At 7 p.m. on a recent evening, I’m standing in my kitchen scrubbing the broiler pan in our double-basin stainless-steel sink. It was a mistake, this sink, neither basin really big enough to wash the big things. Out the window, tree-leaf shadows shift on the neighbor’s stucco house and the new aralias I planted for a backyard party reach their variegated, palm-shaped leaves out over my son’s toy dump trucks. The trucks are scattered in a patch of dirt that’s too shady to grow vegetables or even grass and that for years now has been left empty as a simple place to play. Each of these choices has been made deliberately, carefully: the kitchen, the sink, the plants, the child. And yet, come 7 p.m., when I’ve been standing in the kitchen for at least two hours, I am chafing at the nagging reality with which I have not yet come to terms. I am the one who is home, in the supporting role, in the same way my mother and my grandmother and all the women before her were. And I always thought I’d be the one to break the chain.
My grandmother spent the majority of her life in the kitchen, seen only from the waist up behind the counter that separated the kitchen table from the sink and stove. The cupboards and counter of her kitchen were pale yellow and cream, the color of eggs and butter beaten together, and I saw her against the backdrop of them as I sat at the kitchen table eating broiled lamb chops and carrot pennies cooked with syrup and butter. While my mother was divorced and I was an only child, I spent a good deal of time at my grandmother’s table. But I never inquired after my grandmother’s work and she never narrated it. The meals appeared before me as if by sleight of hand. If I spent the night, there would be fresh orange juice and a bowl of Cream of Wheat for breakfast, or a plate of French toast with sugar, syrup, and jam. On occasion, my grandfather would sit across from me at the table, eating a bagel with cream cheese and fork-smashed sardines.
My grandmother had her specialties and she made them in rotation. Out of her kitchen came a consistent string of briskets and kugels, matzo balls and chicken noodle soups, rum balls, banana cakes, macaroons, rugelach, and chocolate chip cookies. When her children were young, they came home from school for lunch, so my grandmother, like most other immigrant women of her generation, was making a hot meal three times a day, and my mother swears that she and her siblings never ate anything canned, processed, or store-prepared. The family joke was that the one time they ate a TV dinner, my grandmother finally having relented after the children begged for it (it was what every other family ate, the American way!), they all got sick. But as adults, all my grandmother’s children will say they resented their mother for spending so much time in the kitchen. They wished she had done something other than feed them. When my son was still a baby and distracted at the table, my mother admonished me for all the things I did to entice him to eat—counting peas, making the spoon swoop like an airplane. “Your grandma used to chase my brother around the house with a fork!” she said, as if warning me against a future fate.
My grandmother’s hands were arthritic and talon-bent, large knuckles giving way to fingers tipped with long, lacquered nails. With the curl of her finger she would scrape batter from the edge of a bowl and add it to the pan; she could open any jar no matter how tight. She did each task with a consistent sense of purpose: that her children should be nourished, flourish, and grow. It never occurred to me to ask my grandmother, who fled persecution in one country and landed in another to make a home for herself from scratch, if the simple routine of the meals, day in and day out, was enough. Did it save her, sustain her? Did she long for something more? Never, in the years I knew her, did she express any regret.
She did, however, tell me a story once, and only once, when I visited her in Florida after my grandfather died, in the ground-floor condominium that smelled like a Wallace Stevens poem, all green and orange and pink. The living room there looked out onto a screened porch where, as a girl, I kept lizards caught in a shoebox; outside, in the man-made lake, the little shower of a sad fountain seemed to hang in the humid air. The compact kitchen had a view of the parking lot, boxy Buicks and Cadillacs glinting in the sun. We were sitting at the kitchen table with bowls of tuna salad, egg salad, and cottage cheese between us, when she told me that she’d wanted a divorce. She’d wanted it so much that she’d asked for it several times, and each time my grandfather’s anger rose. “The last time I asked for a divorce,” she said, “he told me that if I ever mentioned it again, he would take out his gun from the closet and he would shoot me. And then he would shoot the children, and then he would shoot himself.” So she stayed married. Brisket, kugel, banana cake. Brisket, kugel, banana cake.
One other clue: my grandmother never taught her children to cook. Women grooming their daughters to be good housewives teach them how to cook, no? A woman grooming her daughter to be something else in the world would keep her out of the kitchen.
In the house I grew up in, the kitchen was renovated in the 1980s with a Modernist white-gray-black palate—gray floor, white cabinets, white counter, white fridge, white stove. In this kitchen, my mother cooked regularly, but never with pleasure. There was no joy for my mother in this kind of ephemeral creation, a thing you labored over only to find it consumed quickly and often without appreciation. Her flank steak was always the same, marinated in soy sauce; her chicken breasts usually came to the table raw inside, returning to the oven only to end up overcooked, tough and dry. Dinner was a necessity and it was her job to put it on the table, my mother told me time and again, because my stepfather worked and made the money to keep us housed and clothed and fed. She held to this belief even after she got her own job and made good money herself. My mother worked as a consultant, part-time, while the house and the children were still her primary responsibility. Her outside-the-house work gave her an identity other than homemaker, an outlet I think she needed as a way to be sure she would not become her mother. But her consulting career, so long as she had children in the house, was always secondary.
Meanwhile, in my best friend’s basement, our favorite game to play was restaurant. From a bin in the play kitchen we took plastic drumsticks and sunny-side-up eggs, piled them on plates, ferried the plates and cups back and forth to the invisible customers, back and forth, back and forth. We dreamed of one day being waitresses. We dreamed that we owned the restaurant. But I never imagined being the primary breadwinner for a family. Professions for women, so far as I understood, were best when they were flexible and ended early enough in the day to pick children up from school, to have summers off. Whereas a friend whose single mother was a doctor received the implied message that she could grow up to be a working mother and the primary breadwinner for her family (and she has), men around me said things like, “Do something you want to do. Someone will take care of you.” This was a strange middle-step of an idea, the approval of a woman’s freedom while keeping her imprisoned, tethered, powerless.
Even as late as my high school and college years people said, “You can be anything you want to be,” but didn’t outline the reality of working as meaning you’d see your children for one or two harried and exhausted hours most days. “That’s a hard career to choose if you want to have a family,” I was told more than once, planting an idea long before I chose a career that, for women, regardless of what you chose to do or the degree of difficulty it would require, homemaking still ranked before profession in order of priority. Others say, now, “You can come back to your work later.” “You have plenty of time.” Depending on the profession, returning to work after a long absence in which wages and professional contacts are lost may be possible, but not quite the same as never having left.
My husband has said he would be happy to stay home if I could make enough money to support us, and I think I believe him. After all, when the husband stays home he is given a big pat on the back. Women look at him with starry eyes. He is so liberated, so supportive. He is enlightened, a word we use for a crucial age of innovation in the history of Western civilization, a period of rational thinking triumphing over all, when traditional authority was questioned and science determined the truest and best ways of being.
Most of the women I know who out-earn their husbands—and there are many—have at some point longed for their husbands to stay home and take care of the house and children, letting them really focus on their career. But the husbands, for the most part, won’t consider it. Meaningful work outside the home provides not only a paycheck but a sense of purpose, and, sometimes, power; a project, clearly defined goals and rewards; a review, a bonus, or recognition; the possibility to complete something. Housekeeping and child-rearing can be too cyclical, solitary, and amorphous to provide the same satisfaction on a regular basis.
“If you got a bi-weekly paycheck and an annual review and a promotion every now and again for the work you do at home, and you had time to pursue your other interests and hobbies ‘after work’ so that you had something else to talk about besides potty training and menu-planning, would you be happy?” I posed this question to a friend on the brink of reentering the workforce after a seven-year gap. She thought about it for a minute and said unequivocally, “Yes.”
Last year a friend said, “If I have to choose between my work and my marriage, I will choose my work.”
“Remind me,” I said, “why this has to be a choice?”
Her career was going great. Her husband was not supportive of it. She got a divorce.
When my husband and I first married, and for the first five years of our marriage before we had a child, we both worked full-time. We shopped and cleaned and cooked together, sharing the household duties equally. This was a modern marriage, an equal partnership we’d both grown to understand as the way things should be. We made decisions about our home—where we would live, how we would decorate, and the kinds of things we’d surround ourselves with—together, and we shared a similar aesthetic, which made things easy. The fact that he out-earned me was the cause of many conversations, but eventually we sorted that out, too; we had made different career choices that would dictate our earning potential, and we were supportive of each other’s choices, in technology and the arts, respectively. When we talked about having children, we talked about sharing that task equally, as we had everything else.
When our son was born, I took a six-month maternity leave from the nonprofit arts center where I worked. I thought that after that amount of time, I’d have things figured out and I’d be ready to go back to work. Only there was no precedent of an employee having had a baby in the organization’s twelve-year history and I didn’t have the energy, not having slept more than three consecutive hours in half a year, to advocate for what I needed. For example, I worked in a cubicle and couldn’t imagine where in the building, besides the already-occupied offices, I could pump breast milk. This assumed, of course, that the baby would take a bottle, which he never did. I was also experiencing vision-blurring migraines, and it inexplicably still hurt for me to sit or stand for long periods of time. The questions sound simple now, but I was unable to answer them. Who would take care of my baby? What would he eat? Where could I lie down? The prospect of going back to work at that time felt entirely overwhelming. Furthermore, because the arts, like homemaking, are wildly undervalued, I would have to spend most of my income paying someone else to take care of my child. While my career, in the long run, might benefit from this arrangement, I figured it might also be a wash. So I quit.
Two and a half years later, Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In came out and I read it in hardcover before giving it to my husband. I was inspired and outraged and for a few minutes I wanted to put our son in full-time daycare so I could go back to work. But the kind of arts administrator job I had given up wasn’t an easy one to find. And our son was not an easygoing child. At every preschool pick-up there was a report of hitting or screaming or pushing. He wouldn’t go to the bathroom. He wouldn’t nap. He wouldn’t eat the snack. There were children who would sit doe-eyed on the carpet and play all day until someone picked them up; our son screamed and screamed. He wanted to be home where it was quiet, and I couldn’t blame him, so I worked part-time and came home every afternoon to take care of him. It was a privileged position to be in, to even have had this choice to make; this I understand completely. And yet this was never the choice I thought I would make.
Now here we are nearly seven years after our son was born. I drop off at school and I pick up; I drive to swim lessons and monitor play dates; I shop and I cook and I clean up; I do bath time and bedtime most of the time. I arrange the doctor’s appointments, the flu shots, and the refills of allergy medicine. I bring in the class snack, the library books, the pinecones for the school project. When we bring home the class hamster, I help feed it. Because I am the one taking primary care at home, I need to check my husband’s schedule and make arrangements for childcare if I need or want to travel alone; if my husband needs to travel, he simply tells me when he must go. This is what’s been called the role of the “primary parent,” a sort of theory that explained why, no matter how equally you think you divide things with someone, one person in the household necessarily is the project manager of the home—the homemaker. And even when both parents work, this person is more often than not the woman.
When we talked about having a child, we didn’t talk about the reality of this because we didn’t know what it would really be like. Our mothers had stayed home with us, and our mothers (and fathers) had told us how important it was to be home with young children, and we believed them—and we still do. But they all made it sound like this was a very temporary situation. Children grow up, we were told—they go to school, soon they do not need you very much at all. Only now that we’re in it, surrounded by contemporary parents with their own stories to tell, I would argue that this isn’t exactly true. Or, it’s true but the timeframe might be expanded. Parents of older children no longer need to help with teeth brushing or bath time, but they need to be present to deal with gender and sexual identity issues, learning disabilities, medical and mental health needs, social situations, and the generally tumultuous teenage years of emotional growth. More than one parent has told me that they need to do as much personal work as their children to navigate this growth with true understanding.
After a family celebration in my hometown, a family friend, Judy, drives me and my son to the airport. Her children are grown now and her car is impeccably clean in a way we couldn’t keep ours even if we tried. While my son looks out the window at the other cars speeding by on the freeway, Judy and I talk. Her daughter is in her late twenties and engaged to be married, and Judy tells me she will go wherever her daughter needs her. Judy is a tall, assertive, smart woman. She went to Mount Holyoke. She was a lawyer before she had children. “And then I made my children my life,” she tells me. Now, without her children or her career, she feels adrift. But the daughter is working her way up the corporate ladder, and she loves her job. Judy doesn’t want her daughter to have to choose between a professional career with children in daycare and homemaking. I’ve seen this again and again—the mothers who had wanted to be something more, now helping their daughters and their daughters-in-law return to work by taking care of the children. My grandmother must be counted as one of them, taking care of me so my mother could support us without a husband.
When I moved and made a home far away from my mother, I wasn’t thinking about children or the support system that an extended family can provide. In my family and my husband’s family, for better or worse, the work of mothering is seen as a responsibility like any other work, and staying home with children is understood to be a privilege for both the parent and the child. But with each successive generation, there’s more left on the table—more career choices, more opportunity, and more responsibility to lead and spur social change.
Another email arrives in my inbox from the local political action group advocating for paid family medical leave and affordable childcare legislation. One in four women go back to work within ten days of giving birth because they don’t have access to paid leave. Half of all working mothers—forty-one million Americans—can’t stay home with a sick child because they don’t have paid sick days. In every state in the US, a month of childcare for two children costs more than the median rent. I sign the petition. I call my congresswomen. I’m insanely privileged to have had the ability to stay home without financial hardship, but this system is rigged.
The title “homemaker” is not something I will put on my resume. And yet, in the quotidian handiwork, handwork, hands-on work of making a home for my family, I find there is creativity and, sometimes, satisfaction. There is a necessary commitment to the space and time each task requires—sweeping the floor, changing the sheets, folding the towels, sorting silverware, watering plants, hanging a picture—each motion a ritual, an act of devotion. It feels good to be nurtured and it feels good to nurture, my child, my partner, the houseplants, even the physical structure of windows, decking, pipes, and wires.
So this is the paradox of modern homemaking that I cannot resolve, I can only frame: There is a beauty, a necessity, in the making of a space where we are safe and comforted, a place that reflects who we are and what we hold dear; and there is the mundane drudgery of the daily tasks this requires—folding laundry, cooking meals, rearing children. But while a woman with a corporate job and board positions who farms out her household tasks to nannies, decorators, cleaners, and gardeners is regarded as powerful and successful, a woman who cares for her home and raises her children is seen as… what? I have trouble even finishing the sentence. There is a void here, as if irrelevant, though irrelevant isn’t the right word. But it is an empty space, a space unseen. Or, as another friend who started and owned a business for fifteen years and sold it to raise her two boys put it, “A woman who cares for her home and raises her children is seen as ‘not working,’ and without a job title she isn’t even considered when society is labeling her as successful or not.”
Most days, when I pick my son up from school he is exhausted and wants a hug. This day is no different. After the hug he wants to sit down on the school steps and show me the pictures he’s made—several mazes for me to trace my finger through, an autumn tree, a paper mosaic, an A-B-A-B pattern of red and yellow squares. It’s a beautiful day, sunny and cool, and we go home to relax on the porch, eat a snack, and tell a story. We walk to the store, me clapping out a beat and my son singing on top of it, and at the store the owner offers my son a job, when he turns sixteen, “If you are very good at math,” she says. “Study hard at math!” So we walk home practicing: two plus two, four plus four. “But I might want a different job,” my son pauses to say. “I might want to build freeways. Or I might want to be a vacuum cleaner.” Back in the kitchen, he pushes a dining room chair up to the counter declaring his desire to help. I give him a cutting board, a butter knife, the soft balls of mozzarella. A brown ceramic bowl with a marine blue glaze on the inside to backdrop the glistening tomatoes, the creamy cheese, the bright basil leaves. Some of the cheese falls on the floor. The basil is bruised between my son’s strong fingers. He will refuse to eat this salad, despite having helped make it, which all the parenting books will tell you is the way to get kids to eat things. The leaves on the tree outside are shifting, ready to fall.
Above us, on the wall, in a collage my mother made, photographs of my grandmother and great-grandmother stand side by side, both of them layered onto a recipe in my grandmother’s handwriting for Mother’s Apple Cake, a recipe I tried once with uninspired results, the cake too sweet and too dry. But the chicken I put under the broiler with a brush of barbeque sauce comes out tender and moist; the tomatoes from our community garden are meaty and sweet, the best we’ve ever grown. At the sound of the front gate opening, my son jumps down and runs to open the door, shouting, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” There’s good food on the table, the windows are open, and the sun is flooding the room with light. It’s a nice way to be welcomed home.
With the meal comes the mess, and twenty minutes later I am at the sink again, sponge in hand, scrubbing the broiler pan. I hate the broiler pan with its sharp edges, the grease clinging to the small openings, lurking in the hardest places to reach. I try to be patient with it. In the periphery of my attention are the voices of my husband and son down the hall where there is a bubble bath and a happy boy and much splashing and singing. This is the moment, I remind myself, like a meditation, like a mantra. This is the moment, this and no other.
Excerpted from This Is the Place: Women Writing about Home, co-edited by Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters. Copyright © 2017. Available from Seal Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.