This essay originally appeared in our monthly newsletter for The Mom Hour podcast. To get our emails, subscribe here. –Sarah
First, a little March pun for you:
My kids have loved this cartoon every year since they were about four. There’s something so fun about kids’ developing senses of humor, isn’t there? We are unapologetic wordplay enthusiasts over here.
I’ve started this essay a few different times, debating whether I should tell you about my #40DaysTo40 walking challenge, or about how we got hit with Influenza A, or maybe something comforting about the novel coronavirus. But you can see my walking photos on my Instagram (check the story highlight!), listen to Meagan and I talk about the flu in Episode 249, and read about how I deal with end-of-days anxiety in this essay from last summer.
So instead I want to tell you about Laurence, the french chef who catered my birthday dinner in February, and why I think motherhood is a little bit like an expertly cooked meal.
For my 40th birthday my parents and my husband hosted a dinner party for fifteen people, catered by a woman in her fifties who grew up in the North of France and came to California as an adult. In addition to creating the four-course meal, she also gave a demonstration in my parents’ kitchen that was one of the most memorable parts of the night.
Unlike a cooking class where attendees actually get their hands dirty and make a dish, Laurence was under no obligation to ensure that each of us could produce a finished meal. We were there only to watch, and to learn. She mixed anecdotal tips with classically trained technical instruction and some cool food science–and she talked while cooking and tasting and laughing and never once seemed remotely stressed or distracted. It lasted about 40 minutes (she edited what she chose to share, of course–this meal was hours in the creating), and it was amazing.
And then, about an hour later, we got to eat the finished dishes Laurence had so artfully explained. It was delicious, and all the more so for our deeper understanding of the work involved.
It made me think how easy it is to forget the level of expertise that goes into any product of creativity, love, and practiced confidence. We know that a stage performance involves hours of rehearsal, and that a novel represents crumpled drafts and many rounds of edits, but when we’re in consumption mode it’s easy to marvel at the finished product without really considering the thousands of little decisions that went into it.
Like emulsifying herbs in mustard and vinegar before adding the oil to a salad dressing. Or using a salt grain that compliments your protein in both size and flavor. Shopping from market vendors who grow in-season produce, and preheating a pan before putting anything in it. Many of the details Laurence talked about weren’t things most of us have time to incorporate into a weeknight dinner (although some absolutely were), but every single one of them contributed to the generally elevated experience of tasting the completed dishes later that evening. And getting to watch her measure, pour, eyeball, sear, baste, season, whisk and plate–WHILST CARRYING ON A CONVERSATION–was a great reminder of all the work we don’t see that goes into the stuff we love.
And I think parenting small children is a bit like this in a way, too. Those outside your home see a rather “produced” version of your family–the final plated dish, if you will: kids who are (usually) fully dressed and (mostly) functioning as members of society to the best of their ability (I acknowledge here that sand-throwing and drooling are acceptable social norms for certain age groups, so this is all relative). They may catch you on a good day or a really really bad one, but when the world at large encounters you and your children, they do so without comprehending the work going on behind the scenes.
And that behind-the-scenes work you’re doing? The work you do when the rest of the world isn’t watching, the hundreds of small decisions and clever shortcuts you employ in the name of raising an eventual adult or three? Like Laurence’s simple but incredibly thoughtful salad dressing, it’s where the good stuff happens. Your patient explanations and your sibling squabble mediation, the chore charts you design and the sleep training program you try really really hard to follow, the grapes you cut into quarters and the late-night behavior strategy sessions with your co-parent: these things matter.
So here’s an invitation for this month: Let’s assume the best about each other. Let’s appreciate the hard work going on behind the scenes, and the incredible time and effort being spent on the things that we enjoy–whether those things come in the form of art, food, literature, or (because let’s be honest it’s not easy) a Costco trip where nobody lost their mind. Because if I learned one thing from Laurence besides the thing about preheating the pans, it’s that understanding the hard work that goes into creating a thing of beauty makes it all the more beautiful.