18 July 2007

Cooking and More: Time-Wasting Hobby, or Valuable Contribution?

Sometimes I find myself talking about food. Not just talking about food, but going off on these flights of fancy, these obsessions with what I’ve made and what I’m going to make. Sometimes my friend Sarah and I get going on these long instant messenger chats about what we’re cooking, what we want to cook, what tools we love, tips, ideas, etc. I never feel happier than when I’m planning for and cooking a meal. In the middle of one of these raptures, sometimes my husband will look at me with a little bemused but happy smile and say, “you really love cooking, don’t you?”

Guilty as charged. I do love cooking. I find myself thinking about cooking, and other domestic pleasures, most of the day (even as I’m supposed to be writing the next proposal that’s due at work). I rarely feel the same pride about anything I do as I feel when I have well-fed people at my table, or an attractive and welcoming home, or flourishing plants in my little verandah container garden. I know that my husband appreciates this in me too—especially when I actually have the free time to be successful at it, which isn’t always. I think my husband has the same desire that many Indian men do, to have a “homely” wife. In Indian English, “homely” doesn’t mean “ugly” or “unattractive” as it does in American English. Rather, it is used to describe someone who enjoys and is good at domestic tasks such as cooking, keeping an inviting and clean home, raising children, etc. And I suppose that when he gets that little smile on his face and asks me if I love cooking, he’s thinking of me as I fit the description of a homely wife.

So why do I sometimes feel guilty about being homely, about taking the most pleasure out of homely things? Why do I allow people to tell me that homely things are somehow Less than what I do at my day job? Why do I sometimes wonder what’s wrong with me, that I’m not some kind of driven career woman? That’s easy: that’s the message that is being pounded into my brain from so many other directions. We live in a time and place where a two-income household is necessary for the majority of families. Because of high taxes, high cost of living, and other factors, even families in which one spouse would like to stay home are forced into the two-income trap. However, most people don’t want to think that they are forced into anything. The language of “choice” comes into play. And so we are told that we should choose to be good worker bees, work the high-pressure 40+ hour workweeks, and let the rest of our lives come second to our careers. It becomes an exalted goal for everyone to push, push, push and rush, rush, rush to have a Career that not only pays well, but is yet another status symbol like a designer handbag or a Mercedes automobile.

And if we don’t “choose” the all-consuming career? One extra-large serving of guilt, coming right up. “You there, yes you, the one who thinks that home and family life is more important: what kind of person are you, some kind of slacker or loser? What, you don’t want to work as hard as the rest of us? Oh, you say the work you are doing at home is just as important? Don’t make me laugh! Everyone knows that if it isn’t pulling in the big bucks, then it doesn’t count!”

The insidious thing about this kind of judgment and guilt trip is that it is deeply sexist. That’s right, I said sexist. Because any time that “homely” considerations are devalued in favor of the all-important Career Track, it is traditionally female occupations—the female itself—that are being devalued in favor of the masculine. Traditionally female work is belittled and treated as simple and useless, nothing more than hobbies, rather than valuable contributions to the family. “Who cares if you don’t have time to do those things because you’re working too much? You can hire other people to do that menial, low-class work,” we’re told. Cooking, for example, has been demoted from life-giving skill to frivolous entertainment more often watched on the Food Network than truly appreciated at home (see the very good book, Fed Up! Women and Food in America, by Catherine Manton, for a history of the industrialization and devaluing of food preparation).

So here I am, going on guilt trips because I’d rather be at home creating a loving and supportive atmosphere for my husband and future family. Feeling sheepish that I spend more time thinking about supposedly frivolous things such as cooking or having a baby than I do about the next quarter’s board reports or the upcoming proposal due. Being made to feel like a slacker because I already know that if I try to juggle a full-time Career and children, neither one will get 100% of my abilities, and I think that my future children deserve better than that (see Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home, by Pamela Stone). This is not to say that I don’t want outside work of some kind, but neither do I want to feel pressured into more than I’m willing or able to capably do. I think it's more important that my work be flexible to fit my life, rather than that I should squeeze my life into the spaces around my work.

I believe in “choice feminism.” That means that the choices I make (and also the choices my husband and I make together) about my occupation and our family life are mine, and I don’t believe that anyone else has the right to tell me that my choices are wrong. I’m aware that to some extent, my concerns are class-based. If my husband and I were in a lower stratum of society, I probably wouldn’t even have the luxury of this inner debate. But change has to come from somewhere, and I think that by making my choices, I’m at least changing my little corner of the world. That’s the best that I, or anyone else, can really do.

No comments: