Letting go of the emotional labor of cooking right now

This essay is part of Motherwell’s new Parenting and Food column.

By Yvonne Spence

There’s a meal plan attached to our fridge with an Eiffel Tower magnet. As in most people’s houses, there’s nothing unusual about meal plans or refrigerator magnets. What is unusual is that I didn’t write it.

A few days ago, my older daughter and I were cooking dinner.

“Which vegetables would you like?” I asked.

She wrinkled her nose. “I don’t feel like eating vegetables. I just want cheese.” She grinned. Because she knew my opinion already, and because, really, she likes to eat healthily.

“How about we roast the vegetables?” I asked, knowing she’d like that.

We switched on the oven and chopped peppers, zucchini, and leeks. While those cooked, I turned my attention to some wilting broccoli and green beans hidden at the back of our very full fridge. I cut away the floppiest, brownest parts and put the rest in a pan.

My daughter sighed. “Can we have the broccoli some other way than boiled please?”

From the other room, my husband said, “I’ll do it.”

He looked up a saved recipe, one he’d made for the first time last week, and he sautéed the broccoli and beans with garlic, lemon juice and flaked almonds.

I went back to working on my novel.

I never intended to become the person who does almost all the cooking in our house, any more than I intended to be a stay-at-home mother when our girls were little. But as an airline pilot, my husband has always earned more, and his job involved shifts and working away so I was there when he wasn’t. That broccoli recipe has increased the number of the dishes he is confident cooking from three to four.

When a few years ago I read that women do most of the emotional labor in a relationship, taking on the micromanagement of everyday life, I thought, “We’re not like that.” True, it was mostly me who provided emotional support to our children (and other family members or friends) but my husband was, I felt sure, taking equal responsibility for running our household. If I did more of one type of work (like cooking), he did more of another (like researching which new car to buy.) But soon I began to notice we were not immune after all, particularly when it came to endless day-to-day decision making, such as what to have for dinner. 

However, I didn’t like the idea of simply blaming men. To change this muddle, I felt we as women needed to accept our part too. Yet, even that internal conflict is part of the “emotional labor” issue Gemma Hartley points out in her widely-read essay, Women Aren’t Nags—We’re Just Fed Up. Like her, I have it relatively easy, so that seeing all my husband did do and tried to do, I generally didn’t bother changing anything, and any attempts often fell short and left me feeling that, really, yes, I was a nag.

But I’ve long been aware that it was all too easy for me to find reasons why other people’s needs mattered more than mine. When our first daughter was a baby, my husband started a new job. We moved house, she was unsettled, and his sleep seemed more precious than mine: all I had to do was take care of a permanently awake baby and work towards an MA in Creative Writing. He had real work to do.

Our daughters are now college students but still live at home; they can and do cook—but until a week ago, both were neck-deep in studying and the younger one still is. As my older daughter commented recently, for seven years every spring she has had exams to prepare for. Just as with my husband all those years ago, my work seemed less important than my daughters’ studies.

It’s been a long, slow road to finding a balance between supporting others and myself; for several years I was aware of the disparity but talked myself out of change until lockdown made it obvious that my dilemma wasn’t just about whose need was greatest. With my husband on furlough, suddenly he is not busier than me, what he’s doing is no more important.

I’d become so used to organizing, trying to do everything, and being available to anyone who needed me that I only recently realized how much it affected my ability to focus when writing. A few days ago, WhatsApp was open on my computer and a message from a friend pinged in. It was her fourth message that morning, but my first thought was that I should read it and reply. Instead I closed WhatsApp so it didn’t distract me while I worked.

I’m not sure if, even before I became a mother, I was the sort of person who put her needs behind everyone else’s, but there’s always been a tug-of-war inside me about ambition—it felt wrong somehow, greedy, selfish. I should be content with what I had. And mostly I am. I don’t mind supporting others to achieve their ambitions, or being an available shoulder to cry on. But sometimes I felt frustrated, resentful even.

I’ve tried to talk about this with my family before. I’m not sure what made the difference this time, but something did, because they understood; perhaps my tone used to be blaming and this time it wasn’t, perhaps I just was clearer about what I needed.

The first time my husband made a meal plan, I felt quietly pleased. When I witnessed him and our older daughter discussing meals, the ingredients he would buy and she would cook, and fastening the list to the fridge, I felt something close to joy.

Around the world it’s clear that going back to “normal” after the pandemic should not be an option if normal means returning to inequity. On a personal level, I recognize that my family has gained confidence and mutual respect from the changes we implemented, and my career has developed in ways I never could have imagined a few months ago. Imbalance, whether global or personal, benefits none of us.

Yvonne Spence writes fiction and non-fiction. She is enjoying extra time to work on a novel now that her daughters are doing most of the cooking and her husband is doing most of the vacuuming. 

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