By CAROLYN MILAZZO MURPHY
The “kids” are still home from college, so a few of our son’s friends and their families gathered the other night to catch up.
It was a low-key affair on a weeknight to accommodate everyone’s schedule. Our host’s Christmas tree and decorations were still up and a fire burned in the family room fireplace, lending a cozy feel to the evening. A cat perched on a sofa arm, and wine was consumed before and during dinner. So much for the January Experiment, a new book advocating abstaining from alcohol during the month of January.
So nothing that extraordinary except one thing: the main course was prepared entirely by my son’s friend, a college senior. Let me clarify that. When the dinner was slated for a Monday night and his mom had to work all day, he also shopped and prepped the meal too.
I have college-age nieces who love to cook and food shop, or “source” as they say, and have been turning out incredible meals for years. But the boys? Not so much. And though I’ve over-parented my son in many areas, I’ve failed miserably in the cooking department.
He expects me to cook every night. This may not sound like a big deal, but it is. Breaking down gender-specific roles like cooking and care-taking was at the core of the early women’s rights movement. The new movie “On the Basis of Sex” spotlights the issue, telling the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s fight to change a tax law that prohibited a man from taking a caretaker’s tax credit.
The case ultimately resulted in overturning 178 laws that discriminated on the basis of sex and were declared unconstitutional.
While prepping the landmark case with her husband Marty, Ginsburg notes that the tax law is antiquated and discriminatory because it assumes only women are caretakers and eligible for the deduction.
“Our client is a man. We can’t lose sight of that. Men are also harmed by these stereotypes,” Marty tells Ruth. “Boys are told they’re not supposed to be nurses, or teachers . . . ”
“Or cook for their families,” Ruth says.
I’m not sure what RBG would think of my parenting skills when it comes to raising a modern man, but I suspect she wouldn’t be pleased. She divided household and parenting chores with Marty in the mid-50s when most women stayed home and raised families while their husbands went off to work. She’d probably be shocked that in 2019, some boys (and men) still expect and assume women will do all the cooking.
I know I could have done a better job, and I hope it’s not too late. In about 18 months, my son will graduate from college and will probably (hopefully) be living on his own. He needs to know how to cook. Everyone needs to know this important life skill.
I bounced this off some women I know with older children. They said I should chill out, noting cooking is something kids tend to gravitate to like any other hobby. Some also said they enjoy being the sole cook in their household, noting they enjoy having control of meal planning and what they eat.
They have a point, I suppose, but it’s nice to have a meal prepared for you once in awhile, and not have the burden of cooking every day. It’s nice when other people pick up the slack, freeing you up to do other things in the early evening.
I started out with the best of intentions. When my son was little, he sat on a kitchen stool or counter and “helped” me. One of our favorite annual traditions was making homemade sugar cookies, cutting them into different shapes for Christmas. After they cooled, we covered them in colorful frosting and doused them in various shades of sprinkles.
But our kitchen time diminished as he grew up and became interested in sports and video games (I know. X-Box was another huge mistake). He wasn’t interested in cooking, so we didn’t do it. I forgot that like a lot of things in life, such as cleaning and laundry, it’s important for parents to lead the way and demand participation.
A little background:
When we first got married, my husband cooked. He was 30, and had been living on his own for about seven years. He knew how to cook a limited menu – chili, tacos, hotdogs, Shake & Bake chicken and spaghetti with sauce – and cooked a few times a week. We were both working full time, so it made sense and was fair to divide cooking chores.
Things changed when he went to law school, and began commuting an hour to and from campus. He had less time and inclination to cook and was swamped with studying, so I picked up the slack. Eventually, I began doing most of the cooking, which was OK because I was a better cook. In exchange, he did the dishes and cleaned the kitchen. It seemed like an even exchange because I hate cleaning the kitchen.
Cooking fell entirely on me when I decided to stay home with my kids about 20 years ago. Splitting household chores becomes impractical when one person is working at least 60 hours a week and carrying the full burden of the family’s finances. It wasn’t practical for him to cook when he was arriving home between 7 and 7:30 every night.
My evolution into chief cook was gradual, sort of like the weight that accumulates around your hips after age 50. Slowly and steadily, I took on the role of primary cook while he became the main breadwinner. I remained a freelance writer, but my “career” was not how I’d envisioned things back at my liberal arts women’s college.
I take comfort in the fact that some of my most liberal and full-time working friends are also the primary, um only, cooks in their house. Their husbands wait until they walk in the door late at night and ask, “What’s for dinner?” too. But I hoped I’d do better with my son, raising a guy who knows his way around the kitchen.
I didn’t realize my oversight until my friend’s son cooked steak and roasted butternut squash and Brussels sprouts, even asking everyone how we’d like our steak cooked. When I suggested that my son make a similar meal for us, he waved me off.
“He just threw a couple of steaks on the grill,” he said. “What’s the big deal?”
You could say I spoiled my kids, but that doesn’t fully explain it. Our 17-year-old daughter cooks and bakes, and has been doing so for years. Some of it is necessity: she’s the most finicky eater I’ve ever met, and often doesn’t want to eat what I’m making. But sometimes she thrills me and makes enough zucchini noodles and sauce for all of us, and it’s such a relief to have a night off.
Our son has no interest in cooking, unless ramen noodles, canned soup and microwave popcorn count. He’s never been terribly interested in food, even as a baby. I used to call my mom in tears when I’d make and throw out 21 meals every week during his first two years of life. I’m not entirely sure how he’s gotten to be the size he is, but I guess he got some nutrients along the way.
It’s only with hindsight that I realize I dropped the ball. If I could do things over, I’d spend less time at my son’s tennis matches, and more time with him in the kitchen. I’d teach him knife skills, how to marinate meat, how to make a hearty soup and how to bake a potato so it doesn’t come out like a rock. I’d teach him how to pick out eggplants (always pick the lightest ones for the fewest seeds), how to grill fish and how to bake and frost cupcakes.
Fortunately, it’s not too late. He’s only a college junior, so I still have time to show him the ropes. And somehow, I think RBG would approve.
Carolyn Milazzo Murphy is a regular contributor to the Connecticut NOW blog.