I grew up in a traditional family—mom, dad, rowdy brothers—and so I’m not sure where the idea came from, but I remember deciding at age twelve that, when I grew up, I would not be the one stuck doing dishes. I would certainly offer the world loftier ambitions than such an insipid task.
These days, I spend a fairly large part of my day in the kitchen with my hands wet, scrubbing and washing away food particles. I chuckle at my former abhorrence of the task, but not bitterly. It might actually be that my doing the dishes helps save the world. Please allow me to explain.
When I first started to live independently, true to my convictions, I refused to do dishes for days at a time, until it really needed doing. Gross, but true. I ate out whenever I could afford it and relied on processed foods to tide me over. I had always wanted to learn how to cook, but I recoiled from the duty of cleaning up thereafter. So I limited my culinary delights to Raisin Bran and microwavable pot pie.
I wasn’t especially happy with my diet. The church of my childhood had hosted huge annual Greek festivals, and amid roasting souvlaki and creamy tzatziki, food had taken on a spiritual dimension. In my head, I could see and experience the divine in every bite of homemade baklava. Worse, I had also spent time studying in Lyon, France—the gastronomical capital of the world—and couldn’t easily forget the smells and tastes of Rue Mercière.
So, after coming home to dinners like box mac ’n’ cheese for awhile, I started to feel exactly like the meal—pasty, processed, and mostly empty. And vaguely disappointed with myself.
While rinsing a pot out once, my dad tossed me a towel. I sighed in mock dismay before I obliged him in drying and putting away the dishes. It’s a secret pleasure, this time with me and Dad in the kitchen. He told dad-jokes, and I pretended to wince, but really grinned inside. Dad was in on the joke, but I imagined the version of myself that hated doing dishes glowered at the scene.
It was the holidays, and I was home visiting my parents. Underneath the pleasantries, I faced a growing anxiety. My baby was almost two, and I had no idea how to feed him. He still guzzled a huge quantity of breast milk every day and refused to wean. My ability to cook was limited to either “desperate measures” or “I googled a fancy recipe and bought a bunch of weird ingredients to make it.” I got a cookbook for babies, but I felt like I was forcing it on him. Throwing away his rejected food felt like failing him, and I was doing it every day. And the problem was growing—I now had a second child to feed as well.
I watched nervously as he took his first bite of the holiday feast. He gobbled up everything, ravenous for peas and gravy. Despite my relief, I felt a sinking sensation. The solution to our problem with his appetite seemed apparent: I just had to make more homemade food. I had to get busier in the kitchen.
A month later—just as I resolved to voluntarily roll up my sleeves and work harder to make good food for the family, the universe sent me the bill. Within the same week, we suffered pink eye, scarlet fever, a husband in the hospital for an emergency operation—and a dishwasher that broke. A DISHWASHER THAT BROKE! The irony was not lost on me as I seethed back at the universe, “That’s not very funny.”
But I gritted my teeth, read a helpful book on feeding kids, and began a long, slow-growing process that, indeed, has helped my son, and all our kids for that matter, develop a healthy and easy relationship with food.
Meanwhile, the biggest transformation—my own—had nothing to do with food, or kids, or anything domestic. Personally, during that period, I learned a deeper truth about suffering. I had feared what I thought was humiliating domestic toil and came to see that we can’t actually escape suffering the weight of this life—the necessary pain of existence into which we are all initiated at birth. In avoiding kitchen work, I had inadvertently set up a developmental hindrance for my baby—his trouble weaning—all in exchange for the emptier reward of unappetizing processed foods.
But if I tried, I could learn better.
It’s the meta-learning here that crystallized into a gem of wisdom for me. It took me at least a dozen attempts before I started to figure out how to bake a simple loaf of bread. Yet, as I gnawed on the crust of yet another flop, I began to see that suffering kitchen work—or really any kind of work—is a state of mind, and not measurable in terms of elbow grease. It’s the same lesson that anyone learns in any field when they apply themselves to a goal that seems daunting at first, yet yields gradually to their resolve. The joy of achieving a long-term goal more than compensates for the pain of investing in one. In general, choosing to suffer a bit up front for a better reward later helps us navigate our lives with a sense of control and purpose, and without the disasters that come from impulsive gratification. I found this to be true for the following reasons.
Suffering enables learning.
It’s right to want to reduce suffering in others. But when we find ourselves suffering in ways that are unavoidable, suffering can be a door to learning. At least, it can be for those who are willing to open themselves to the experience.
For years, cooking for my family overwhelmed me on a daily basis. Apparently children must be fed multiple times every day. Every single day. I know it may seem small to some, but it was not for me. But I persevered and knew that any costs would be worthwhile if only I could get closer to my goal of giving my kids the sort of home I wanted them to have.
The inner transformation to which I gradually yielded during these long hours in the kitchen with sopping wet hands, echoed in other areas of my life as well. I had, at first, feared mothering because of the physical suffering involved. My body swelled up to the point of painfully ripping—here, there, everywhere—during my pregnancies and births. But was my body so damaged that I couldn’t enjoy sports and dancing again? Decidedly not.
More importantly, was happiness found in a body aging without a damage report? We all cherish those sentimental trinkets, those never-lit fragrant candles on the shelf, but it is a dusty existence. The challenges of motherhood could hurt, but my broken body seemed mightily pleased with itself. I can just see it, standing in a Peter Pan pose, beaming with pride at the five babies it hugged, fed, and loved so fiercely that I could almost pop.
Seeing suffering for what it really is
I began to see the cost of serving my family in a more positive light. If we want our children to learn how to solve the larger problems of the day—and we have so many desperate problems nowadays, from volatile social unrest, to addiction epidemics, to oceans full of trash—then we need to teach them how to solve the smaller problems that encumber life first. The simple ones, like how to get up in the morning and brush our teeth, how to put socks in the hamper, how to do our homework, how to keep trying even when we feel overwhelmed and discouraged. Even the smallest act of improving the world contributes to the ultimate good, and the good things we teach our children multiply exponentially as they grow into adults and flex their grown-up muscles to solve grown-up problems and clean up grown-up messes.
I now see domestic toil isn’t toil at all: it’s the act of parents creating a social learning platform, wherein kids get to create, explore, and start the business of life—solving problems, day by day. And the meals I cook and clean up aren’t mere nutrients; they are acts of affirmation, my way of witnessing to my kids over and over the power of learning, “You’ve got this kid; even broccoli can taste amazing if you are willing to put in the effort!”
In this way, like childbirth, the dishwasher has taught me that there are goals worthy of a good strain. And as my dad had gently taught me as he whistled cheerfully over the sink, a good attitude helps lighten the load. Merely being willing to try, day by day, opens one up to learning all that is necessary to reach a better solution (while always continuing to seek one that is better still). Over a decade of trying to feed my family well has made me infinitely more relaxed and confident than I was at first. When my kids praise my latest culinary achievement, such as their father’s birthday cake, I ruffle their hair and grin. If the learning curve holds steady, just wait till I’m old enough to be a grandma.
Now, eating together is the highlight of our family’s day, and I often spend long hours working up to it, from bone broth stews to sourdough breads, to a special dessert made from wild-foraged fruits for our Sunday potluck. Some might be alarmed to find me in my kitchen late at night, gearing up for a dinner party the next day, but I’m an old soldier now; the work has become so light. I know my own strength, and it’s a gift I love giving.
Twenty-five years later, and my twelve-year-old self has grown up and learned a thing or two. These hands are getting rough and worn out from all the work they do. I generally can’t wear bandaids on the cuts and burns that accompany kitchen work because they get plunged into a wet sink within the hour. But my hands also serve things like homemade brioche, hummus, and stroganoff. Though I initially dreaded scullery service as an odious and humiliating task, I’ve come to discover it as part of my life’s work—neither especially glorious nor odious but merely the best I can to help make the world a better place. And, as I’ve come to learn, the rewards of such service taste a bit like heaven.