Try not to cry.
Maybe it’s just me. But I suspect I’m not the only woman who’s merely one bag of beef jerky away from a total meltdown.
I was fresh out of inspiration for dinner when I stopped by the grocery store on the way home from work the other day. It had been a long and difficult day; every cranky, rude and clueless person within a 25-mile radius made it a point to cross my path. I didn’t really need food since our freezer is so loaded it would take a Shackleton expedition to explore its depths, but I didn’t want to work that hard. I was looking for the Abominable Snowman of dinner options; something tasty, easy, fast and healthy. You hear that combo talked about a lot but, like the Yeti, confirmed sightings are rare. I also wanted to stock up on low-cal snacks to combat my Little Debbie addiction.
I don’t do all the cooking at our house; my husband often fixes dinner. That may be primarily because he doesn’t like what I make, but it still helps. I’m not a bad cook so much as uninspired. Nonetheless, I am still the chief cook, bottle washer, laundress and general maid-of-all-work around our place.
Most of the other shoppers in the store that evening were women and, judging by their clothes and attitudes, most were also on their way home from work. Some had small children in tow. We had all stopped to pick up some get-me-the-hell-out-of-here-so-I-can-go-home-and-put-up-my-feet.
A young mom in the dairy aisle had a cart full of crying toddler. They were both staring down at the puddle spreading out from a milk carton I assume the child had tossed onto the floor. From the look on Mommy’s face, she was an inch away from flailing around in the puddle in a screaming, kicking tantrum that would put her child’s to shame.
An acquaintance in the produce aisle said she had dashed in to buy cauliflower to go with the pot roast she had in the oven. She had already prepared peas and potatoes, which her husband insisted on, but her grown son was coming over for dinner and he was on a no-carb diet. She was going to mash the cauliflower to tempt his palate with faux-mashed potatoes. The key point here is that this woman, who works out of her home, was making her family a pot roast dinner with a full menu of side dish options and it wasn’t even a special occasion. It was a Wednesday.
I also knew the woman in front of me in the checkout line. She unloaded 10 cartons of chicken stock onto the conveyor belt. She said it was to go with her homemade ravioli and added, apologetically, that she knew this was terrible. She looked as guilty as if she had been caught coming out of the back room at the video rental store with her arms full of porno DVDs.
I was so lost in wonder at the concept that all ravioli didn’t come in a can labeled “Chef Boyardee” it took me a minute to figure out what was so terrible. This woman (who works full time in her family’s business, has a teenager still at home and is helping raise her twenty-something’s baby) was afraid of being labeled a slacker for using store-bought chicken stock.
I solemnly promised under pain of torture to swear she had personally wrung the chicken’s neck for the broth.
After checking out I trudged to my car with turkey burgers and salad for dinner, and beef jerky for a snack. I was starving so I tore into the jerky as soon as I got in the car.
Correction: I tried to tear into it.
The jerky was in a thick, plastic bag heat-sealed above a resealable zipper. There was a little notch cut out of each side for opening and that’s where I ripped across. It removed a triangular piece of bag. I turned the bag over and tore at the notch on the other side with the same result. I now had a hill of fused plastic above the zipper part. The bag remained sealed.
I pulled at the sides in the middle of the bag, hoping to force the top apart. I pulled with all my strength but no go.
I gnawed at the side of the plastic triangle like a desperate beaver, hoping to get a new tooth-hold to grab and rip across. No help.
Apparently I had selected an Armageddon-proof jerky package. The bag itself was a test of survival fitness; if you couldn’t manage the simple task of opening this little, plastic bag, dammit, you did not deserve to survive. It would be the snack of choice come The Rapture.
I gave up on preserving the zip lock feature and dug around in my purse for a sharp object to use as a bayonet. The best I could find were house keys. There was a mere half-inch of product in the bottom of the bag so I stabbed into the big, empty space above it (contents may settle during shipment) and twisted madly. Turns out my keys aren’t very sharp. Note to self; sharpen keys.
That was when I lost it.
Guttural sounds rose from deep within me and erupted as I beat the bag against the dashboard. Some sounds were actual words which would have caused 9 out of 10 moms surveyed to wash my mouth out with soap. I retained enough self-control not to scream at the top of my lungs. I was parked at the edge of the lot, but a full-throttle scream might be overheard by the shopping public. It was more a hoarse whisper accompanied by tears of rage. I was utterly defeated.
Jerky – 1
Peg – 0
Obviously the jerky wasn’t the main issue; it was just the tip of the frustration iceberg.
For most women the end of the workday in the outside world marks the start of their other full-time job: caring for children, cooking, cleaning and running a household.
I know there are exceptions; there are stay-at-home dads and men who help out a lot – I get that. I’m not saying this is strictly a woman thing, but the fact is, it mainly IS a woman thing. Even the words we use illuminate a basic difference in attitude about household tasks – he’s babysitting or helping out; she’s living.
I grew up at the end of the modern women’s movement. Older women, fresh from the trenches, handed the new mandates to my generation when we came of age, like a shining gift on a silver platter.
“See what we did for you? You can have it all,” they said.
But they didn’t really mean “all.” They meant big, new, exciting experiences in the work and wider world. Hillary Clinton’s sneering comments about staying home and baking cookies were typical of the condescending attitude many women had at that time toward their stay-at-home sisters. The message underlying all of that empowerment was that you were a traitor to your sex and their sacrifices if you chose to be a homemaker. At least that’s the message I heard. It never occurred to me that raising children could be a serious career option for a serious, modern woman. I regret that.
They said we could now have it all, but at what cost?
Our new expectations were perfectly summed up by a perfume commercial that aired while I was in college. A seductress in a business-suit strutted across the screen brandishing a frying pan, and as she vamped she warbled:
“I can bring home the bacon,
Fry it up in a pan,
And never, ever let you forget you’re a man,
‘Cuz I’m a woman!”
It was always a woman’s job to fry up the bacon. That part wasn’t new. And heaven forbid we let him forget he’s a man; that was a given. But that wasn’t enough anymore. Oh, no. Thanks to the women’s movement, now we also had to go out and earn the money to buy the goddamn bacon before we cooked it.
This is a great advancement for women how, exactly?
I’m not blaming men for piling the load of new expectations upon us. We wanted to be able to do meaningful work, and rightly so. But we didn’t give anything up in our zeal to be Superwomen. The flip side of our great expectations was the lowering of expectations for men. The society-destroying concept that it was OK for a man to be merely the sperm donor and (I hate this term) baby daddy was still relatively foreign to us 35 years ago, but it gained traction with lighting speed.
I see young moms juggling jobs, home and kids (each of whom have their own Outlook calendar full of activities) and I wonder how they do it all. I wonder how I did it all. Why did I HAVE to do it all?
Life is much easier to manage now that my kids are grown, which is great because my energy level has sagged along with my body parts. But after 35 years I still ain’t doing so hot at living up to any of the great expectations that Enjoli woman seemed to have mastered. I’m not a gourmet chef, a captain of industry or a seductive sexpot. Never have been. The best I could ever manage in those subjects was a C+, and that’s only if we’re being graded on a curve. I feel like a failure, and I’m sick and tired of feeling that way.
Here’s hoping that things are better for the next generation.
I hope my daughters and their someday-partners will feel they have a real choice whether to parent or work or any combination thereof.
I hope they will truly share the joys and burdens of those choices.
I hope they will feel whole and worthy regardless of what they choose.
And I pray that, unlike many women of my generation, they cut themselves a hell of a lot of slack because they did their best.