Mommy Wars and the More-With-Less Cookbook

Those who know me well may be surprised to discover that cookbooks have been on my mind a lot the past few weeks. In the midst of grading papers and preparing for finals, I’m also trying to finish editing an essay that will be included in an upcoming collection on Mennonite mothering (and despite how I wax eloquent about editing to my students, it really does stink sometimes!). My essay is about the More-With-Less cookbook, a mainstay of Mennonite domesticity for many women in my mother’s generation, providing what was then a radical departure from their own mothers’ traditional Mennonite ways. At least that’s my argument in the essay.
My mom was a More-With-Less disciple. The book provided recipes, but it was also a theological treatise of sorts, arguing that Christians were called to seek economic justice for their neighbors worldwide, and that the gospel compels us to live simply, rather than being enraptured by the trappings of materialism. The book was ahead of its time, urging its readers to eat wholesome, local, and fresh foods long before the contemporary locavore movement.
And I hated it. Hated all the wholesome food my mom served us. Hated drinking powdered milk, using molasses for sugar, and never getting to squeeze Wonder Bread into a small wad because mom insisted we eat whole grain bricks she made herself. I wanted meals like all my friends got, pizza and hamburgers and root beer, and not the Savory Lima Bean Bake that often found its way to our table. (Okay, maybe she made that dish only once, but I still remember its awfulness quite vividly.) I like to argue that my current addictions to sugar and Diet Coke come thanks to my mom’s rigid More-With-Less philosophy; deprived as a child, I’m trying to make up what I missed. Which is why I let my kids drink soda pop and eat candy all the time, so that when they’re adults, they’ll be drawn to the wholesome and healthy.
My mom used the More-With-Less in part because it fit with her Mennonite frugality and her belief in what the book preached: that we should “live simply, so that others might simply live.” But she also compelled our family to live simply because we had to. Mennonite ministers didn’t make much, and it seemed we were always living paycheck to paycheck, buying clothes at Goodwill and Kmart, which was truly mortifying for my adolescent self. By the time I entered high school, and my dad had taken a new church in Oregon, we were even on reduced school lunches, another mortification. Mom had to work hard to balance the budget, and I know that cutting corners where she could was difficult. Perhaps she also would have rather bought take-out pizza than served us Savory Lima Bean Bake, but we couldn’t afford it. And, because my dad had church meetings almost every night of the week, she carried a majority of the at-home chores herself, which meant cleaning a giant parsonage—or, when we moved to Oregon and to a tiny house, figuring out where everything could be kept, out of the small pathways between our furniture.
Now and then, she took on extra jobs to help make ends meet: watching children in our home when we were still young, and taking substitute teaching jobs when we were all in school. (Even greater mortification: having a kid come up to you in the hallway to say “Your mom’s substituting for our class today, and she’s a real bitch.”) In Oregon, she started working as a special education aide, and continued in that role—at various places—until her retirement, twenty some years working in a really, really hard job that didn’t always fill her with much joy.
So I get the outrage at someone like Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen, who said recently on CNN that Ann Romney, a stay-at-home mom, “hasn’t worked a day in her life.” Rosen’s comments have sparked yet another supposed round of “mommy wars,” with some claiming Rosen speaks for all liberals everywhere who despise those women who’ve made the choice to stay home and care for their families. I’m not sure such mommy wars even exist, something Beth Woolsey pointed out in her excellent blog post last week. (I’ve also argued herethat women’s choices in these matters should be honored, whether they stay home with children or choose to remain in the work force once they become parents.) When I think of my mom, trying to manage our household, take care of the kids, balance the budget, and keep us from revolting over the only meals she could afford to cook, I’m reminded that stay-at-home mothering is a hard job indeed, one my own mom pulled off with a good bit of grace (and some yelling, truth be told).
But I don’t understand how someone like Ann Romney can claim she understands the plight of most stay-at-home moms, how she can gloat that Rosen’s critique was an “early birthday present” because it allowed Mitt to show his support for women. I don’t get how Ann can proudly carry the mantle of stay-at-home motherhood, and use that mantle as a means of connecting with most women in the U.S. Sure, Ann Romney raised five sons, but she did so with significant help from a staff, who provided care for her children and cleaned her house and (I’m guessing) helped buy and prepare her family’s food. She raised her family without having to worry whether the budget would balance each month, and without having to resort to powdered milk to make ends meet. She didn’t spend time pawing through the racks at Goodwill, looking for clothes her kids might wear, nor did she have to take on extra jobs she didn’t like—watching children, working as a school assistant—just so her kids might someday afford college.
She didn’t have to live more with less, because she’d been born into more, and married into more, and raised her kids with more.
So I’m aggravated by people like Hillary Rosen for misspeaking about stay-at-home moms, because I know—having watched my own mom, and seeing into my friends’ lives—that being a stay-at-home mom is hard, hard work. And I’m aggravated that the press and Mitt Romney have taken this sound bite and used it to drive some kind of wedge between working and stay-at-home moms, creating one more way for mothers to judge each other, and to feel their own life choices might be lacking.  And I’m irritated that Ann Romney can feel giddy that her own mothering has been critiqued, because it apparently allowed her to lift higher the mantle of her own mothering choices: even though hers is a choice almost every other woman in the country cannot make, because they lack the wealth to do so.
I imagine my own mom, if given the option, would have made the choice to stay home with her kids, rather than working in a job she didn’t like. If given the option, she might have shopped for us at stores where we didn’t mind being seen, rather than trying to purchase Kmart clothes for daughters slinking through the racks as if they’d been condemned to public humiliation (which it was, in its own way). She might even have decided to splurge on hamburgers, rather than feeding us the Savory Lima Bean Bake.
See, when people try to fabricate a mommy war, pitting tired mom against tired mom, they seem to forget that for some people, the choices they’ve made are sometimes based on necessity, and that sometimes, a woman has to work outside the home because that’s what her family needs her to do. Or that a woman has to work extra hard within the home, because that’s what her family needs to her do. By focusing on some presumed mommy war, we somehow forget as well that governmental policies affect what the family needs. Limit access to birth control and family planning options, do away with equal pay laws, make women’s health care exceedingly expensive, create policies that force single mothers to work outside the home for benefits-eligibility: all these things influence the choices women can make. If there’s a mommy war, then, maybe it’s a war on mothers, who are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and damned either which way because policies are created that affect them, by people who’d rather debate which mothering choice is better than doing the hard work of finding policies that support women.
As I think about what’s been on my radar this week—the recent iteration of “mommy wars,” and Mennonite cookbooks—I’ve realized this about my mom. She believed (believes!) strongly in social justice, and that all our choices—even our choices about what we ate—might have an impact on the world. That’s partly why she used the More-With-Less cookbook, which was created by Doris Janzen Longacre and published by Mennonite Central Committee as a ministry, as a way to help others discover a global sensibility and an understanding of justice. Through her cookbook, Longacre taught thousands of readers that every choice they made had economic consequences, and that economics affected whether people in our country and elsewhere might live rich, vibrant, and just lives.
Focusing on whether Ann Romney worked a day in her life somehow takes away our focus on justice, and what it might mean for all women in this country to be given the rich, vibrant, just lives they deserve. I think a number of politicians (and pundits) in our country need the More-With-Lesscookbook to learn what my mom taught me a long time ago. Or, maybe, just one helping of Savory Lima Bean Bake might do the trick.