Friday, September 30, 2016

The End of Kitchen Widow

Matt's culinary school graduation, 2005.
All you spouses of night and weekend workers, you partners of those who keep the world running when bankers' hours end, you loved ones of nurses, bus drivers, store owners, and chefs: I see you.

I see you falling asleep next to an empty pillow and waking up early next to an exhausted dreamer. I see you squeezing in get-togethers and everything leisurely on Monday or Tuesday nights. I see you going to family functions alone. I see you carting kids to sports and classes and birthday parties, juggling backpacks and equipment while tossing cheeseburgers behind you to the cranky children strapped into car seats, because you had no time to make an actual meal.

I see you, and I understand you, because I'm one of you. For ten years, I have rolled over in my sleep five nights a week, reaching for my husband. This is all we have ever known; I became a kitchen widow before I even became a wife. And since the moment I realized that he was my match, I have fantasized -- sometimes silently, sometimes not -- about the day when our lives would swing the same way on the pendulum.

Today, I can see him coming toward me, the dissonance of our unmatched schedules fading. The time of Kitchen Widow, at least for now, is over.

It's relief as I've never known it. Maybe that makes me sound ungrateful. Chef Matt has faithfully supported our family, working sometimes inhuman hours, sacrificing time with his loved ones, and doing it with good humor and brilliant food. His love for cooking is the part of his soul that he wears on his sleeve. I love that he has spent the last 12 years so fully invested in work that he believes in.

But recently, he saw a past with so many nights and holidays spent apart, and a future with weekends drowning under the last-minute call-ins of employees. And he let it go. He was as courageous as I've ever seen him, releasing the life that was his dream for the life that fully embraced his family. He knew that no matter how many hours he worked, how many gorgeous dishes he produced, how many compliments he received, how far he rose in the culinary world, it would never compensate for the time lost with me and the kids.

Being a restaurant chef always sounds so glamorous, like he spends his days carefully assembling artistic plates of food assembled from perfect ingredients and then charmingly delivers these plates to adoring customers. "Oh, your husband is a chef? How lucky for you! Does he cook for you at home?" It's a reasonable question, but one that has always made me a little sad, because he has spent our marriage cooking for other people. And truly, I have loved telling everyone about his work.

We weren't under any delusion that opposite schedules and long hours would be easy, but I don't think we realized the toll it would ultimately take. Matt was a responsible and reliable chef, which meant that I was often on my own, running kids to all kinds of practices and appointments, and quietly cursing his job.

Our ships-in-the-night life tested my strength. I wanted these beautiful children, I wanted my full-time job, and I wanted Matt to share his gift with the world. And because these are what I wanted, I needed to straighten my shoulders and deal with it. Every time I sat on the floor next to the dishwasher and cried, or screamed at the kids for some tiny little annoyance, or stumbled unshowered into the grocery store with four wild animals running uncontrollably up and down the aisles because I just needed enough milk to get through the night, I felt weak. I was a person I didn't recognize. I didn't tell Matt about so many of these moments. The times I did, my heart broke when his shoulders fell.

So it was that he woke up one day and knew with certainty that restaurants are all the same life, wrapped in different packages. He told me that he wanted to be as good a husband and father as he is a chef. He was ready to move away from this addictive world of treading water in a thunderstorm while people sing hallelujahs in your name. The loss of the food and the camaraderie would leave a hole; as anyone who loves working in food service knows, it can have an epic we're-all-in-this-together aura. But he felt at peace with his decision, and suddenly, we are peering into a future where we will see each other more than 20 hours a week.

I feel positively giddy. Now I won't have to wrangle the children alone, battling our five-year-old over vegetables or our three-year-old over a reasonable bedtime. We can be lazy on Saturday afternoons, which sounds to me like the ultimate luxury. And most of all, she says selfishly, he will be with me.

I remember when we were first married, and he would leave for work in the late morning. I sat in the window of our apartment's living room and watched him walk down the street to his car, until I couldn't see him anymore. In our first house, I would finally relax when I heard him come in long after midnight. After we'd had four children, I would go to bed exhausted at 8:30 and barely open my eyes when he laid a hand on my hair late at night. All the while, I felt restless and short of breath without him. I would watch social media with jealousy, as my friends dated their husbands and went on adventures as a family. We sacrificed time spent in the same room to keep our kids' lives pleasant and to keep Matt in a restaurant, and it was hard.

Despite so many years with so few hours, I still get all weak in the knees when he walks into the room, and I think that has made all the difference. We're not starting out in this new reality trying to find each other in the dark; instead, we just get to share more of the same sunlight.

Kitchen widow life has shaped me and our marriage and our kids, and I am grateful for the lessons. I will always consider myself one of the legion of spouses whose love is, by choice or by necessity, operating in an opposite world. That life defined the first 10 years of our marriage, and I will gleefully hang it up next to his chef coat. Onward, with my man who can cook and now can do it for me.