“What’s the difference between homemade and store-bought food?” my older daughter’s teacher asked.
My little girl answered promptly: “Store-bought has a price sticker on it; you have to take the sticker off to make it home-made.”
But then, I never claimed to be a perfect mother. Oh, that’s what I thought I would be, for sure, but that was when I was a kid myself. I was going to dress my children up in cute outfits, talk to them, teach them, and play with them all the time.
Two days after my first baby was born, the nurse handed her to me and smiled.
“Now you can go home,” she said.
I stared at her. This woman actually trusted me with such a fragile thing? Was she crazy?
My baby was fun for about the first 10 minutes. Then she had to be fed and changed, and it became a whole different ball game. Only then did I realize that playing with a baby is entirely different from actually looking after it, like the difference between watching an elephant at the zoo and owning one. Between changing her, feeding her, changing her, bathing her, and changing her again, I was totally exhausted. Going from my self-centered world to a baby-centered life was traumatic.
After the first week, when we finally took the baby out, a stranger said, “Oh, he is so cute!”
“He is a she,” I blurted out. “The blue outfit was the only clean one left.” That was the beginning.
In life, some people take the high road, and some the low road. I always choose the one on which I can drive, or better yet, be chauffeured. Some people call this choice laziness, but I say that I like to conserve my energy. As a result, my in-box tends to be considerably more full than my out-box. I keep my children fed, clothed, and clean. But to be asked to bake cookies from scratch is cruel and unusual punishment.
In my opinion, the concept of a “Perfect Mom” is created by the media, with its advertisements and sitcoms. In the last century, the image of a perfectly coiffed, perfectly dressed woman (preferably wearing pearls) standing by the white picket fence to cheerily greet her children returning from school was the ideal in a not-so-ideal world. Since the turn of the century, the concept has changed. The other day, I saw an advertisement which showed a woman driving around a pack of 10–year olds to different after-school activities, while the voice-over told me that she was a career woman, too. The woman took a sip of soup from a can and smiled at the camera. If it had been me, that drink wouldn’t have been soup—and I wouldn’t have been smiling.
Reality is a woman trying to juggle music lessons, soccer practice, work, and household chores—without losing her mind. If she can make it to the end of the day without accidentally putting the house pet in the washer and the dirty clothes out on the porch, she is as close to perfection as she’ll ever get. Most of us women were born average, and grew up that way, too. To expect us to transmogrify into some homemaking goddess, or a whirling dervish of a Wonderwoman, just because we’ve had kids, is just plain absurd. And to want us, who are not used to making stuff from scratch, to start shunning store-bought goods and goodies …
Moreover, there exists a huge difference in perception between the maker (the adult) and the juvenile recipient when it comes to homemade versus store-bought. To the one who made it—i.e. the adult—a home-made item is priceless, because she invested time and effort into it that might have been spent watching sitcom reruns on TV with feet up and a coffee in hand, or better yet, napping. But in a child’s view, homemade is not actually as “cool” as the stuff s/he saw and liked at the store. To the child, the time invested is actually wasted; he/she could have played with it, used it, and discarded it, all in the time that the adult spent making it. Furthermore, to a child, having something made by the parent may raise expectations that s/he may find difficult to fulfill. For example, when I bake cookies (those frozen ones are always a good bet), I expect my children to: a) eat them; b) like them; c) publicly proclaim that Mom is a wonderful person and a good cook, too; and finally d) never forget the incident for the rest of their lives.
When it comes to cooking, especially baking, moms today cannot hope to compete with the flavor additives and preservatives that commercial establishments add to foods. This fact was brought home to me the other day when I actually baked muffins from scratch. In my defense, I have to state that the act was not premeditated, but happened on impulse. I was rummaging through the mess on my desk looking for an address, when I opened a folded paper that I had been using as a coaster. It contained a recipe for banana-nut muffins. I was about to get rid of it, when I remembered that there were a couple of venerable bananas at the bottom of the fruit bowl. I went to the pantry shelf, and sure enough, I had all the ingredients that were specified in the recipe. I even had a bag of walnuts. The “best before” date was a year ago, but weren’t nuts supposed to last forever? Anyway, our health insurance was paid up, so I dumped those walnuts in, too. I measured, added, mixed, and baked in a fit of righteous fervor. The end products smelled good and tasted great. I served them up for snack and stood back, waiting for the accolades to pour in.
“They don’t look like muffins,” said child A. True, they looked a little lumpy. I provided some whipped cream from a can. She shut up. But the other one stood defiant.
“It tastes different,” said child B, the older one. “It tastes … like its fresh or something.”
“It is,” I said through clenched teeth, trying to smile. Then I made the fatal mistake. “It is actually good for you.”
That did it. They balked like dogs getting heartworm pills. I had to threaten to take away TV time if they didn’t eat their warm-from-the-oven, homemade, banana-nut muffins. In the end, they promised never to forget the one time Mom made muffins from scratch, and in return, I had to promise never to do it again. I went back to using that recipe as a coaster.
The promise I made to my children that day was easily kept, but it bothered me. If you think the peer pressure that teens face regarding drinking and sex is intense, you should experience the pressures that mothers are subject to. At a birthday party for a friend of one of my tots, the birthday girl’s mother entertained the adults with tales of how she worked for days to personally make all the party food and decorations. During the recital, the dads went to sleep while the mothers listened with varying degrees of mortification. I tried to lighten the mood by turning to the woman sitting next to me and saying that for my child’s birthday cake, I had hand-hulled all-purpose grains to make the all-purpose flour. She said that there was no such thing as all-purpose grain. It turned out that she was the party hostess’ mother. I grabbed my child, she grabbed her goody-bag, and we both slunk home.
After this occasion, I figured out a way to keep my maternal self-esteem. The aim is to feel that you are a good mom even if you don’t go the extra mile; for this purpose, all you do is look for a mom who is far worse than you. For example, one of my child’s classmates once brought brownies to school for lunch. It may have been just a once in a lifetime slip on the part of that poor mother, but it was sufficient for me. As I, on the other hand, had sent my child my pièce de résistance—PBJ sandwiches—I was clearly a far better a mother. I looked no further.
Being a basic-model mother, I am also aware that I cannot expect my own kids to be deluxe-model children. I am reminded of a joke that I heard many years ago, in which a father compares his school-age son’s achievements to that of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Indian Prime Minister. When the child brings home average school grades, he says, “Why, at your age, Nehru used to top his class at Harrow.” When the child finishes last on the playground, he says, “Well at your age, Nehru was the top of his school sports.” Finally, after umpteen unfavorable comparisons, the child turns around and says, “Well, at your age, Nehru was the Prime Minister of India!” I agree with that child’s point of view: don’t expect anything of your child that you yourself haven’t managed to accomplish, and lower your expectations in what you have. I encourage my children’s interests, applaud their achievements, and drop gentle hints that I would love to be invited to the ceremony when they graduate with M.D.-Ph.D.s from Harvard Medical School, where my husband and I can stand with their successful Indian-American husbands and help entertain their cute first-born babies. No pressure, just subliminal messages. Of course, my kids are still in elementary school, so things may change a tad in the future.
Meanwhile, at last year’s Halloween party, the scene was eerily similar to that birthday party I described earlier, with that same “perfect” mom detailing the heights she had scaled to make her child’s costume from the scratch.
Said child was scratching herself and eyeing my daughter’s store-bought Cinderella costume, complete with unfinished hems and Velcro fastenings ($12.95 at Le Wale-Marte), with envy. I, the ultimate no-frills mom, just smiled.
|Lakshmi Palecanda is a biology research technician turned freelance writer in Bozeman, Montana. Email: palecanda [at] msn [dot] com|