The first time I was tasked with preparing a meal for the rest of my family, I was nine. My parents had made the choice that they were going to homeschool all (at the time) four of their children and we started when I was preparing to make the transition from kindergarten to first grade. When I turned nine right around the start of our school year, my (at the time) youngest sibling was finally of an age that she needed to begin initial education, the sibling between us was just starting first grade, I was in third grade, my elder brother was in fifth grade, and my mother was just beginning to realize that she wasn’t capable of doing all of the housekeeping, schooling, and childrearing while my father was at work. Given that she had a number of children, she did what anyone else would do and continued the process she’d started years prior of offloading responsibility for some of that work to her children. Unlike most families of a similar size, the work wasn’t given to the eldest child or evenly distributed between children according to their abilities, but almost all of it was given to the most responsible child. Me.
Which isn’t to say none of my siblings did anything around the house. We all had a scattering of weekly and daily chores we did, meted out by our mother via a chore chart she put on the fridge every week, ostensibly in exchange for our allowance. Things like setting the table, wiping the table after dinner, loading the dishwasher, sweeping the floor, picking up a specific room, and so on. Simple chores, easy enough for any child tall enough to reach the sink or use a broom, that were shared between us via the chore chart for my entire time living with my parents. Still, it was not difficult to notice that I was the only child tasked with preparing lunch for the entire family.
Since my mother had realized I woke up at five every morning (even then I never slept much more than eight hours at a time) when she found me breaking our family’s video game time rules so I could enjoy Donkey Kong 64 without interference from my brother or younger siblings, she’d started waking up at that time as well and giving me my daily school lessons. I’d be done by the time my other siblings woke up for breakfast and then finished with my assignments by eleven, so she also assigned me the task of preparing lunch for everyone. This way, she could get an extra thirty minutes of lesson time in before the day was interrupted by lunch. And to keep me busy, of course. Idle hands are the devil’s plaything, after all, as I’d proven by trying to enjoy some time to myself in the mornings.
After a couple months of successful lunch preparation, including branching out into various warmed and easily cooked foods instead of the usual coldcuts and leftovers we’d enjoyed prior to my assignment as school cook (which is an editorialization on my part, since my parents never framed this or anything else I’m about to mention as anything other than normal “helping around the house” type work), I began a short period of cooking lessons. Which were, of course, framed as helping my mother prepare dinner. And eventually clean up from dinner. When it was clear that I could handle a few basic meals, easy baking tasks, and knew what it meant to properly wash the dishes, suddenly I found the chore chart expanded to include a few new entries. I had the daily chore of making lunch and, one or two times a week, making dinner. There were also a new series of chores sorted by age categories that meant my brother and I were now sharing more after-dinner kitchen clean up tasks with our parents.
What I noticed as a result of this process was that my brother never aged into chores. I did and then he was added in at the same time, despite enjoying two years of not needing to do that chore before we began to share it. The only exception was mowing the lawn, but that’s a bit of a special case because it was a weird masculinity thing in my house since my father, who is the biological source of my grass allergy, always mowed the lawn even though my mother was perfectly capable of doing so herself and not allergic like my father and I. So we both started doing lawn care the week we turned thirteen, which was notable because it was the only time my brother did a chore before I started doing it. At that point in time, it was more surprising to see him tasked with something before I was than to find myself being taught how to do a “good job” according to my parents sensibilities so that I could make up for the poor job my older brother would be doing when it was his turn to do the chore in question.
This was one of the many aspects of my childhood that I took note of but never really felt any which way about. Part of that was just me attempting to survive my childhood, but part of it was me lacking any other context. For instance, despite the firm gender roles and assignments handed down by my parents, we never had any concept of “women’s work” because my mother frequently tasked me with cooking, cleaning, sewing (admittedly mostly limited to my own clothing and stuffed animal repair needs), and cargiving chores. It wasn’t until I was in college (and had stopped thinking of my parents’ house as my “home”) that I realized that the idea of “women’s work” wasn’t just a cartoonish pasitche of regressive villainy. Finally coming into contact with lives that were undeniably different from my own was what it took to cease the unquestioning acceptance of my lived experience as fairly normal for my ethnicity and socio-economic station.
Eventually though, after this awakening and the many examples of other ways of living I found once I knew to look for them (some of which were helped along by the supportive, patient, and wonderful professors in my many cross-listed English Literature and Women’s and Gender Studies classes), I tried to figure out how I felt about this. It wasn’t until my senior year when I wrote about Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room that I took my first really step forward in figuring out how I felt about that sort of domestic labor distribution beyond the basic “this is clearly not fair” feelings I’d harbored all along. The first of two major papers I wrote for that class took a close look at the way that the value placed on domestic labor and how it was shared between people living together could be read as a metaphor for the equality and inclusivity of everyone involved. Reading back over that paper now, it is clear to see the feelings I couldn’t quite pin down or even properly put to words in my therapy sessions burbling beneath the surface. About my place in my parents’ household, about the roles assigned to me, and about my own (at the time) supressed identity and sense of self.
As I wrote the above paragraphs, I was standing next to the remnants of my dinner. A container showing the red stains of tomato-based pasta sauce as the only evidence it had been packed to the brim with leftover ravioli and tortellini smothered in a sauce I’ve known how to prepare for more than two-thirds of my thirty-one years. The first of five such containers that still graced my refrigerator this morning because it wasn’t until after I’d prepared and mixed up everything that I realized I could have cooked for just myself. I could have prepared only part of the tortellini and ravioli. Or prepared just a part of one of the two types of pasta rather than part of both. Instead, I cooked for a group of people I haven’t had to take care of in thirteen of the twenty-two years since I first learned to prepare this particular recipe.
Only recently, as I reflect on my childhood while preparing any of the various dishes I’ve grown to love in portions meant to feed a family of seven, do I see these memorized recipes and ingrained cooking habits as signs of the unequal, abusive, and neglectful relationships that formed the core of my childhood home. Only now, as I reflect on my relationship with my parents, my own identity, and my sense of self, do I explicitly think of how the way that I was tasked with domestic and emotional labor shaped me in ways that I’m just beginning to understand.
I feel like I should feel the need to console myself as I wrap up this blog post. Like I should need to prove to myself and whoever is reading this that I am capable of taking care of myself in a way that isn’t accidentally or incidentally included in taking care of other people. After all, it’s not every day that I realize just how bad I am at taking care of myself in a way that radically alters my thinking. The thing is, I’m not uncomfortable with that idea. Like I’ve said, I think I always knew even if I never explicity realized what it meant. I think that finally being able to put all of this into words, to be able to realize what all of this represents as I stare each morning at leftovers I’m going to have to force myself to eat every day if i want to prevent them from going to waste, is a sign of progress. Maybe not a watershed moment, but definitely a step in the right direction. I think the first thing I’m going to do to prove this to myself is make a much smaller batch of sauce. Once I’m not sick of eating it every day, anyway.