The classroom buzzed with chatter of mom’s lasagna and grandma’s dumplings, delicacies of childhood that populated the tables of family gatherings, birthdays, and other special occasions. Even behind masks, I glimpsed my classmates’ wistful looks as they recalled home cooking, the satisfaction of being provided for, of being fed. We had been asked to describe the foods of our childhoods to trace our shifting attitudes and associations with food. One student reminisced on the bone broth congee her mom always made her when sick. The girl next to me remembered the extravagant spreads her family ate after church on Sundays.
I thought back to my childhood. What did my mom make better than anyone else? Frozen pizza already in the oven when I got off the school bus. Chicken nuggets and potato wedges that we pried off the tinfoil. Microwaved salami, crisped up at the edges and drenching the paper towel with melted grease. Stovetop popcorn, every night, or it wasn’t a full meal. Big, fresh salads with parmesan and a little too much vinegar. As a (then) single mom, time was scarce, and she always chose bonding time over cooking time.
As a child, I always felt left out at bake sales, birthday parties, and other school socials. My friends contributed homemade brownies, lemon bars, and snickerdoodles, but all I could bring were grocery store cupcakes—or, when my mom didn’t have time, nothing at all. I used to think that baking “from scratch” meant using a boxed Betty Crocker mix, a special occasion I only got to experience when my grandma visited. Once, my mom told me, a lawyer-mom friend of hers confided that she always placed special orders at the local bakery for dozens of cookies made to look homemade, so she wouldn’t have to deal with the snide remarks of other moms. Every time I complained about my bake sale woes, she responded with the same refrain: “I don’t bake.” Time wasn’t the only thing that prevented her: something about the process of baking was at odds with her identity. She didn’t want to be the type of mom who gave in and baked just because it fulfilled some expectation or shut up the other, “better” moms.
Since 9th grade, I’ve been the home chef, making a bargain that if I cooked, I wouldn’t have to do dishes. “Mom’s cooking” doesn’t mean the same to me as it does for everyone else—maybe this should mean that I have a different relationship to food, family, and femininity. Perhaps I am less able to connect with people, or to express my love the way women are expected to. But I don’t think that’s true. I was raised by the author of 10 books, a professor with glowing course evaluations and numerous research grants who nevertheless played, watched movies, and regularly cuddled with her daughter. My mom never sacrificed her career to raise me, but she also never sacrificed me for her career. She made motherhood her own and showed me how cultivating a family can be nontraditional and still be nurturing and full of love.
Society relies on mothers and grandmothers to perform traditional household labor, both in order to form their identities as mothers and to form the identities of their children. This forms what Louis Althusser calls an Ideological State Apparatus, which reproduces itself with every generation of mothers and daughters. As girls see their moms feeding themselves and others as a form of love, they learn that that is how they should express their own love once they become mothers themselves. This reproduces the gendered labor expectations we have come to recognize as unequal and often stress-inducing. During my childhood, I struggled with the fact that my and my mom’s identity were supposedly tied to her relative lack of home cooking.
But even though my mom rarely cooked elaborate meals, I was always fed, always filled with the love we shared over those quick-and-easy dinners. As a (then single) mother in academia, she had little time to dedicate to cooking—but I think it went deeper than that. My mom bucked against the gendered labor expectations she grew up with and decided that as long as I was fed well and healthily, it didn’t matter whether we ate lasagna from scratch or boxed mac and cheese.
Funnily enough, I love cooking now. I want to have kids, and I want to be the mom that bakes key lime bars and whoopie pies for the class party. I am excited about the prospect of raising my children the way generations of women have been told to, but having a mother who raised me without that allows me to break the mold and realize how much choice and agency I do have. Because of my mom, I’m able to celebrate the empowerment that enabled her career and her nontraditional parenting, while also appreciating the genuine love and nourishment shared by mothers and grandmothers everywhere. For me, embracing womanhood (and motherhood) is about embracing its contradictions, the gendered and sexist expectations that oppress us while also enabling us to share so much love and care with our children, lovers, and friends. Even though I don’t want to follow her path exactly, I will always admire and respect my mom for everything she has accomplished while navigating the minefield of womanhood.