Cookie-Cutter Family: How My Mom Proved You Really Can Have It All

by Jesslyn Clark

Growing up, I never thought about parenting. I certainly never pretended to be a mom. I never owned baby dolls and I wouldn’t play house, unless the house was an armed fortress built 20 feet up in a tree.

Only now, as a woman old enough to carry a child, have I started to reflect on motherhood and my utterly unique mother.

I was raised by a brilliant mathematician, who also happened to be a stay-at-home mom.

Her choice always amazed me. I barely survived a babysitting gig with one 7-year-old, but by the time I was 4, my mom had three of us: three oddball blonde girls with a penchant for big words and sword fights.

She left her teaching position, and devoted the next 11 years of her life to parenting: pulling a garden out of our arid backyard soil, volunteering at our elementary school and running a home.

Every summer until we were old enough for sleep-away camp, she hosted Camp Julie, a six-week learning extravaganza that shifted focus from art history to international cuisine and entomology to chemistry.

In the name of education, she had us parading down the street, performing an Ancient Egyptian funeral for a properly eviscerated and mummified Barbie. We boiled ink and baking parchment to write authentic colonial letters, and wandered the halls of every museum in Los Angeles.

She coached teams, chaired festivals and for almost every event, she made cookies. All kinds of cookies: butterfly cookies with swirled icing, chocolate chip shortbreads shaped like animals, basketball players frosted with our teammates’ hair and uniform numbers, snowflakes dripping with tweezer-applied sprinkles, a haunted gingerbread house with cracked candy windows and even marshmallow ghosts.

My mother approached parenting less like a job and more like an artistic project. She set about transforming life into art, and no project undertaken with such passion and enthusiasm could ever be called a defeat. Nor did parenting preclude a traditional and highly successful career.

She went back to teaching when I was 11, and her compassionate, considerate teaching style made her a favorite with the students. They still come in at lunchtime to pepper her with questions about calculus, college, their struggles at home or their plans for the future.

Some call her “mom” by accident. Others have adopted her as their “other mother.”

An entire wall of our kitchen still glitters with aluminum cookie cutters, an artifact of her years as a stay-at-home mom.

Even as I ask her to help me calculate the trigonometry of a bold, modern career trajectory, I remember her delight in raising a family and stash that idea in the back of my head. I have yet to decide whether or not parenting will suit me, but it has definitely suited her.

Still, these stories were not circulating at the family dinner, where my cousin announced her intent to withdraw from a high powered career to raise her son. It seems some women consider every stay-at-home mom a defeat for the new wave of feminism.

We shouldn’t revert to the 1950s, when motherhood mutated into a heteronormative obligation. Full-time parenting isn’t desirable for some families, nor is it affordable for others.

That’s okay. This isn’t about universal participation. This is about universal respect, parallel to the respect society affords other careers, regardless of personal ambitions.

Although I have no interest in a medical profession (more accurately, I can’t extract splinters without breaking a sweat), I respect doctors for their intelligence and dedication to humanity. I admire the entrepreneurial spirit of small business owners and the relentless innovation of software engineers.

But how many doctors, businessmen and programmers afford motherhood the same respect?

The white-collar and chalk-dusted intelligentsia have dismissed parenting as a secondary occupation, instead of a beautiful and complex life choice. Even some branches of feminism seek equality through likeness. They sneer at traditionally "feminine pursuits" and compete with the "man" on his home turf, ironically enabling heteronormative, masculine ideals to bulldoze femininity.

As I stepped into the whirlwind of early adulthood, I moved away from being a total dependent, and began to understand my mom as a person. She is becoming my friend and confidant.

I am learning from her how to live with dignity and direction. The 11 years of her life spent figuratively (and often literally) in the kitchen formed the foundations of feminism, as she taught it to me.

I must celebrate my intelligence, love with sincerity (or not at all), stand by my sisters (blood or otherwise) and remember I am loved and valued in a world that often wants me to think less of myself.

I owe my bookworm behavior of insatiable curiosity, and most of my baking ability to my mother. I admire her love for my father and her dedication to her career. I stuck out the grittiest courses in college because she raised me to love learning, and to stand up for myself.

Thankfully, the cookie cutter family went extinct in the 1950s, but that does not mean the stay-at-home mom should immediately be written off as a relic from the past.

For modern women (and men) who are either considering or refusing to consider full-time parenthood: The what of parenting matters less than the how.

I think about my mother’s wall of cookie cutters, collected and displayed. This was not out of some perfunctory adherence to traditional norms. It was not because some women’s magazine told her to bake after-school snacks in a checkered red apron. This was out of sheer love for life, family and good food.

She never purchased them for aesthetic. Every one of them has served in the line of duty, whether for a shortbread animal kingdom, or for the chocolate chip hearts she shipped to my dorm for finals week. She’s a geometry teacher, so she’s good with shapes.

Personally, I prefer the oatmeal chocolate chip cookies she leaves to melt free-form in the oven.

There’s a fitting metaphor there about social expectations, but I’m just hung up on the memory of the sizzling chocolate chips, the nutty burn of brown sugar and her ageless voice calling her pint-sized girls inside.