How My Boyfriend’s Home Cooking Made Me Question My Womanhood
“Are you ready for lunch?”
My boyfriend Roberto peeks his head into my office.
“Yeah. Give me a minute.”
“No computers!” He yells from the kitchen.
Five minutes later, I successfully unplug my technology IV and join Beto in the kitchen where he is waiting with a bowl in his hands. I sit and he lifts the napkin on the mystery bowl to reveal twelve handmade empanadas, reaching behind him to grab the fresh salsa.
“You made these?!?” I gasp, delicately lifting a steaming pastry from the pile and examining it.
I crane my neck to find flour in the corner or veggie shrapnel on the floor—the love notes I always leave when I spend time in the kitchen—but the place is damn near exquisite.
“–you only started cooking a few minutes ago! Why didn’t you ask for my help?”
“Well, you were concentrating so I didn’t want to bother you.”
“I don’t want to eat it, I just want to look at it.” I stroke my empanada with two fingers. “I want to frame the damn thing! It’s beautiful!”
“Don’t worry, baby.” He winks. “One day I’ll teach you how to cook.”
We laugh. I pout.
“It would probably take me, uh, five hours to do this.” I spot a gleaming white pot on the drying rack. “You even did the dishes?!?”
This summer, I moved across the world to a small city in northwest Germany to be with Beto and help him with his transition back to our home in southern Mexico, where we met two years ago. The plan was I would work at home, growing my web design and writing business while Beto finished up his contract with a local company. Everything would be 50/50 from bills to housework. We logged hundreds of Skype hours mapping out every idyllic detail of life in our love nest: Beto and I wake up at 4:30 AM so he can make the morning shift, I whip up something delightful and we sip coffee together before he runs for the train and I start my work day—occasionally toting my computer with me to a sidewalk café or an enormous Germany library for the morning—then I meet Beto in the city square and we spend the late afternoon together, strolling hand in hand as the sun sets behind us, my head on his shoulder.
Mmm. That sounds nice.
In the real world, I arrived in Germany in the midst of a work blitz. There would be no sunset strolls, delightful predawn breakfasts, or coffee-sipping in matching terrycloth robes. Oh, and no enormous German libraries, either. Just months of sixteen hour days in my pajamas, eating ravioli out of a can. With Beto home for half the day, he naturally started picking up my slack—taking over the laundry, scrubbing the toilet, manning the kitchen. I tried to get involved but Beto sent me back to my office: “You should focus on work.”
I felt like I was living inside a greeting card with some shirtless, apron-wearing stud that opens up to say, “Happy birthday! Let me take care of everything!” I had found the holy grail of guys: a sensitive, thoughtful, supportive man who cheerfully volunteered his help around the house when I’m swamped with my small business. So why was I pouting?
Simple. I felt effeminated.
Popular discussion on women’s roles in the world and the workplace has long examined the question of whether equality might effectively imperil a man’s masculinity. We call it emasculation: the idea that one can be less of a man when he performs—or fails to perform—certain activities. I’d call it patriarchy wrapped in a bright blue “It’s a boy!” bow. As a feminist, what some call the “emasculation of the modern man,” I call a social shift in which we all must necessarily adapt to living in a culture where men and women are not categorically defined as either muscles or mothers. Yet, until I was staring down a plate of my boyfriend’s steaming empaneled, I never fully understood how much patriarchal punch I’d sampled myself.
We hear about men feeling threatened or out of place when their female partners earn more money or bench press more pounds but what about women feeling like pathetic fools when their male partners bake prize-winning pies and put their laundry records to shame? I wasn’t prepared for this.
As I watch Beto spoon his salsa onto the fattest empanada on his plate, suddenly everything I ever learned about what it means to be, not just a woman, but a “good” woman, starts taunting me. Aren’t I supposed to be the one making masterpieces in the kitchen—even if it is only occasionally? Shouldn’t I be the one to roll my eyes at his mopping technique or how he folds his sweaters? Isn’t it I who’s supposed to flutter around the house, tidying up for the dinner party tonight? And if I don’t do those things, will Beto find someone who will? The sound of a record screeching abruptly echoes through the house.
What am I thinking?!? For all my big fancy feminist talk about transforming gender roles and re-thinking what we consider “masculine” and “feminine” activities or traits, here I am questioning my own femininity over a plate of empanadas. Not only have I unwittingly absorbed the idea that to be a woman is to be a chef, a decorator, and a domestic goddess, I’m worried that my failure to be all those things might make me less lovable to a man.
When relationships and roles shift, whether it’s in our family or our society, we’re bound to feel a little lost in transition. That’s what emasculation—or effemination, in my case—is at its core, the sensation that, with this change, we’ll be misplaced and the fear that we will be replaced. For centuries, men and women have lived by the law of blue and pink, work and home, muscles and mothers. It’s not working. But, as we push away from the familiarity and false security of our traditions, many of us—men and women—are afraid of who exactly we will be in the new world. And, more importantly, if we will be useful, valuable, lovable.
“Babe, are you…disappointed…that your girlfriend sucks at housework? I mean, I could never make empanadas like these.”
“Rach, you are a genius at what you do. If you were just some girl who cooks and cleans for me, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with you. Plus, I love to cook. So I guess we’re both lucky.”
And there you have it. I’m not the woman of stovetop masterpieces or neatly ironed curtains—that’s my boyfriend’s thing—though neither one of us is necessarily defined by those activities. Sure, when we’re at home, I’m the organizer and checkbook balancer, he’s the tidy upper and empanada-maker. But I’m also the idea activator, the project animator, the joke teller, the silly song inventor and he’s the action planner, the task manager, the spontaneous salsa dancer, the champion cuddler. We’re figuring out that whole 50/50 thing and I’m learning how to live out my feminism in times of transition, even in the face of unforeseen circumstances i.e. finding a partner who walks the walk of gender equality and challenges me to continue examining the talk I talk.
Roberto was right, we are lucky. And the empanadas are delicious.
Written by Rachael Kay Albers
Check out her art and activism blog!