I love our house, but I hate our kitchen. It’s not a secret, when we bought the house we knew we’d have to do something about it eventually. The house was built in the 1930’s, but the kitchen has been redone. Somewhat. The last time I believe was in the 1980’s, judging by the age of the appliances. Besides the old appliances, and the small space, it has cornflower blue formica counters and blue speckled lineoleum that, no matter how many times it gets swept, mopped, or cleaned, looks dirty.
I am not a cook by nature. Somedays I want to be one. Somedays I just think I should be one, because it’s very hip and healthy to make your own everything. I even subscribe to a blog that is teaching me how to make and can everything from scratch- ketchup, salad dressing, jelly, chicken broth, you name it. It’s all Little House on the The Prairie chic, and I’m mesmerized. So far, I only look at the pictures. I’ve yet to actually attempt to make my own anything. Though I did notice where they sell the jars to put all of the stuff I might make into. Because that’s a big step, actually buying all of the jars to put all of the stuff into.
But I digress. Point is, I don’t cook. I don’t spend happy hours in my kitchen. Nobody gathers in my kitchen. And I blame it on the blue kitchen. It’s so uncomfortable and un-user friendly. There’s no where to properly chop vegetables. There’s nowhere for O to be. There’s nowhere for someone, a friend or neighbor or the Husband, to hang out and chat with me while I chop. There’s no TV, so I can’t cook while watching Diane Sawyer and my glass of wine like I’ve always envisioned. But one day, after we knock down some walls and put in some proper colored counters, then I will finally be able to be the kitchen goddess that I want to be. Or at least cook dinner more often.
I attended a screening of a recent documentary film called “Race To Nowhere” last week at our local elementary school. The filmmaker, a former lawyer turned mother of three, decided to make this film after watching her kids suffer stress-related illnesses due to the ever expanding pressures and expectations of getting good grades, building up your transcript, and getting into a good college.
O is only twenty months old, and I’ve already had multiple conversations about schools. On the playground and at lunch, the moms bat around the pros and cons of public versus private, of when is the best time to push them, of when they should be reading, and so on. O is still mastering the use of a fork. He is pretty dedicated and the food makes it to his mouth on most tries, but he still makes a huge mess. He still poops in his pants and needs my help to put on his shoes. As far as I can tell, his favorite things are: trucks, cars, trains, squirrels, cheese, mama, dada, and baths. And yet here we are, looking at him and evaluating Who He Will Be. The other mothers and I discuss these things as if we have any idea of what we are talking about. Based on his hobbies at his age, he’ll either be a truck driver, garbage man, zookeeper, Whole Foods cheese specialist or a deep sea diver. You can see how there is little correlation to what a toddler likes and what he’ll eventually be like.
All toddlers like to see how things work, are “into” music, and are at turns unafraid explorers and shy clingy kids that need to hold our hands to do anything. To actually determine what kind of students our kids will be is pretty impossible at this age. And yet, we still do it. We want the best for our kids, we don’t want them to be left behind or left out. The Husband and I have discussed O’s probable strengths and weaknesses tons of times, mostly in that fun way that parents daydream about their kids, while he is still unformed and full of potential. It’s part of the joy of being a parent, watching him develop skills and talents and his own little personality. But what are we passing down to them? What are we teaching them about what’s important in life and their value as human beings? If all we focus on is success and being the best, what are we telling them if they aren’t perfect?
One moment in particular struck me in the film. A young boy, maybe sixteen, was discussing the pressures and the messages he was receiving from his parents and teachers. He said (I’m paraphrasing) that he was working as hard as he could, staying up late doing homework, going to school, doing sports so he could put it on his transcript, joining activities, taking tests and being scheduled for every minute of his childhood- so he could get into a good college, then get a good job and then buy a big house, so that ultimately, he could be happy. He exhaled heavily as he said the word “happy”, as if just the thought of it was too exhausting to contemplate.
Ultimately? This sixteen year old kid, already weary, is waiting till he can buy a big house to be happy. The look on his face was the one that I saw everyday practicing law. The face that I saw when the bravado and the snark and the confidence slipped, when the pressure and the responsibilities and the never-ending race to bigger and better and more overcame them. An empty face.
We all do this. We aren’t happy. But instead of figuring out why we aren’t happy and taking active steps to change our unhappiness into happiness, we put it off onto something else. When we get into that college, get that great job, get a promotion, buy a new car, can afford those Christian Louboutins, after we’ve been to France and Greece and Hawaii, once we finally meet the right guy, get that ring on our finger, have a glorious wedding, get a dog, buy a house, have a kid, get some sleep, have another kid, buy a second home, maybe retire. Then. Then, ultimately, we will be happy.
The crazy thing is that we all absolutely know this isn’t true. We know shoes and promotions and houses and kids, in and of themselves, don’t make us happy. Those things can provide great moments (the shoes), great memories (the vacations) great love (the kids) but they aren’t magic, this isn’t a fairy tale, and they don’t instantly transform you into a happy person. Nobody in their right mind actually believes that a house will make you happy. But we still put it off. We don’t think a house will make us happy. We think, well, our kitchen is too small and too blue and I can’t cook the way I want to cook and there’s nowhere for O to be, and it’s making me unhappy. So when I redo our kitchen and it’s bright and airy and open, when I can cook dinner with a glass of wine while watching the ABC nightly news with O sitting at the island coloring, then I will be happy. Until then, I hate this kitchen and I’ll never be happy in it.
We don’t face the fact that actually the reason we are unhappy in the kitchen is because we are trying to do too much. Because we work too much and have very little time in the kitchen and don’t really cook, but we think we should, we think our families should be spending all of these wonderful hours in our kitchens, cooking healthy organic sugar-free meals and singing songs together and having this perfect family life that we envisioned back when we thought we’d be happy when we got the house and the kid. I blame Gwyneth Paltrow, but that’s another post.
I quit my job last week. I don’t know if I will return to work full-time, part-time or at all. I don’t know if I get another job if I will be able to find a better balance. What I do know is that this past week, I’ve been much happier in my terrible blue kitchen. There still isn’t enough room and the appliances are still old and there is nowhere for O to be. And yet, I’ve managed to make a few meals in that terrible kitchen. Ok, so they aren’t gourmet and they aren’t totally organic and I’m sure there’s some processed stuff in there, but still. I wasn’t stressed from work, wasn’t worrying about spending too little time with O, my mind wasn’t racing ahead to what else I needed to do. I just enjoyed the moment. I listened to some Willie Nelson. I watched O push his little cars around our old linoleum floor. He didn’t seem to mind it was ugly and perpetually dirty. Instead of boiling instant pasta, I made lime-cilantro chicken and fresh sweet corn. I cut up vegetables for a salad, actually noticing how vibrant the colors were, the canary yellow bell pepper nestled against the icy white cucumber and the dark blood-red of the tomatoes.
Obviously I am not saying we should all quit our jobs. There is value in hard work and school and jobs and making money and buying houses. But it isn’t the only value in life. I watch O and he’s so happy. I want him to hold on to that happiness. I want him to find something he loves in life. Something that brings him satisfaction, but also something that allows him to have a life. I don’t want him to wait for “ultimately”.
There is so much pressure to be a kid today, but there is also so much pressure to be a parent. How much do we push? How do we teach our kids that they have to work hard, meet deadlines and do their homework, but yet allow them to be individuals and find their own paths, show them that play time is just as important as hard work?
I don’t know. I do know that O mimics every little thing we do. I do know that he’s watching us and looking for us to show him what life is all about. The only I can think of to do is to live the life that I want him to live. To sink into the life that I have now, and stop waiting for things, other things, to “make” me happy. To find a way to make what I love to do my job. To put down my new I-phone and pay attention to him and not have to do five things at once. To encourage him to question and play and explore. To stop waiting for “ultimately”.