The Way Women Work: Making Ahead

The Way Women Work: Making Ahead November 5, 2015

My freezer is almost empty.

I filled it up this summer, with several heroic days of freezer-cooking in late July. The only thing crazier than having the oven on for four days straight in the middle of June in the Deep South is what my life would be like right about now if I didn’t have some dinners in the freezer.

Copyright Sarah Sours. All rights reserved.
Image copyright Sarah Sours. All rights reserved.

I started the semester with fifteen full dinners, about twelve half-meals (main dishes needing a salad, sides needing a main, etc.), five batches of cupcakes, and a vague wish for a bigger freezer.

I began cooking for the school year right at the same time I began keeping record of my work hours–time spent doing research, writing, course redesign, answering student emails (yes, even over the summer!), and the like.  I’m not keeping track in order to hold it over on anyone; I just thought it would be interesting to be able to see what I work on when I work.*

I didn’t count “anticipatory meal prep” as work time, of course, since the domestic labor required for me to survive being a professional is not considered part of my profession.

Being an academic does tend to take over one’s whole life–trips to the grocery store suddenly become research opportunities, dinner night with friends reliably turns into Saving The World And Especially Higher Education night, and checking the kids’ homework feels like one more battle in the Great War, the War Against Ignorance and Complacency and The Worksheet-ification of Knowledge and Understanding, Dammit.

But making dinner still counts as mere women’s work, no matter which spouse is doing it. I was doing the researching and writing I don’t have time to do during the school year, and the pedagogical reading I don’t have time for, and the syllabus writing and the pre-reading and the multi-media-slide-making–and the homemaking. I was making these dinners so that I would have time to work during the school year.

I got really interested in the way making it possible for myself to work took up a lot of my non-work hours.

What interested me the most, once I began thinking about it, was the way I began hearing little stories I’d never heard before about how some of my working-women friends and family doing the same thing, especially the part about dealing with cooking so that their professional work didn’t impact their family’s meals.

I intend no sexism here, by the way, but I’ve only twice ever had a work-life balance conversation with a guy, and neither of them had anything to do with dinner-making.

Most of their strategies went beyond anything I had ever tried before (mostly because organization and I have a rather sketchy relationship).

Some women I know cook for the entire week every weekend to make weekday nights easier.

Some women I know have tried the once-a-month cooking thing, although I don’t know anyone who does it more than a few times.

One woman I know has her teenagers share the cooking when she has to work evening shifts. (I tried this, but my teenager up and graduated, and I haven’t had time to teach the eight-year-old to cook yet.)

But then the one that took the cake: one woman told me that she only discovered a few years ago that her mother, now a centenarian, used to cook every weeknight’s dinner the night before. She would come home from work, heat up the pre-prepared dinner in the oven (that’s those things people used before microwaves and slow cookers were invented), have it just ready when her husband came home from work, and then cook the next night’s dinner after everyone had finished eating.

Her family had no idea.

But that was what she had to do to justify being a working wife and mother. Asking her family to eat an hour later would have been unacceptable, to herself as well as to her family.

It wasn’t particularly burdensome–any more burdensome, that is, than any of the other “second shift” responsibilities women typically shoulder. But the way she described her felt obligations was revealing: having dinner ready when Dad got home was an obligation that her profession could not interfere with, and the cook-ahead strategy was how she made do. Her ability to make do in this way was what made it acceptable for her to work at all.

It’s such a strange tug-of-war our personal and professional lives are in. The zero-sum-game-ness of it all is hard to navigate.


*I’ve been using Toggl. Very convenient, and some nice visual tools even on the free version.

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