Friday, June 14, 2024

The Merry Divorcee

It’s almost a new literary genre: Tales of the Merry Divorcee. Apparently, divorce is all the rage-- but, why do we think that this is new?-- and memoirists like Lyz Lenz are proclaiming, to one and all, that it was the best decision they ever made.

In the Lenz case, she had to divorce because of her appalling husband. There is nothing new about this. In modern divorce memoirs the husband is always at fault. 

It is better for her flagging self-esteem if her husband was incapable of appreciating what a wonderful wife she was. And thus, that she had no choice but to bolt.

Lenz wrote her plaintive wail about cooking for men in Glamour magazine several years ago. I make no apologies for failing to keep up with the latest in that august publication. Still, better late than never.

Anyway, in the matter of cooking for her husband, not to mention her children, Lenz was the perfect wife. She was the Platonic archetype of wifely perfection. She put more time and effort into cooking meals than the average restaurant chef does. And yet, sad to say, her family did not appreciate her travails.

Her children did not respond to gourmet meals. Her husband was the breadwinner and strangely decided that he needed to grade her culinary output.

She felt underappreciated and eventually quit. The children did not know the difference. Her marriage dissolved into a divorce.

I stopped cooking because I wanted to feel as unencumbered as man walking through the door of his home with the expectation that something (everything) had been done for him. I wanted to be free of cutting coupons and rolling dough and worrying about dinner times and feeding. I wanted to rest. To be just like him and sit with the kids and play. I wanted to lie on the couch and watch Curious George and snuggle tiny arms, tiny hands. I wanted to watch TV or order in. Or forget dinner and have popcorn instead. So I did.

He didn’t stop asking what was for dinner until I moved out.

A woman who hates herself for being a woman. What a strange notion. Of course, Lenz does not want to stay at home, even though she is staying at home. She has no real awareness of what her husband is doing out in the world all day. She merely resents him for not participating in food preparation.

It almost feels like she is playing to the feminist peanut gallery. She is a writer and wants women to read her verbal ramblings. How better to do so than to explain how she became enlightened about toxic male chauvinism? How better to do so than to show herself gaining advanced feminist consciousness, while blowing up her marriage.

Now, take a deep breath and reconsider her strategy. Aside from the obvious fact that most men, and even children, do not expect or need or want gourmet cooking every dinner, we recognize that her performance was worthy of a restaurant, but not a home.

Here is the problem. If you feel like you are eating in a restaurant, you might feel like a restaurant critic. And you will do what Lenz’s sometime husband did-- you will rate the performance. Otherwise, you will be waiting for the bill to be served up. 

Dining in a restaurant does not feel like dining at home. It does not feel like you have a home. It feels like you are indulging decadent pleasures, going above and beyond the purpose of the ritual. 

Family dinners are designed to produce group cohesion. They allow all family members to feel like they fit in and belong. If gourmet food is the centerpiece of the ritual, then everyone is being seduced into thinking that they are seriously beholden to the person who made the meal. Better to emphasize good table manners and learning to pass plates of food around. Harmony and cooperation are the keynotes.

In the case at hand, Lenz feels righteous because she feels underappreciated. And yet, she does not understand the basis for family meals and does not even understand the division of household labor.

Eventually, she got a job, and then did something that other wives have happily done:

And even later, when I did get a job, and when I went to graduate school, I filled the freezer for him—casseroles, homemade cookies, pans of brownies. I'd slow-cook stew and portion it off into little bags, leaving notes that instructed how to defrost, how to reheat. How to eat without me there. There were lapses, of course. When I had babies. Or the time I had a kidney infection and sciatica. But during those times, friends brought us food.

Of course, she is describing her husband as a monster of ingratitude. And yet, she had been married to him for twelve years. Might she not have taught him a few things in that time? Apparently not.

And if he was a moral degenerate at that level, whyever had she married him?

Besides, dare we mention that her efforts would largely have been lost on her small children.  In time she comes to understand this and revises the menu for them. Naturally, they do not notice. But, her failure to understand what children do and do not want to eat is symptomatic of her failure to understand her role.

Strangely, she describes her efforts to cook dinner as something akin to torture. Consider her description of her experience, a clear picture of feminist martyrdom.

And then one night, as my daughter watched TV, my toddler screamed from the living room, and the water boiled, collecting steam on the windows, I broke. I cut and chopped and desperately looked at a recipe on my phone. My back burned with frustration. My feet ached from standing. The steam flushed my cheeks and I wondered at the molecules that could escape from the heat as I stood trapped there, spatula in my hand.

It's hard for me to understand when cooking became more repression than liberation, more act of obligation than act of creation. But I knew it then. This thing that had sustained me now felt like a prison. And whose fault was it? It certainly wasn't all my husband's. After all, hadn't I wanted to cook? Hadn't I enjoyed it? Hadn't I found purpose in the texture of the cinnamon rolls, the ache of my arm as I whisked a French silk pie over a double boiler? But who had that ever been for? I couldn't remember.

Considering how little she understood about wifery, it is a good idea that she no longer has a husband. Her husband, by the way, has remarried and has another child.

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  1. A good marriage isn't a 50/50 arrangement, it's more like an 70/70 deal. The wife cares about some things more, and puts effort into those tasks. The same is true for the husband. Lenz puts much more effort into cooking than her husband or children requested or appreciate.

    Lenz only pays attention to herself. She doesn't know or care what kind of day her husband had at work. If she thinks about what her children need, she figures they need a French silk pie.

    Does Lenz scoff at those moms from sixty years ago who churned out simple, but tasty meals to feed larger families?

  2. When I was growing up, I often kept my mom company when she cooked and helped out if she needed anything.