One of my favorite reads is featured in New York Times Magazine. Written by Randy Cohen and called “The Ethicist,” this weekly piece is a favorite intellectual exercise that my partner and I share, usually on long trips. He saves the column throughout the year until we hit the road for one reason or another. He’ll read the featured ethical questions asked by Cohen’s readers, and we will volley responses to the question to determine the most ethical course of action for the reader. We’ll then check our responses against those of The Ethicist and discuss whether or not we agree with his conclusions. One of our recent reads was written in the spirit of Yom Kippur, a solemn day of atonement that follows Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. In it, and in keeping with the Jewish tradition for Yom Kippur, he worked to atone for his errors from the previous year, by writing about where he may have made some mistakes in his column or offered guidance that, in retrospect, may have been misguided. In the spirit of this courageous effort, I want to write in this first month of 2011 about some choices of mine that I think may have been mistaken or misguided, in an effort to confess my fallibility as a mother and as a person, and to direct some of my choices this year. This week I write about food.
I was inappropriately invested in food and meals. I don’t mean here that I ate too much or in unhealthy ways, though I did that too, besides I explore that a little bit later in the month. What I mean is that I pretty much demand the right to not be singularly focused on meal preparations for all my family members, and this works well for me by giving myself permission to spend my time and energies in ways that nourish me. Sometimes I am personally and spiritually nourished by cooking and meals and sometimes I’m just bothered by it. My error I think, and something I’m working on this year, is that I want my family members to be disinvested enough in my directing the meals so that when I don’t cook—which can sometimes be a week-long stretch during which we do take-out or drive-thru or everyone fends for themselves in the kitchen—they’re all OK with that and not missing the fusion of affection and home cooking. But when I am focused on food preps, I expect that folks are invested enough that they have not eaten a big or a late lunch, have not made other dinner plans, are in the mood for something ‘traditional’ when I’m cooking that way or for something ‘new and different’ when I’m cooking that. In short, it matters a great deal to me whether they love it and eat a bunch of it. And at one level of course this makes sense, given all the effort to find recipes and plan (which I typically enjoy very much) and to shop and cook (which I have shifting feelings about). So for all the effort, needless to say and reasonably so, I’d like the payback of appreciation. My error I think is to equate being valued as a mother with how heartily my family eats my food and, perhaps more importantly, to measure my own sense of maternal ‘worth’ by the spoonfuls they take of it.
This method of assessing ‘value’ and ‘worth,’ or perhaps any assessment of these in motherhood, is quite tricky for everybody. Obviously it falls into socio-cultural traps of demanding that mothers ‘measure up’ in ways that we do not demand of fathers; it positions my sense of worth in the hands of others rather than in myself; it ensures that I am so focused on pleasing everyone through meal activity that I have time and energy for neither any other kind of activity nor for detaching myself from pleasing everyone. It also assumes that a given night’s lack of enthusiasm about the meal is a statement about me, instead of about a host of other variables in each family members’ day and tastebuds. I am reminded here of one absurd statement that used to be on the evaluation form that college students at my university fill out at the end of the semester when they are asked to evaluate their course and instructor; students would mark ‘strongly agree,’ ‘agree,’ ‘disagree,’ or ‘strongly disagree’ to a list of statements. This particular statement said something like “Sometimes I have difficulty being interested in the course lecture,” a measure that tells us nothing, really, about the effectiveness overall of the course or how it was taught, and that puts a whole lot of responsibility on the instructor for the innumerable variables that might influence the interest level in any given day of an entire classroom full of people. Following the same thinking, when one of my family members is communicating “Sometimes I have difficulty being interested in the meal we’re having,” I’d be wise to ask why I am assuming so much responsibility for the innumerable variables that might influence the interest level on any given day of each member of an entire family.
Similarly, when I was growing up, sometimes I was way into the dinner my mother made and sometimes I wasn’t. For a whole bunch of reasons. How robustly I responded to the meal just wasn’t a statement about my mother’s worth. It just wasn’t. I’d be wise to remember that too. I’d also be wise to remember that it’s not reasonable to ask that family members be disinvested enough in my cooking to not notice or care that we’ve been eating on the fly for days, but so invested that they are way into whatever I might cook whenever I might cook it.
Another issue for me is that my daughter eats very differently from me. She focuses on organic foods regularly and eats very little meat—pretty much only chicken. Somehow I manage at times to make this about me, even though I know better. She lives on campus and not in our house most typically, with some exception on breaks and an occasional night here and there. So her diet and my cooking don’t clash regularly. And really at this point in her maturity she’s very good about not judging or snubbing, and I cook a lot of dishes—vegetarian or chicken dishes—that she enjoys. So most of the time there is no intersection of her ways and mine. But sometimes there inevitably will be. I find myself too invested in her food choices, turning them into a statement about or an evaluation of my choices that I then need to care much about. Recently I offered, when she and her brother went to their dad’s for the holiday, to double up on the ham and bean soup I was making and send her over there with a pot of it, given that her dad’s job on the road and brief stint in town would probably mean he’d have no real plan for their meal. She graciously accepted the offer. Later, I realized she would have absolutely no interest in this dinner and noted that she never said anything about this fact. When I talked with her about it and offered to make a separate pot of soup without the ham, she was again very gracious and indicated that she had thought about saying “You won’t be offended if I don’t eat it, then?” But decided to say nothing. I told her that I was embarrassed to say that I probably would have handled that question badly, feeling judged and taking offense needlessly. I told her that I will work on that, and that when I falter she should know that these are my issues and not hers and that she shouldn’t have to work so hard to protect me from them, that she shouldn’t feel bad about eating what works for her, just so I don’t have to feel bad about eating and cooking what works for me. I should comment here on all this “guilt” between women about eating and about how culturally entrenched it is for many women and how useless and debilitating it all is, though no less prevalent. My son and his dad are not having this conversation, I’ll wager.
So one of my goals for the year is to be more appropriately invested in food, in part by being healthily detached from how engaged each family member is with it, and by separating their responses from my sense of worth. I must say it feels funny writing this because it seems like something that someone else would be writing and not me; I fancy myself rather on top of this issue, perhaps compared to women who are similarly invested but dealing with the issues everyday because they cook everyday. I guess I thought that giving myself the freedom from persistent meal prep meant freedom from all the psychological baggage that many woman associate with food and cooking. But alas not.