On Mother’s Day last spring, my 10-year-old daughter listed some things she loves about having me as her mother. The first two surprised me: “You make my lunch most days,” she began, “and you make dinner.” Other observations followed, including that I am “huggy” and “smart.” But first came the kitchen.
Briefly, I was affronted. Why does food service count the most? But within seconds my reaction did a full 180, because I remembered why I spend serious time in the kitchen: I know my presence there has a value that goes far beyond the food itself.
I had a mother who inhabited the kitchen with care. The bliss of licking drippy, sweet things off the mixing spoon after she had stirred pudding or poured cake batter into a pan was often mine. I believed my mother loved those moments as much as I did.
Yet by the time I turned 9, my brother and I lived in a post-divorce household, with Dad in a new home and Mom in full feminist revolt. Dinners of chicken cordon bleu and baked desserts gave way to oven-roasted meats that were deemed done whenever my mother could tear herself away from making art and selling it – or, when she wasn’t home, to no dinner at all.
For my mother, the kitchen felt like a trap. When the women’s movement blossomed in the late 1960s, she was ready.
And then a tidal wave of rage, disappointment and raw desire overtook her. I saw it in her vehemence toward my father and in the raucous consciousness-raising groups that met in our living room. I saw it in the changed contents of our dinner plates: a dried-out chicken leg, a potato collapsed inward from overbaking.
Complaining got me nowhere. My mother was an unstoppable force, powerful, beautiful and finally happy. As her days and nights expanded to include solo shows, romance and the founding of feminist organizations, I could see in her radiant face and laughter that she was fulfilling her potential. Her red hair grew ever upward, a hood of curls that shouted out her freedom.
My body spoke my devastation. I went from being well fed and popular in third grade to near skeletal and often mocked in fifth. I wasn’t anorexic; I just didn’t know how to cook. I turned sallow and hollow-eyed and suffered headaches, eczema and stomach pains.
And I was lonely. On weekday afternoons I would let myself in using the key around my neck. If my mother was home, I would find her in her basement studio, wielding a torch of blue flame, shaping metal into sculpture.
But back then, on many afternoons, I would return to my bedroom, sit on my pink shag rug and cry. It seemed I mattered to no one anymore. My heart shrank into a knob of hurt and yearning.
Twenty-three years later, I accepted a medal of honor for my mother from the Veteran Feminists of America. She was in Bosnia, where she had been leading mask-making workshops with war-scarred women and children.
I stepped to the lectern and said: “It wasn’t always easy having a mother dedicated to feminism. … But the pride she has brought me, and the self-respect and assertiveness she has worked so hard to teach me, have proved far more nutritive than hundreds of perfectly cooked meals.”
No doubt those hundreds of home-cooked meals I missed would have been wonderful, but not if they had come at the cost of having a miserable mother. Whatever else she is or isn’t, my mother is an inspiration. She has had the courage, vision and persistence to create a meaningful and satisfying life.
I received a standing ovation.
I am a feminist, too, and I know there were and are innumerable good reasons for outrage and action. Yet children do not stop needing what they need, even when their parents are fighting for justice. And if you do not attend to them or find a loving substitute, they will suffer and may hold it against you. Even if you have never felt stronger and more truly yourself. Even if you love them.
The healing place
Because of my history, I know how much the mundane care of children matters. That is why I stop work when the school day ends and greet my daughter with a hug. I may be tired, stressed out or grumpy; I may bemoan the confinement, the repetition, the career limits. But I do it anyway. I pull away from paid pursuits and open myself to the opportunity to delight in my daughter.
My delight comes freely, inspired by a leggy girl with rich brown eyes who has just come home. But our time together is about more than delight. When I hand her a snack and look into her face, seeking the stories of her day, I intend for her to feel how much she matters. She matters more to me right then than anything I could be doing without her. We will not have these afternoons forever.
When she told me on Mother’s Day that she loves what I do in the kitchen, I realized why I love it, too. For as I stir and chop and bake while she studies, sings, draws, chatters, rides a scooter and does an exceptional job of being young, I am drinking in some of the pleasures I missed.
My husband also cooks. But for me, the kitchen is a place of healing. And when my daughter and I play our roles there contentedly, we are bathing in a mutually enhancing sort of love, a larger version of the circle that breastfeeding or cuddling a baby can create: a give-and-take that affirms our value as parent and child.
My mother taught me this love when I was little. I rediscovered it when I became a mother. It’s sustaining. It’s precious. And it keeps me coming back – to the kitchen.
Janet Benton of Philadelphia is completing a historical novel about motherhood.
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