March 8, International Women’s Day, is a time to examine the progress toward equality in the paid work force and in the place where a lot of unpaid work takes place — the home.
Although women’s participation in the work force is not only accepted, but also expected, in Canada, there’s still a lot of work to be done to bring about equality of wages and certain opportunities for women to advance at work.
In the home, too, we still see inequality. Women still spend, on average, twice as much time doing housework and cooking as men do, even as women are spending more time in the workplace and therefore less time at home. Averages obviously do not tell the whole story, and I can cite examples of households in which the man does more housework and cooking than the woman.
As I am particularly interested in food skills and cooking, I have been reflecting on what it means to be responsible for the majority of the cooking in Canadian households. How do women feel about all that cooking? People have a variety of responses, some positive and some negative, to being the one who makes the family meals.
Cooking can be relaxing. The rhythmic, quiet, mechanical work of peeling, chopping, measuring, stirring is meditative and soothing and offers a chance to unwind after a day of difficult decisions or interactions.
When things aren’t quiet, though, as when children are hungry and noisy and in need of attention, cooking is less than relaxing. Although you are cooking for the benefit of your family, and you want to see them happy and well-fed, they have other needs that must be met as well.
In addition, mothers are often sleep-deprived because of their many obligations at work and at home. When there is too much to do in too little time, and not enough energy to do it with, the need to get a meal on the table can cause anxiety.
The anxiety is compounded if the family has limited resources. When there isn’t enough money to buy food, there are few mealtime choices. Having to make do with what’s available means sometimes serving meals that are less appealing or nutritious than you’d like them to be. It is difficult to prepare a meal while anticipating that it is something that the family will not enjoy or that at least some family members— often Mom — will not get enough to eat or that the food will not meet your children’s nutritional needs. Ideally, meals please the taste buds and fuel the body, as well as filling bellies.
Sometimes the repetition of fixing daily meals gets to be a problem. People have to eat every single day, and even the most committed cook can find herself out of ideas from time to time. There are all kinds of things that limit the choices further: picky tastes; food allergies; chronic illnesses; time constraints. I believe that the complaint I have heard most often from people who cook for their families is that they are tired of making the same meals over and over again and weary of trying to come up with something different that their families will enjoy.
Even without the added pressures of cooking for a family or dealing with limited resources, some women do not enjoy cooking. It may be that their cooking skills are limited, and they feel uncomfortable about preparing food. Or it may be that they simply do not like cooking, and prefer to spend their time doing other things. Even though cooking has been traditionally considered women’s work, there is no gene that makes women enjoy cooking.
Of course, there are women (and men) for whom cooking is an enjoyable experience, and one of the most pleasant things that they do all day. Preparing meals in traditional ways, learned from parents or grandparents, can call up memories of people who have been important to you, and make you feel connected to your past. Making familiar foods is an expression of family and culture.
Cooking can be a creative experience, too. Some people love to add their own touch by changing something in every recipe and enjoy preparing a one-of-a-kind meal using just the food they have on hand and their imagination.
So, is it a good thing or a bad thing that women still do the majority of the cooking in Canadian families? Obviously, there is no pat answer.
A certain amount of work needs to be done to keep a household running smoothly, and everyone needs and deserves to have some leisure time.
The way to satisfy these sometimes-competing needs is different in every home. It seems to me that the best arrangements are those in which the partners decide how divide domestic responsibilities based on the needs of the household, and each person’s available time and interests, rather than traditional gender-based roles.
Margaret Prouse, a home economist, can be reached by writing her at RR#2, North Wiltshire, P.E.I., C0A 1Y0, or by email at email@example.com.