, cooking and cleaning up after these meals. The world is calling and cooking is a chore. Why did I want to don the Betty Crocker shackles of yore?
An apron symbolizes all that our parents’ generation fought to overcome. My mother-in-law was appalled that I would ask for something so practical; so homebound; and so retro. Didn’t I want some new clothes? A book? A manicure?
As noted above, clothes have never really interested me, and although I am an avid reader, the library serves me perfectly well. My nails? Well, what’s the point, since a manicure would only last a few days against the abuse of my constant hand washing? What I really needed and wanted was an apron. I’d been eyeing some adorable frocks at a local discount store, and I had been waiting for the opportunity to ask her for one. I felt like poor William in that gender-bending story about William’s Doll: Yes, thank you for all these wonderful toys, but can I please have an apron now?
The truth is that, much to my surprise, I’ve learned that I simply love to cook. It’s a critical part of raising a family, and I can see the joy that it brings to everyone in our household when we sit down together for a homemade meal.
Right now, I have the extreme luxury of spending my days planning and preparing meals for my discerning young family. Yes, I am responsible for cleaning up those meals, plus the errands and interminable housework. But I also get to participate in all the good stuff with my kids -- like field trips, play dates, and soccer games. I’m the one who helps build the snowman on snow days and I’m the one who plays Monopoly with them for hours on the seemingly endless parade of school holidays. I have the energy and patience to do all this (most of the time) because I’m not reporting to an office every day.
I’ve had a corporate job -- where I certainly was capable and even climbing the proverbial ladder that was cleared for me by the “working women” of previous decades. But I gave it up when my daughter was born, and I have no plans to return. I kissed goodbye to the dream of a corner office long ago. This means, of course, that I won’t be winning any Nobel prizes this year, and there's no hope of a raise. But I get to engage deeply in my kids’ lives, and I get to cook. This is more than enough compensation for me.
I recognize that I am lucky to participate in all this familial chaos. I’m even luckier that we have the financial means to sustain a relatively comfortable, single-income household in this economy. So I’m embracing the domestic life. And I’m going to stay in the kitchen for as long as it is financially possible. Apron wearing, in my home at least, is a privilege and a joy. In a sense, it’s even a reclaimed and empowering symbol of accomplishment: “Look at me – I can cook!” I’ve got time, inclination, and a Room of My Own. All I needed was that apron.
Besides, in countless ways, our world confirms that cooking is cool. Just look at all the celebrity chefs out there. Look at all the gourmet, organic and specialty products that have found their way into your local grocery store. Check out all the “ethnic” restaurants popping up in your nearest strip mall. I’m told that food porn photos are the most pinned topics on Pinterest. Clearly, creating and appreciating food, in all its forms, is a more exciting and vibrant force in our world than ever before.
Still, for my mother-in-law, that long-stoked feminist flame still glows. She sometimes has trouble crossing over the generational divide. But because she loves me, she compromised.
In the end Maddy finally broke down and bought me two aprons. Apparently the transaction was just as shocking for the saleswoman who sold it to her. The poor woman just wouldn’t accept that an apron was an appropriate, and requested, Mother’s Day gift.
I appreciate their concern, but they needn’t have worried. The truth is that I chose this role for myself, and as such, I’m in a much different place from the desperate housewives of previous generations. I’m happy to be tied down -- both literally and figuratively.
When Maddy presented me with the aprons, she also made sure to include a separate check for me to purchase “something nice” for myself on Mother’s Day. Eventually I did need that money for a haircut.