Recently, my husband, our kids and I went to a friend’s house for dinner. Her house was immaculate ― thick white candles flickered in clear glass hurricanes and Puget Sound glimmered outside her living room window, the tangerine sun negotiating the last bit of sky before dipping low for the night.
My friend poured me a glass of wine and led me by the arm to the kitchen. “Try this and tell me what you think,” she said and offered me one of the appetizers she had created: an artisan cracker stacked with goat cheese and prosciutto, topped with the fresh arugula she’d picked from her garden, drizzled with a trace of balsamic. Her creation was delicious, and my mouth full, I gave her a thumbs up and then told her so once I had finished.
She is a consummate hostess, a stay-at-home mom who frets lovingly over the details in things. Not for the first time I felt a dull pang: I wished I had something delicious I knew how to whip up and the confidence to present it to guests. I want to enjoy preparing food for family and friends.
It’s not for lack of trying. I always go to the grocery store with the intention of cooking. I feel hopeful, invigorated even by the sumptuous array surrounding me: firm red peppers, glistening heads of lettuce, voluptuous heirloom tomatoes, ribbons of fresh pasta folded softly in ecru packages. I can even get excited about line-caught salmon the friendly fishmonger wraps up and hands me with a smile. I make it home still motivated, unpacking my groceries with confidence about the home-cooked meal I intend to prepare for my family, and as soon as the last vegetable is out of the bag, I immediately leave the kitchen to do something else.
I get the mail, fold laundry, return phone calls, take the dogs for yet another walk, and as the late afternoon turns into evening, my enthusiasm has drained like water in a bathtub with a leaky plug. Now it’s 6:30 and I don’t feel like washing or chopping vegetables no matter how beautiful they are. I don’t feel like seasoning and broiling fish. I don’t want to touch anything I bought. I have no interest in creating the meal I envisioned.
It wasn’t always this way. I used to like cooking. From the age of 10, when my father was raising me, I made dinners for him and my sister. Then, when I was in the first bloom of marriage, I cooked for my husband, and after my children were born, for my new family. I even made food for several parties we hosted. But somewhere along the line, I ran out of steam.
Cooking began to feel like a lot of work with lots of room for error ― something I have to do that has almost no payoff. Planning, shopping for and making homemade meals takes time, and when you’re finished, all you have to show for it is stacks of pots and pans you have to wash. It doesn’t feel like a labor of love that’s worth much.
But my problem is I want to like it. I can’t seem to shake the old-fashioned notion of what a mother is supposed to be; what she should be able to do. I have this idea that creating home-cooked meals is the best proof I’m a good mom and that no matter what else I accomplish, if I can’t do this for them, I’m failing.
Logically, I know that cooking is only part of raising kids — my father made only a handful of meals during my entire childhood and he was still a great dad — but I can’t seem to let myself off the hook. My husband, who is worse in the kitchen than I am, tells me not to worry about cooking, that it means nothing about mothering and that he loves how I take care of our kids. But I want to have pride in feeding the people I care about.
I want to be that woman who knows how to nourish the ones she loves. I know how important that kind of nurturing can be, and I worry about what it means for me to be a mother who doesn’t know how to do it well.
I missed growing up with someone in the home who could provide for me that way, and I loved eating the food my mother cooked on the weekends I did get to see her. It makes me sad that I don’t think anything I prepare for my kids is their favorite. It makes me sad that for me, cooking feels like a chore, but worse than any other chore because of the many steps involved from conception to table.
It’s not that I’m averse to working hard. I regularly meet the goals I set for myself in other areas of my life. But most days of the week, I simply can’t seem to harness and sustain the mental energy and motivation I need to come up with to shop for and cook dinner.
I thought that maybe having recipes and ingredients at the ready would inspire me, so I subscribed to a popular meal kit service and selected a pasta meal and a chicken meal. I made the pappardelle with peas and ricotta and a little lemon zest and I liked it, but my kids didn’t.
The savory Mediterranean chicken with rice recipe was next. I admit that my eyes glazed over after: “In a shallow bowl, mix the first 8 ingredients.” First eight? There were more after that? I was already in over my head. Muttering to myself, I insolently followed the remainder of the instructions, prepared a dish that somewhat resembled the photograph on the recipe sheet and got my family to have a few bites.
When I found myself ignoring the recipe for the next week’s meal kits entirely, opting to plop the meat into a pan with the same few spices I’ve always used, I understood that not even ingredients portioned out and delivered to my door could make me want to use them.
I needed to discontinue my meal kit subscription before another expensive box crossed my threshold. I went to the cancel page on the website, and when the “Reason” tab popped up, I froze. I didn’t think I’d have to admit what the problem was. I felt embarrassed and small, angry even. Why did I have to tell them that? I glared back at the empty white space.
And then I did it, I typed out the truth: “I’m not cut out for this delivery service. I don’t cook, nothing makes me want to cook.” I pressed submit and I let go of the breath I didn’t know I’d been holding.
I realize now I’ve been hiding behind different excuses for years — my kids and my husband are picky, no one eats the same thing, I’m burned out from coming up with dinner ideas, and my favorite: I’m tired from running around after little kids all day. But they’re both teenagers now; they’re not even home until evening. The jig is up.
I’ll still occasionally make food for my family ― old faithfuls like taco Tuesdays, hamburgers, grilled fish, mac ’n cheese, and my very favorite, ordering in, but I’m finished trying to force myself to enjoy the process or thinking I need to master a dish to be a “real” mom. And I’m really going to try to stop comparing myself to others, especially what I see now as a limited way of viewing motherhood.
My mothering is like other mothers’ and is also my own. It’s ferrying my kids to and from friends’ homes, packing notes in their lunches, staying off my phone when we’re together, hearing them when they tell me they really don’t want to continue doing a team sport, sitting and talking with them in their rooms before bedtime, and buying them junk food for sleepovers and tossing in my favorite gummies, too. I may not have a signature dish but I’ve finally learned to stop interrupting my daughter when she’s telling me a story, and just last week, I asked my son the right questions about the tropical biome he created in Minecraft. I’m killing it.
I’m probably never going to want to cook. I like the idea of being able to cook, but doing it is not my thing. What I love is eating. And I’m excellent at that.
I’ve been trapped in the same hate-hate cooking cycle for so long I’m not sure what I’ll do with all my free time now. Maybe I’ll organize my takeout menus.