Domestic Skills

Full disclosure: not my muffin.

As far as skills for women are concerned, I think there are two categories:  Things Women Can Do and Things Other People Think Women Can Do.

Things Women Can Do is encompasses everything. Women can do everything*. Women can successfully be a part of every field of life and career, from astrophysics to teaching, from motherhood to politics – or both.

*Except, perhaps, write our names in cursive with urine. This is pretty specific to immature men.

Things Other People Think Women Can Do is a unique category that generally has a domestic stigma. Things in this category are a hold-over from a different time, in which women were praised more for their skill in the kitchen than in the office.
Baking is a specific skill that falls into both categories.So last month I attempted to bake.  I had the best of intentions. It was someone’s birthday in the office, and I wanted to dazzle the staff with my skill outside my place of business. Not just another creative brain, thank you very much! Being summer, I thought it would be delightful to start the day and birthday celebration with berry streusel muffins:  a relatively simple recipe, a yummy treat and a feat of culinary strength for me to conquer.Seeing as how I bake about twice a year, I may have gotten a little ahead of myself.  What started off as an adventure – a new recipe, a chance to prove that I can do more than just produce effective reports and creative marketing packages* – quickly became a nightmare.
*This in itself is a fascinating thought process. So even though I’m successful professionally, apparently it’s not enough? I also have to prove that I can be successful domestically? Hm.

Turns out streusel is kind of a baking bastard. It looks easy enough – there aren’t very many ingredients, it’s not particularly challenging to put together* and at the end of the day, it’s a coffee cake muffin.  But when you’re not familiar with how to make streusel crumble, or how to fold berries into batter, it’s a little overwhelming.

*Ha!

Take the streusel, for example. Just butter, flour and sugar, really.  Should be simple enough to create that topping we all love so much, right?  But I couldn’t get it to crumble. It lumped, it clumped, it fell apart – but it would not crumble. At one point I thought I had the mixture too hot, so I stuck the bowl in the fridge and let it sit for a while. When I pulled it out and began to mash it up again, it dissipated into tiny grainy little pieces that refused to stick to the muffins.  This frustration, in conjunction with purple batter (from the berries – I didn’t know you aren’t supposed to defrost them first), a recipe gleaned from the internet that I’m pretty sure was missing an ingredient (which I discovered later was sugar), a sink full of dishes and congealing batter, a hot, cramped kitchen and two batches of streusel disaster was just a little much for my domestic sanity. I lost it.

“Why won’t you crumble?!” I shrieked into the bowl.*

*This was probably the lowest point of the evening.

As the streusel refused to cooperate, I finally just stuck the damn pan – purple batter, mashed berries and all – into the oven, slammed the door, poured myself another glass of wine and burst immediately into tears.
**When in doubt, drown it out!

Really, why was this SO upsetting? I don’t care about baking. I don’t even like baked goods all that much (except Entenmann’s…mmmmm, Entenmann’s). But I it’s not about the baking, of course.  It comes down this:  there are some things that, as a woman, you feel that you’re supposed to know how to do instinctively.  Bake cookies – or anything, for that matter.  Fold a fitted sheet correctly.* Create a compress for stinging nettles and/or poison oak using only items found in the kitchen. Sew a button onto a jacket.  Fix a broken zipper with a paperclip.** Comfortably hold a newborn.
*If you don’t, see here for instructions.
**I realize that I’ve made womanly skills sound a little MacGyver-ish – but sometimes that’s what it takes. Resourcefulness is a skill to be coveted in and of itself.

I know that this takes time. I know that some things we learn from our mothers, who learned from their mothers, who spent much more time in the home actually practicing these skills – partly because it was their gender role in that generation, and partly because they didn’t have the advent of sewing machines that sew buttons on FOR you.* I know that some things we learn over time, like after years and years of running through the woods (and thus patches of stinging nettles) when we’ve run out of the pre-packaged ointment so in a panic we go all Martha Stewart and figure that if baking soda can take the smell out of the freezer then surely it can take the sting out of nettles, so we make a quick paste of that and slap it on the offended area – and as it turns out, it does!

*Which, of course, you have to be domestic enough to own in the first place – which, of course, I don’t. But I’ve heard talk of such things.

But, sometimes you can’t fix your torn nylons with nail polish or fix a knee scrape with a tampon and when you hold a newborn you’re all awkward and afraid you’re going to drop it and you pass the baby off to one of your much more competent friends,* and one day after 5 hours of baking, 3 glasses of wine and two tasteless batches of berry streusel muffins your domestic failures bitch slap you across the face and you just break down and cry.

*Who isn’t a mother yet but looks like she’s an expert in the matter because she holds the baby like a football in the crook of her arm while continuing conversation AND drinking a glass of wine while the baby falls quietly asleep in her arms.

Sometimes, it’s all too much to not be competent in everything all the time.And when you’re crying into your streusel muffins, it’s hard to remember that the “traditional” domestic tasks – baking, cleaning, sewing, effectively removing pen stains from sweaters with hairspray* – are not only an art form, but a learned one at that. No one is born knowing how to make hospital corners. Either someone teaches us or we simply go through life with sloppy sheets.** And as far as maternal instincts go…some of us are just more natural than others. I may not have the “natural” tendency to know how to hold a newborn, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do it – I just need to practice a bit.*

I looked it up on eHow.com from someone more domestic than me. It only sort of worked, but I might have been doing it wrong.
**The horror!

More important, though, is to remember this:  It’s okay to not know how to do any of these things.  No one interviews you for the job of life – you get to spend the whole of your existence on Earth figuring it out.  It’s one of the great things about being human – there’s no timeline, and no exit interview.  And a failed batch of muffins isn’t a kitchen catastrophe, it’s a bad day. There will be plenty of bad pastries, ruined quiches and burnt turkeys in my future.

I’m mostly okay with that. It’s all about managing expectations – namely, my own. If I can let go of trying to be good at everything, I’ll make it easier for me. If I don’t put pressure on myself to be perfect in all aspects of life, I’ll enjoy the process more when I can bake – or whatever the task is – for myself, instead of doing the thing just to prove a point. The only point I’m really making is that I’m a stubborn ass who refuses to buy Entenmann’s because if I think if I show up in front of others with something boxed instead of something baked, I’ve “failed”.

What a load of crap. Entenmann’s is delicious, and even amongst the most skilled of office bakers would probably be the carbohydrate of choice for the drooling masses. Why not stick to the tried and true? Better for me to expend my energy worrying about my next marketing initiative than my next oven conquest. Play to your strengths; develop the rest. In the meantime, resort to boxed baked goods – without shame.

At the end of the day, everyone loves a commercial coffee cake.

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6 responses to “Domestic Skills

  1. I must explore eHow.com. But not until I reread your blog one more time. Hilariously brilliant.

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  5. I’ve found the boxed mudfin mixes are good and easily passwd off as home-made 😉

    • Good call, Aunt Debbie! Some day I will give up on being Suzy Homemaker but in the meantime I refuse to let these muffins get the better of my baking!

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