The promise that I could have it all – a successful career and a family – sat on my countertop. My co-worker had given it to me on the last day before my maternity leave. “Some pork chops, a can of soup. It’s not great, but it’s better than nothing,” she told me. I spent the next few months researching recipes while I nursed a newborn and, on the night before I returned to work, I pulled it out.
The slow cooker. It was my ticket to the promised Neverland of working mother success. The next morning I dumped in a few chicken breasts, potatoes, baby carrots, and a bottle of Italian dressing before heading out to cry on the doorstep of my baby’s daycare. Throughout that first day, the pot rattled away on my countertop while I sat at my desk, likewise rattled.
The original Crock-Pot hit the shelves in the 1970s, marketed to women who were working outside the home. “Cooks all day while the cook's away” an early advertisement boasted. With new technologies and shifting societal attitudes, women were liberated from the kitchen, and heading into the office in droves.
I'd never been particularly chained to my kitchen before owning a Crock-Pot. I enjoyed cooking, and often whipped up big meals for my husband and me, but many of the meals in our early years of marriage were frozen pizzas eaten in front of the television, a PB&J scarfed down over our laptops while we studied for grad school exams, or the occasional takeout we grabbed to celebrate turning in a paper. Convenience and affordability had been a top priority for our meals for a long time already.
I finished graduate school the same month I found out that I was pregnant with my first son, and set out to look for jobs with a growing belly. When I wasn’t looking for work, I found myself debating my choices constantly. Did I really want a career? Yes, I did. But could I manage starting one at the same time I was starting a family? I wasn’t so sure about that.
Stepping into the world of a working mother was new and foreign to me. My own mother had stayed at home, and although she dusted off her Crock-Pot occasionally to cook chili on days full of field trip chaperoning and PTA meetings, she mostly was at the stove every evening from 5-6 p.m., cooking something warm and delicious. I worried my own family was going to suffer the consequences of me working, sentenced to eating frozen pizza every night, a fate my husband probably wouldn’t have complained about, but one that made me worry I might be failing in my top priority – being a mother.
I came home on my first day as a working mom to a meal that was inedible. The carrots were mush, the chicken dry, and the sauce overwhelming oily. It was a disaster, and while our budget sensibility typically does not permit waste, we threw the remainder out. I could have it all – the career, the family – but that didn’t mean I could do any of it well.
Returning to work as a mother took some adjusting but I eventually found a rhythm that worked for me. I worked three days a week, and on my days at home I did laundry and answered work calls while my son nursed, praying that my colleagues couldn’t hear his slurping in the background. Some days and some meals were failures, other days it all came together.
Early on, I spent a long day in committee meetings at the state Capitol, and when they stretched past the time daycare closed, I picked up the baby and we headed back to attend the meetings together. “He’s a smiley baby,” my boss had cooed when she saw him. “You must be doing something right.”
My in-laws also had been at the meetings and when they finally concluded, we all came back to our apartment to eat chicken Philly cheesesteak sandwiches, courtesy of my slow cooker. My mother-in-law declared the meal delicious, and although I think that might have been due to hunger being the best sauce, I took the words to heart. I was doing something right.
It’s been over 40 years since the Crock-Pot played a supporting role in women’s liberation, but working mothers still rely on the slow cooker. It’s probably not a coincidence that over two-thirds of mothers with children under the age of 18 now work outside of the home and 83% of households own the handy countertop appliance. Today, the internet can shout the Crock-Pot’s promise of having it all even louder, and blog post after blog post provide recipes promising ease and perfection.
Over my first year as a working mother, I slowly learned that no matter what a recipe promises, chicken breasts cooked for eight or nine hours will be dry and flavorless. Chicken thighs were far preferable, and large cuts of beef even better. I also realized that if I didn't like a food before I put it in the slow cooker, I still wouldn't like it when I took it out.
I accepted that my family would survive if we ate frozen pizza or fish a couple of times a week. And my husband and I both came to the realization that figuring out what was for dinner wasn’t any more my problem than it was his. I could have it all, but maybe not every single day.
The crockpot was an invaluable tool during those years, but it did not deliver in its promise of letting me have it all. It did give me simmering curries and stews to come home to in the evenings, but what I had wanted was to pursue a career and to have a family. I had that already, even if I had no idea what to serve for dinner.