Stay-at-home moms are often assumed to be economically privileged, but in our case it was a choice we were backed into. At the time that my husband and I got together, I made about a third of his salary — only a little more than what our then-hypothetical childcare would cost. When we actually had a baby, it didn’t make financial sense for me to continue working, especially as I wanted to breastfeed.
And so it came to pass that I became a stay-at-home mom. The unspoken addendum to that was that I also became the CEO or “mom-ager” of our household. In addition to being our child’s primary caregiver for up to 12 hours a day, I handled the majority of the housework, including anything and everything food-related.
Sure, my husband helped — but when he did, he was just helping. It was still my job. As you might imagine, this inequality — which is in no way unusual — led to some resentment. While the problem is complicated, my husband and I discovered at least one easy solution: meal planning.
The Stress of Feeding a Family Every Night
It’s no exaggeration when I say that having a baby put our marriage to the test. Becoming a stay-at-home mother, in particular, was more sacrifice than I ever imagined.
Prior to actually doing it, I assumed parenting would be relatively easy. I was, perhaps, deluded by a generation of mommy bloggers gushing over their kids and showing off their household successes. I thought the lifestyle could be one of leisure, comfort, and ease. But fantasies of relaxed days introducing my infant to educational toys while baking homemade bread and beautifying my home — then working on my freelance career while he napped — failed to correspond with (and masked) my lived experience.
In truth, becoming a stay-at-home mom meant round-the-clock responsibility. When I wasn’t reading books, singing songs, taming tantrums, or changing diapers, I was folding laundry, wiping spills, running the vacuum, or picking up toys. There was no time to can homemade jam.
To be fair, I initially enjoyed my new responsibilities — especially those related to cooking. Even before we had a baby, the kitchen was my domain. I fancy myself a bit of a MacGyver. I’m proud to say that I can creatively combine leftovers and pantry staples into a meal fit to serve guests.
My husband, on the other hand, is culinarily useless. He’s the type who will choose not to eat rather than warm something up. He knows how to make exactly two meals: If you’re not in the mood for homemade pizza or shepherd’s pie, you’re out of luck. And if you opt for homemade pizza, get ready to have your kitchen covered in flour.
Again, not that he didn’t want to pitch in now and again. But the times I gave in to his offers, I sat back uncomfortably and held my hungry tongue as the clock ticked and dirty dishes piled up. It was downright painful to watch him anxiously reading and rereading recipes, sweating every step.
Leading up to the birth of our son, I tried to remedy the issue. We signed up for a meal prep service. I hoped it would help him learn some new recipes or techniques. But the ingredients sat untouched until I made the meal myself, or turned them into something else. As we lived in the city, he always found it more convenient to order delivery or pick something up.
Then the baby came and we moved to the suburbs, where the closest grocery store is 15 minutes away and most places don’t deliver. Life got busier as our baby, Oscar, grew older and more mobile. Eventually, the task of keeping myself and my family fed — on top of everything else I had to do — became monumental.
Wholesome meals made from scratch were slowly replaced by quicker, less nutritious options. Prior to having our son, for example, I’d often make hand-breaded fresh tilapia. When Oscar was a newborn, I discovered the ease of frozen battered cod. By the time he was a toddler I was buying a product called “fish squares.”
I missed pre-mom me. And so one day a week, on Fridays, I began going into the city to teach a writing class. The day took on special significance: My husband and I reversed roles. As I went to work, he agreed to stay home and play Mr. Mom, tidying up and feeding, bathing, and putting Oscar to bed all by himself — and preparing a hot supper for us to eat when I got back.
But the dinner part just never seemed to happen. Week after week, I’d arrive home from work, famished, to my exhausted husband plaintively asking: “What do you want to eat?” There’d be nothing in the fridge; it’d be too late to order in. I wouldn’t even have minded if he’d simply ordered takeout, so long as there was something ready.
At first he was defensive. Then, he was apologetic. Eventually he conceded it was simply too much to handle. I was irate, and hurt — but he was right. The job I did, day in and out, was too much for any one person to handle, even with “help.” A year into full-time parenting — and on Friday nights especially — I felt malnourished, literally and figuratively. I was physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. I was nurturing everyone else all of the time. And no one was nurturing me.
Meal Planning to the Rescue
Parental inequity is, according to Darcy Lockman, largely a problem of social structure.
Lockman, author of All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership, explains the issue stems from a lack of institutional support for childrearing, as well as a general unfriendliness towards parents in the American workplace. Her proposed solutions, however, are mostly interpersonal — fathers stepping up, and mothers stepping back.
Those Friday night feuds initiated a series of honest conversations. Ultimately, we did as Lockman suggests: My husband stepped up and took over more of the household responsibilities while I learned to accept my part in the problem. Wanting to look and feel like a competent mother, I’d made myself The Expert™ at everything; I had to step back and let my partner do his fair share.
And he does! He folds laundry, walks the dogs, and tidies the playroom — and not just to help me out. My jobs have become our jobs. But there is one duty that remains mine alone: I still do most of the cooking. But now, I enjoy it. And I can enjoy it, because we’ve both made room for me to meal prep.
I take an hour or two on Sunday afternoons to sit down, all by myself, at our local cafe, while my husband watches our son. Over an iced latte, I peruse my favorite websites and make the week’s menu. Then I take my time picking up the ingredients I need — no more managing meltdowns in the grocery store. Meal planning has become an important way to reconnect with who I was before becoming a stay-at-home mom. And it helps my husband and son, too. We have healthy meals to eat, we have a plan in place, and we are less stressed.
We still eat fish squares regularly (often on Friday nights, when my husband’s in charge). But with a plan, we get to enjoy meals I made before we had Oscar, such as a complex ragu over pasta. We’re eating better again, resenting each other less, and I can enjoy standing over a bubbling pot and getting a minute to myself, a moment not being mom.
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