For those of you following my story, welcome back! For those just tuning in, this series is about leaving a life of should. You know, I should be this, I should do that…we’ve all been there.
So far, the segments have been pretty heavy. I promise, this one is a little lighter. It’s about food. What does food have to do with living a life of should? For me, it meant everything. Food was the daily canvas that I painted my perfect life on for all the world to see. Like singing, food was a vehicle to please others and prove to them my self-worth so they would love me and agree that I deserved to breathe air too. (deep sigh) And what could be more festive for the holidays than trying to prove our worth by making perfect food?
In my previous life of should, I made amazing food. Meticulous in detail and delicious. I made things over and over until they were perfect—large elaborate meals for crowds of people, gorgeously decorated placecards, amazing mini-desserts that were unbelievably cute—all to show the world I was worthy because it was something I could do.
I was all from scratch. I prided myself in being able to make darn near anything, from a decorated 80th birthday cake that looked like a basket full of flowers for a woman in the congregation to the perfect, and I mean perfect, sugar cookies and petit fours for a friend’s baby shower. I wanted people to think I was Martha Stewart without the staff (or the money). I spent hours slaving over making everything perfect, and then I’d want people to think it was easy. “Isn’t she just brilliant!” It was never easy. It was hard, hard work.
I didn’t learn any of this from my mom, who never really cooked or baked. For me, the knowledge was by hook or crook—I taught myself. Society led me to believe that one of the things women had to do to validate themselves was to cook and bake. I expected myself to not only work more than full-time hours, but to also keep the house perfectly neat and tidy AND make all of the food fabulous and look perfect AND make it look easy. Ha!
The food that most exemplified this perfectionism for me was pie. Pie is an unassuming baked good, but anyone who bakes pies knows that there is a lot of craft to making a good one and a lot of time to make it pretty. I learned to make pie by doing it over and over, most of which was a big fat fail. I made myself learn how to bake pies when I got married in my 20s. My spouse came from a long line of pie bakers and told me that they took pie with them in their school lunches as a kid. “How hard could it be?” I thought. Well, let’s put it this way, the person who coined the phrase easy as pie was a sadist, or as I like to say, “Making perfect pie crust is easy. After you’ve cried over the first 3,000 failed attempts, it becomes Zen.”
I had an old, washed-out 3 x 5 card with my mother-in-law’s recipe on it. Basic amounts, but lacking all the nuance for making a perfect crust. I tried and I tried and I cried and I cried.
For some reason, I thought that if I couldn’t master pie, there was something wrong with me. That I was a lesser human because of my lack of abilities, or put another way, I had to prove my worth by what I could do and create. Over time, I cracked the code to the perfect pie crust and, when I was a Lutheran Pastor’s wife, actually had church ladies ask me to teach them how to make my crust.
Guess what? Even when I presented the perfect pies at the Church Annual Dinner each year, I still didn’t feel loved or validated. People were impressed and some may have even liked me a little better because of my Mile High Apple Pie with tiny little apples made out of pie crust that outlined the crust. Maybe some of my friends and family thought more highly of me because I sorted all of the whole pecans for the top of the pecan pie into sizes and then used the same size pecan for each circular row that would go along the top so the pie would look perfect. But at the end of the day, I didn’t like me, and I couldn’t make myself happy by making other people happy or by impressing them.
It came down to this—there was nothing that I could bake or do or create that would validate my self-worth. I now have worth simply because I do. So do you! We never have to prove that ever—our self-worth isn’t up for grabs. When I let go of the idea that I had to do something to be worthy of love, I started to see all of the things about me that I appreciate. I still have mad cooking and baking skills, but I do it for different reasons now. I make something because I want to make it, not to impress others or to prove anything.
And I will never sort pecans again, to this I swear.
Sandy Eichel is a happy ex-should-er.