05/07/2013 05:00 pm ET Updated Jul 07, 2013

(Happy) Home Economics

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The other day was a bad Sunday. I think they call it "generalized anxiety," where it feels like just as you get your head above water another wave comes crashing down. Sundays can be like that for me. Hard to catch my breath. My days off leave me without specific projects to accomplish, and perhaps some head space for those "what ifs" to circle my mind. I've decided I'm not very good at weekends. Rather than cherishing rare moments of relaxation while the kids were entertaining themselves, I focused on scrubbing every inch of my kitchen. Every. Inch. Apparently, my compulsive cleaning/self-soothing isn't uncommon (I asked a few friends and my collected data points to me being normal). As I obsessed over crumbs and little things stuck to random places, I was reminded of a book I read for class last semester, Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century by Laura Shapiro.

Shapiro gives a history of what became Home Economics and how the suburban housewife of the mid 20th century became an American ideal. She draws a roadmap of how women ended up needing nothing short of a revolution to make systematic changes to the political, economic and social policies that they were inadvertently a part of creating. Her thesis rests on a compelling case that women at the turn of the century felt collectively a bit lost. Skills that were once in their domain were suddenly outsourced to the world of manufacturing. America began to industrialize and corporatize the woman's role in the home. What was once mended and repurposed at home became disposable and replaceable. And as boundaries between home life and work life were strengthened, invisible walls that separated the outside "man's world" from the inner womb of the home (women's domain) became taller and insurmountable. Women were left to consider how they could fit into this new order of things.

Women have always tiptoed the fine line between saint and witch, nurturer and nagger. But at the turn of the 20th century -- with a "new" world that valued productivity, efficiency, precision, and sterility -- that line got thinner and more precarious. Over the next 40-50 years, the less control women felt, the more comfort we sought in little boxes of gelatin, little boxes in which to live, little boxes of anything that would help us stay thin, stay calm, stay controlled. Or at least look in control. Frozen dinners, microwaves, packaged cookies, mixes, fixes and an array of kitchen helpers took the country by storm. They made women's work more precise and and gave them more predictable outcomes. This meant when the husbands came home, their rosy-cheeked children smelled like soap and their lovely wives could be at the door with a scotch and slippers. The unease that faced these women, the collective loss of grip, caused them to look for new ways to remain relevant. The scaffold of home economics, which was meant to give us stability in a new world, became the very structure that caged us in, economically, emotionally and otherwise. Of course that was never the plan.

Social movements tend to start with those individuals who have the time and resources to even consider class structure or public policy. In many instances, 20th century movements have been propelled by the "mommies;" educated, well to-do-enough middle class women. In the case of the "Domestic Science" movement, these women were determined to find their place among the "institutions of industry, commerce and education," and unknowingly ended up subjugating themselves (and generations to come) to those very institutions.

Despite the fact that cooking is less gendered today, and women are integrated in the corporate world, I think Shapiro's hypothesis holds true in 2013. The difficulty can be summed up rather quickly: When women are trying to make an inherently uncontrollable world controllable, we are doomed to feeling inadequate. The world of food and children, of humans and our needs is not easily reduced to one-size-fits-all rules and formulas. Add jobs outside of the home, and the pressure of simply keeping it all together, and we're setting ourselves up for a cocktail of guilt and resentment. Anyone who tries to tell us otherwise is either selling something or kidding herself.

Life is messy, and painful, and the more we cling to the way we 'should' cook, or care for our homes, or raise our children, or relate to our spouse the more we're met with disappointment, feelings of inadequacy and primarily fear. We stop sharing our insecurities with each other, we stop empathizing with our children and others because it doesn't fit in with our plastic vision of what a 'happy, healthy' home looks like and a vicious cycle is created because we all become unhappier and unhealthier. Perfection Salad isn't just the ubiquitous mold of gelatin of the 1950s; it's a metaphor for what we see today when we watch shiny, happy people on TV or read about them in magazines, or even when we get to drop-off and glance at a mother who looks like she has it all together.

Shapiro uses the word emptiness several times throughout the book, and I think my scrubbing on Sunday was my way of filling that emptiness. It's not empty per se, its just a feeling that I'm not doing well enough by some ambiguous standard I'm not quite sure why I hold myself to. I guess what will really fill that hole is accepting imperfection, letting myself get messy and raw and spicy again. Because what happens in our bodies is what happens in our kitchen: the more we suppress the real stuff, the more we lose our connection to ourselves, each other, and the true source of our sustenance.