It’s a slow Saturday morning and I pore over the newspaper with my newly-wed sister. Behind the bench our mother darts around the kitchen. Bacon is glazed, bread sliced and tomatoes chopped to form a steady stack of sandwiches in preparation for lunch.
Wiping flushed cheeks with the tea towel tossed over her shoulder, she throws us a disappointed look, wondering aloud how she raised such domestically disinterested daughters. Our brother lying on the couch is seemingly excused from the following lecture on ‘providing for our partners’.
No stranger to our mother’s famous soliloquies, or brilliant cooking, we grab a sandwich and joke about protesting the patriarchy. Minutes later the men arrive, making a beeline for the food and cutting the conversation short.
I never thought to question my parent’s endearing dance when it came to their roles. They knew their moves and performed them well; he ran a stressful company and she ran a stressful household. He made the paychecks, she made the food. It wasn’t always equal but it seemed as fair as they could make it.
I also never thought, in a society that has made such strides in recent years, that I would be expected to take up my mother’s role. Not just by older generations, but my own peers, a surprising reality made startlingly obvious with a simple statement from my partner.
“Dang, I’m hungry.” Engrossed in a book, I absentmindedly list what’s in the fridge to my boyfriend. Clearly not the response he was hoping for, he wanders into the kitchen muttering about how I should be more like my mother. Remarks delivered bitterly enough to sting, lightly enough to be ‘just a joke’.
For me, it didn’t add up. We shared cultures, educations and fundamental views. We both had Bachelor’s degrees, reasonable careers and certain talents. To assume that somehow in the midst of near-identical upbringings I had been taught how to poach eggs or sauté vegetables was absurd. Nearly as absurd as the idea of capable and driven men who seemed perfectly content playing the tired trope of the clueless man needing to be fed.
The truth? Some patriarchal structures are more stubbornly affixed than others. It may now be socially acceptable for a woman to work just like a man, but the idea endures that these jobs can’t come at the sacrifice of the home, and with it our partner’s dinner.
In my mother’s time, you could argue that this division made some sense – socially it wasn’t seen to be appropriate for women to hold careers, especially once children were in the picture, so their jobs became the home, while the men worked. Meanwhile, education was geared to reinforce this difference. Men took woodshop, science and business economics; women learnt cooking, sewing and home economics.
But today? In Western countries, where education and career opportunities are more equal than they have ever been, the persistent idea that a kitchen is a woman’s domain and her abilities naturally outdo men’s isn’t just incorrect. It’s oppressive. More often than ever women share the financial responsibility with their partners, holding similarly demanding and time-consuming careers. Yet the issue is, while women have entered the man’s domain of the workplace, men remain stubbornly at the threshold of the kitchen. So, women do it both. I could list countless labour time-use surveys from around the world that prove the truth we all know: working women spend more time cleaning, cooking and child-reading than their male counterparts.
So while regular jobs give you time off, unpaid labour in the form of housework and cooking is an inexhaustible expectation without a 5pm finish or weekend off. Someone needs to pack the lunches and cook the dinner and more often than not, this falls to women.
Don’t get me wrong, the issue isn’t that women are doing these things. I’ve been blessed with thousands of my mother’s school lunches, Sunday pancakes and lovingly prepared dinners.
But we do need to question the outdated and unspoken expectation that women are solely responsible for the stomachs in the house. Not because they enjoy it, but because, historically, it was the only job they were deemed capable of. We need to question the ‘feminine’ quality attached to cooking (despite the male-dominated restaurant scene), and for men to think about why this feminine association feels like an insult.
I want you to question this because, in all honesty, I’m yet to meet someone who doesn’t appreciate being made food. If you can whip up a killer pasta, poach an egg or make a cake from scratch without acting like a Y chromosome is an excuse for culinary incompetence, I’m impressed. And if you can’t? A healthy dose of curiosity and willingness to learn is just as impressive.
Now, families come in all shapes and sizes and there will undoubtedly be some wonderfully mixed kitchens; dads in charge of dinner, baking boyfriends and men who feel most at home in front of a stove and I applaud you. Be an example and conquer those patriarchal paradigms one dish at a time.
But, if you’re still standing at the edge of the kitchen, with your fragile masculinity in one hand and discomfort in the other, I simply dare you to be curious. Take up a wooden spoon or a dishcloth and ask how you can help. Uncomfortable? Sure. Rewarding? You bet.Support Villainesse