Bake chocolate chip cookies. Great. Hide my intellectual, professional, and artistic failings behind the fact that I can bake.
(And I really can. When I took cupcakes to my book group, several people agreed that I should start a bakery. That would be a terrible idea, but I sure appreciated their confidence.)
Not only can I bake! Ho no, my friends, I can also organize. And arrange furniture. And decorate a house in pleasing colors, textures and shapes. I can make a delicious four-course dinner for six friends. I can arrange flowers. I can cultivate plants. I can mat and frame pieces of art and hang them on the wall with decent skill. In short, I know how to do most of the nurturing, creative, comforting, beauty-making things in the large repertoire called The Domestic Arts. And that's not nothing.
But it's not everything.
To the women in my family, it is everything, or at least, the most important thing. Keeping a clean house is the best way to save face on every possible issue you can imagine, from infidelity to alcoholism. I'm serious. If a woman's house is clean, we can look past the empty bottles of vodka in the trash. "At least she's keeping it together," we will say, with a nod. Conversely, the most devoted wife and mother is only as good as her housekeeping skills. "Yes, she is sweet to her children, spoiling them a bit, I might add, but did you see her stove? Full of grease spots. That's the first thing I always look at: the stove. You can tell a lot about a person by the state of her stove." And so-called career women? The term in itself is a vulgarity. Career women are selfish. End of story. (Don't get me wrong, all the women in my family have always worked, but they have static jobs they complain about and believe everyone else should, too.)
So that's where I come from. Like my aunts, mother, cousins and grandmother, I used to hold my domestic competence in high regard. I used it as a weapon against smarty-pants boyfriends. "So what if he can quote Derrida?" I remember ranting to my writing group once about a boyfriend. "He can barely read a calendar and he doen't know how to scrub out the bathtub!" (Incidentally, the men and women of the group stared at me as if to ask what in the world was my problem.)
I believe that, as a woman, you just can't win. So why try? I'm reaching the point where I just do what feels right and don't worry about What It All Means.
Until today, of course, during this fit of insecurity. I am reading a review of Linda R. Hirschman's book, Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World. Hirschman is famous for pissing people off with an article she published last year that told us we should stay in the job market for the sake of society. She says we give up too much when we agree to more than half the housework and primary care of the children. (Or, I should say, child. Those of us who pop out more than one are apparently screwing ourselves irrevocably.)
I will admit to being interested in the ideas in this book. I'd like to turn them over in my mind and see where I come out. I am very concerned about the future of equality in this nation when it comes to male-female relations and for sure when it comes to mothers' rights. At the same time, damn! I'm so weary of everyone having an opinion about what I should do with my life.
You know what Hirschman's arguments remind me of? The mud and algae covering the pearl. I made this analogy months ago during my Major Depressive Episode. For me, all the stuff covering the pearl were the stories I had told myself about who I should be, and all the stories other people had told me about who I should be. I based way too many decisions on what would be best for The World, and not what would be best for my soul. Hirschman wants to add to that? She really wants me to go out and start teaching again so I can spend the best hours of my day wrangling other people's children? (Probably not. Teaching is probably one of those wimpy helping-profession jobs that women need to start shying away from.)And, incidentally, I know a lot of women who make their decisions this way. I am not sure it is always for the best.
When are people going to start writing high-profile books about what men should be doing with their lives?
(I know, I know. Only their wives would read them. Men aren't obsessed with self-improvement like we are.)
Letting go of self-improvement was a huge step toward recovering my health this year. So was letting go of the expectations of my family, my old boyfriends (they do haunt me), radical moms, and the image of a groovy, savvy, political, artistic, devoted mother that I held up as my ideal. I flushed it all. And then I was able to do what my soul wanted.
That's pretty good women's lib. And yet, that rejection letter. I can hear the shriveled black spot in my heart saying, "Get back in the kitchen."
But you know, that rejection letter means something very important: I made contact with the world. And that is more than I could say about myself over the last five years of pregnancy, birthing and breastfeeding. So I've posted it on my wall, which I hear a lot of writers do, because it shows that I've made a step.
A batch of cookies right now would just be false comfort.