The non-kitchen wife and mother: my struggles with domesticity

Over coffee some time last week Max and I were looking through his Facebook newsfeed together when we came across a photo of a French dinner that a friend’s wife had prepared, a full table cloth and silverware setting and wine kind of spread that she seems to prepare nearly every weekend at home, even with a toddler in tow. I joked to Max, “I’m sure you’re thinking, ‘Now why don’t I have a wife who can cook me some Facebook worthy meals??'” (Slap knee!) Because if anybody ever came up with a ranking of The Wives with the Most Oft-Posted Meals on Facebook, I would probably be in the bottom

Max just kind of looked at me quizzically because, bless his heart, I honestly don’t think he ever thinks that. When I’ve seemed apologetic for not being more…culinary, his answer has always been, “That’s fine, because I don’t mind cooking.”

I don’t not cook, but I don’t cook a lot. In fact, I don’t bake a lot, I don’t clean a lot, and I am in general not in the kitchen a lot. There is minimal traffic in our kitchen. Someone is there when a meal is to be prepared and when the dishes are washed, and then everyone is out of there. Looking at my friends and at my own mother, I’ve always been conscious of being an anomaly. “Oh, God, yes – like, why can’t they pick up their own socks, right? Do they think they’re actually going to walk to the hamper themselves? Sheesh!” I sometimes need to talk the talk among girlfriends in order to keep my cover.

I have even gone so far as to psychoanalyze myself. I love eating, and yet the idea of planning a meal saps all the life out of me. I’ve dug deep, back into my difficult childhood years: Did I associate meal times with trauma? Had something terrible happened in our family while my mother was preparing meals? I draw a blank each and every time. I don’t remember anything from my childhood meal times except the savory aromas from the dishes my working mother never failed to prepare from scratch.

Housework rulesThen three weeks ago I sat in a therapist’s office. It had been well over a month since we’d finished all our traveling, and I was still exhausted, even less motivated than usual to do anything around the house. I felt as though I had checked out as a mother and felt paralyzed to do anything. The thing is, my mother would never have gotten paralyzed. Her love for her family was enough force to spring board her out of bed each day to cook and clean.

And worst of all, I wasn’t spending enough time with Fred.

My therapist asked me, What do you like to do with Fred?

Ugh…I knew that my list was going to be short. Because along with being non-domestic, I’ve often felt non-maternal as well. I love my child and I love being a mother, but I was not one of those women who always knew she wanted to have children. I came into motherhood after two years of soul-searching, weighing the “pros” and “cons,” and talking with my husband. My heart has more than caught up since the moment I found out I was pregnant, but my tastes and interests haven’t. I knew what I wasn’t going to say; I wasn’t going to say that I enjoyed baking cookies or getting down on the floor with my child to play or doing arts and crafts.

I like to read with him, I started.

and I like to talk…actually, we love to talk. We talk about everything. The Boston bombings. Women’s Role in Society Through the Ages. What I’m reading. What life might be like on Mount Olympus. His grandparents’ life story. Homosexuality. Racism. What’s really in those McDonald’s cheeseburgers and chicken nuggets. How it feels to screw up. How awesome it is to get over something hard.

Then, after another 20 seconds or so, I threw in going to the museum and beach and taking day trips to fatten the list a little bit and to sound less lame.

My therapist nodded. She said it was quite something, that we loved to talk. She said, Do you know how many parents struggle with this once their kids get into their teens? Do you know how many parents lose their children at that age? She told me that I am building the groundwork of our relationship.

I don’t know how to properly describe how my therapist changed me in that instant. I honestly had never thought of it that way. I mean, yes, of course I know that it’s great that I can talk with my child. What I hadn’t allowed myself to accept was that that – my particular brand of mothering – would be enough.

In Japan, where I’d lived during my first four years as a mother and where there is really only one accepted brand of mothering, I was dealing with jokes from girlfriends like “Do you know how to boil water?” And I would make myself giggle along with women who oooh’ed and aaah’ed over my husband, this rare and exotic Japanese bird who never expected me to be in any place except his heart and who has happily (?) stepped in to take over the laundry and to color code my undies. It’s all rather ridiculous, because I contribute financially to our household, a contribution some people had a hard time recognizing. And while I am no fixture in the kitchen, I am hardly lying in my chaise longue munching grapes. I have absolute certainty that, without my contributions (in discipline, financial management, education planning, etc.), our family life would not be the same. But I continue to feel that my value is measured by my domestic life. Having a husband who does his fair share around the house has not meant that we as a couple appear 50/50; I’ve sometimes felt that it means I appear only 50% as a woman. I’ve allowed the scraps of an arcane definition of Mother and Wife to make me question my self-worth, even back here in America where we’re supposed to have progressed so much as women.

No, there was no trauma in my past that has led me to rooms outside of our kitchen. I’m a woman who loves her family and I am the way that I am, for no particular reason at all.

Picture credits

You are the Best Cook!

Housework rules!

16 thoughts on “The non-kitchen wife and mother: my struggles with domesticity

  1. I struggle with organization and housework. I have no one to blame but myself. I don’t like to do it, however, I do love to cook, prepare meals, and I do it well. I can’t be perfect, but I do wish I could have a neat, organized, clutter free space for my children to live in. I don’t like house cleaners, we’ve tried that route many times and the ridiculousness and panic of picking up the house the night before they come I can’t deal with. And then pay them 20 an hour? Nope. We have our strengths, and it sometimes takes an outside eye to tell us, the good that we do. xo

    • I hear you, Alexandra. My therapist said, “I know it costs money, but would you consider hiring a cleaning service?” More than one person has suggested that to me but I feel it will make it too easy for me to not ever change. I’m taking baby steps in this direction, since a messy home is impacting my anxiety levels and I know it’s impacting my family.

      I think being a good cook and enjoying it goes a LONG way. When I am in the right mood I love being in the kitchen and most of all, the joy of making my family happy with some good dishes and good aromas. Your boys are lucky!!

  2. Great Post – thanks so much for sharing! I have been recovering from a back injury and have not been able to do certain things around the house because of not being able to bend at the waist for very long. I am so lucky to have someone stepping in to help me out and pretty much do it with minimal complaining – ha! Happy Sunday:)

  3. Oh, I can so relate. 1. I don’t like getting on the floor and playing with my kids. If I do, it’s only to get them in the mode of playing by themselves and then I make an excuse to get up. I beat myself up over this for a long time (was I missing some maternal instinct?) But then my own mom, who I consider the greatest mom of all time, told me that she never really played with us either. Like you, she read us books and talked to us. She was always there for us. She provided instruments and routes to explore our interests and creativity, but that’s where her involvement ended. This was eye-opening for me. 2. I don’t cook (like you, I don’t not cook but I have to be in the mood). My husband is our resident chef. It’s been this way since we were married 10 years ago. I still struggle with it sometimes, like I’m somehow not pulling my weight in the domestic arena, but I’m gradually learning to forgive myself of this domestic flaw. Thanks so much for this post!

    • Thanks so much for all this, Lara – you have no idea how affirming it is to hear from another “non-domestic” mother! I was beginning to think that no one was relating to this post, ha ha.

      I really like that your mom was the same way and still the way you describe her is that you consider her the ‘greatest mom of all time,’ I do think that when our children are grown what they will remember is how present we were in their lives and how well we listened to them and accepted them. The idea that we have to somehow be more traditional or domestic is probably something in our own heads, rather than anything our kids hold us up to.

      Thanks again!

  4. Cecilia! Don’t berate yourself! My mother is wonderful, and she didn’t play kid games with us (lots of talking and reading and support, of course) and she HATES cooking. It just wasn’t the right fit for her. When I was ten she and my dad switched roles and he’s been the at-home parent ever since (I have a much-younger sister at home). He loves cooking and is a wonderful cook (and taught me how, and now I love to cook too. My husband and I write a food blog together, actually.). My dad doesn’t love to clean, but he confronts the task manfully (ha-ha). I’ve never thought of my mom as anything less than a wonderful parent (my dad, too). In our family, my husband is the on-the-floor parent far more than I am, even though I’m the at-home parent now. I’m more likely to try to get my toddler excited about organizing the kitchen cupboards, trying to make adult chores fun for him.

    I’m sure that when your son’s an adult, he won’t care at all that you didn’t spend time in the kitchen, but he’ll be able to remember the books you read him and appreciate the energy you invested in his education and future.

    • Carolyn, I so appreciate this! Your family arrangement sounded lovely and what is nice is that it helps to set children up to be open to different variations of family and gender roles. We are lucky when we can marry our complements and I am learning to accept that there are different ways to be there for our children. I love that you still think of your mother as a wonderful mother even though she wasn’t domestic!

      • She does make a wonderful sandwich (always warm and cheesy) and even with her busy schedule (she’s an attorney), she finds time to take care of things that her (adult) children need, as well as looking after our little sister. Every family is different, and you’re right that I wholly appreciate my family’s shifting work/home roles — so much so that I looked for a partner who would be open to different arrangements (found him!).

        I love your thoughtful, honest posts!

        • Good families = cycle of good families 🙂 And that is pretty modern of your mother given her generation!

          I really appreciate your kind words too. I always enjoy your thoughtful comments!

  5. This is a beautifully written post, Cecilia. Thank you so much for sharing your story. My mother cooked and cleaned all the time and showed her love through food–but she never read to us, talked about news with us, or played games with us–all things I have learned to love on my own. I have long categorized her as a “non-maternal domestic” (versus a non-domestic mother), and love her all the same for being herself. My point is simply that everyone has their own way of providing for their children and its up to the family to make these relationships work. Sounds to me you’re doing fine and have a strong partnership that will allow you to be exactly the kind of mother that Fred needs.

    • Thank you so much for this, Ngan! I like your terms and their distinctions – the non-maternal domestic versus the non-domestic mother. You’re right – you can be very domestic without being maternal. My mother was probably more similar to your mom – she did a lot around the house and she enjoyed talking with us, but she was often so busy with work and housework that she really left it up to us to entertain ourselves. Thanks for reading and thanks for the validation!

  6. I love this. I feel much the same way you do about both domesticity and motherhood. I have a similar post planned tomorrow about this along with a book I read. Hang in there! You aren’t alone. 🙂

    • I love that you can relate and are the same way. So many of my girlfriends are domestic types, so I’d often felt like something is wrong with me. I was even nervous to post this post but I’ve felt very reassured by others’ comments and support. Can’t wait to read your post tomorrow!

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