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It is April 2020, and I am in my parents’ kitchen. It’s lined with bright red cabinets and filled with blue antique sugar jars, and there are green flowers on the tile backsplash. I am making my third batch of muffins this week. Two weeks ago, I had to ask my mom to pull a batch of cookies out of the oven for me. The last time I cooked anything at all had been several years prior, and I burnt three fingers on one of the oven racks. The idea of even opening the oven still makes my heart race. Next week, I will bake brownies that my sisters will devour within three days. In June, I will attempt to bake bread, and it will turn out raw, but my mom will tell me it tastes great anyway.

Prior to the pandemic, I had hardly touched an oven in my life, hardly stepped foot in the kitchen unless I was talking to my mom about school or trying to catch my sisters sneaking fruit snacks from the cupboard. I stayed away from cooking and baking mostly due to the dreaded “women belong in the kitchen” stereotype that I had internalized from my conservative upbringing, but only now, as an adult, do I understand it.

***

Being raised in a rather conservative Christian household, there were certain gender roles that weren’t explicitly enforced but were strongly encouraged. At some point prior to my adolescence, I realized that, as a woman, I was supposed to marry a man and have a family. This was never stated to me, but I understood. It was what my mother did, what my grandmother did, what all my aunts did, what my cousins were doing. It seemed like the only logical choice. But every part of my being adamantly did not want that. I did not want to become part of a traditional family—a husband and a wife and two and a half kids, where the mother stays at home and does the child-rearing. At the time, I did not understand why, and in my teenage years, I would attribute this to my support of feminist ideology — something my family was ardently opposed to. An act of rebellion, if you will. It wouldn’t be until much later that I realized what I wanted was a different kind of family.

As a teenager, I spent my time ardently avoiding any and all things that were considered traditionally “feminine.” I wore almost exclusively hoodies and jeans. I hardly wore any makeup. I would express great discontent if there was ever an occasion that I needed to present myself more femininely. I even felt embarrassed that I played the flute — coined a “girly” instrument by my classmates. I feared that if I let any part of myself play into gender roles, I could not be a feminist. Even though I supported all the ideology of feminism, I still felt pigeonholed by certain stereotypes and expectations. There is a common narrative amongst progressive women which says that by enjoying more traditionally feminine things, women play into the standards that the patriarchy has established. In reaction to this, we’ve seen women take varying stances throughout modern history — from the fabled bra burnings, to deciding not to shave, to striving for leadership positions in the workplace.

These events were vital to women’s progress, and I have no intention to invalidate them. However, even though current feminist ideology supports women’s choice to act and present in whatever way makes them comfortable, I still felt some hesitancy in choosing to partake in “feminine” things because doing so was forced upon women for so long. I feared that I too would be seen as playing into the patriarchy’s expectations.

This has been complicated even more by the recent emergence of the Tradwife movement amongst conservative groups, usually with ties to the far right. In an effort to push back against feminist ideology, this group of women has started promoting traditional gender roles, such as being a stay-at-home mother, discouraging women from having jobs, wearing a certain type of clothing and submitting to one’s husband, among many other things. The issue with movements like this is not necessarily that some women prefer to exist within the domestic sphere — rather, it is that they promote it as the only correct way of existing as a woman. Any other lifestyle, according to the Tradwife movement, is somehow inherently wrong.

It can be difficult to find nuance within this — understanding the personal choice to adhere to certain gender roles and stereotypes because they genuinely feel comfortable, while also advocating for the choice to not follow them.

***

By my freshman year of college, my thought process around this started to change. I had moved across the country to spend my first year of college at a liberal arts school in the middle of Boston, and I was suddenly thrown into an entirely different world. In this world, I felt like I could be comfortable just being myself, even if that meant abiding by female stereotypes. I started feeling so much more secure in dresses and skirts. I started embracing makeup because I enjoyed doing it and I loved the way it looked. I still shaved because I enjoyed the way it felt—for me it felt like self care. Even during quarantine, when I had no one to see, I still enjoyed throwing on a dress and doing my makeup because it was for me

However, when I accepted my queer identity, my ideas around all of this suddenly flipped on their head again. I was standing in my bedroom in my Ann Arbor apartment one fall afternoon when suddenly I had a bit of a eureka moment. I still don’t entirely know how to describe my identity, but that was less important to me than what came out of it I realized that I could marry a woman. I realized I wanted to marry a woman. And for some reason, when I had that moment, the thought of participating in more traditional gender roles — particularly the idea of domesticity — was appealing for the first time in my life. 

***

As of right now, I plan on going to graduate school and hopefully eventually obtaining a Ph.D. I have no intention of getting married, settling down and making a family in the near future. I still want to be educated and independent and have a fulfilling career. However, I do have a bit of a “if this were a perfect universe” pipe dream. I write fiction; I have ever since I could remember, and it has always been a secret dream of mine to be an author. As I got older, I realized that wasn’t necessarily a feasible career — the publishing industry is incredibly hard to break into and takes a ton of resilience. I couldn’t see myself navigating that and a career, so I needed a backup plan. I always imagined myself working full-time in a traditional work environment as an adult. Never a housewife. Certainly never a parent.

But when I realized I could marry a woman, I had another epiphany. I would be fine with being a housewife if it meant that I could be a writer. I would be fine staying home if I had a partner willing to support me. I might even be fine with having a family if it wasn’t within the bounds of heteronormativity. All of the things I had spent my whole life hating suddenly became my “if this were a perfect universe” dream. I’m not entirely sure why this happened, but I think it very much had to do with no longer needing to fulfill societal and cultural pressure. Any relationship I had would be considered “nontraditional” anyway, and I think this helped me accept the more “traditionally feminine” things I was drawn to. It was a weight and counter-weight.

***

My views of gender roles and expectations within a partnership shifted dramatically because of this realization. Suddenly, a partner and I could be on equal ground — there would not be the assumption that the man in the relationship held any sort of authority. It could be equal. Coming from a tradition of conservative Christianity, where the woman was meant to be submissive and obedient, the idea of existing on equal ground was remarkable. It felt right.

I no longer hated the idea of getting married, or desperately feared the possibility of having a family, or really felt the need to distance myself from a lot of the traditionally “feminine” things I found myself really drawn to. I was allowed to wear a dress. I was allowed to wear bright lipstick. I was allowed to enjoy baking cookies to procrastinate writing this column. None of these things took away my power as a woman – but it took me a long time to accept this and to understand that these things are so much more nuanced than we give them credit for.

***

When the pandemic sequestered me back to my parents’ house in orthwestern Michigan with nothing to fill my days except suffering through online French classes while my cat sat on my laptop, I decided it was finally time to conquer my greatest fear: the kitchen. I started simple with boxed cake mixes, Jiffy muffins, simple breads, family recipes. Then cookies, a strawberry shortcake, pies. At some point, however, I had thrown myself in the deep end and tried to do something with puff pastry, which I do not recommend trying if you don’t actually have some real experience. It was an utter disaster, but my mother still ate my pear tarts. 

Then, December 2020 rolled around, and I finally discovered my greatest challenge: focaccia. Despite the internet’s obsession with bread baking during the early weeks of the pandemic, I had not made any attempt at it, since the first yeasted bread I made had been so much work and ended up being raw. I was just going to screw it up again. But then, baking Youtube’s lord and savior Claire Saffitz uploaded a Focaccia recipe, and I simply had to try it. And, after several hours of chaos in my family’s kitchen, the bread was finished. It was incredible. I quickly made it another three times before I returned to my Ann Arbor apartment, where my kitchen simply cannot accommodate bread making.

However, I still brought my newfound love of baking — sans bread — back to Ann Arbor and started doing it whenever I could. Every time one of my friends came over, I would bake something beforehand. I cannot explain the amount of pride I felt when they told me it was good. Baking for people very quickly became one of my favorite things to do. This thing that I had once despised so deeply became something that brought me so much joy.

Women are always told that we need to fit into certain boxes, even when those boxes seem contradictory. We are constantly being convinced that we are not existing properly, that we do not fall into the correct mold. For me, finding the line between wanting to be able to call myself a feminist and advocate for women’s rights, while also finding enjoyment in domains that seemed to adhere too strictly to gender roles, was — and still is — something I had difficulty grappling with. I am still figuring it out. 

Statement columnist Mackenzie Hubbard can be reached at mdhubb@umich.edu.