Last month I was out to lunch celebrating a birthday with my collegiate daughters.Uncharacteristically, they asked me to tell them stories about the olden days. Specifically, they wanted to know how it was for me as a working mom. They were hearing talk from political candidates about paid family leave and were curious about how I had fared. I pointed out that we were all sitting there together, which indicates that I fared pretty well.
They knew I had always worked, but they wondered how I managed in the early years. More to the point, they wondered how I felt about it. Was it a sacrifice? Did I feel I was missing out? Was I resentful? The truth is, I had forgotten all about that time, choosing to remember the great parts of raising a family, not the crappy ones.
The restaurant industry makes it next to impossible for women to start families. Being an expectant restaurant chef was hard, stressful and infuriating at times. Unlike a desk job, restaurant work makes serious physical demands that are hard on a pregnant lady. Kitchens are hot, bags of flour are heavy, customers are demanding and sympathy is rare. Being on your feet is hard enough when you’re knocked up. But the duration of a restaurant shift — 10 to 12 hours or more — becomes unmanageable at a certain girth. And the speed with which you are required to move in a restaurant is similarly affected. Imagine Chris Christie trying to compete as an American Ninja Warrior. To make it worse, the inability to perform at your peak is intolerable to the un-pregnant contingent. Expectant mothers are treated as weak, lazy, untrained and unprofessional — regardless of their pre-pregnancy performance. If you find this hard to believe, Google “pregnant chef” for a slough of horror stories.
With my first child I kept my condition to myself, worked until my employer figured it out, then was let go. My boss, a woman, claimed I was emotionally unstable. Given the cyclone of hormones I was battling, this was a reasonable assumption. It happens to all expectant mothers. But I’m a very professional person, and I only broke into tears once, when the smell of the long-simmering chicken stock was more than I could bear. Nothing challenges morning sickness like steaming meat juice.
I still needed to work, because life requires two incomes these days. Luckily for me, I looked more fat than pregnant and was able to get another job fairly quickly. I worked for another couple months, until it was physically impossible, at which point I quit. This was bad form on my part, as it required the restaurant to rehire and retrain for a position they thought they had covered. But I felt I had no choice.
My case is not unusual. Restaurant women are routinely forced to compromise their professional ethics and standards, or change career direction completely to accommodate a family. The successful female restaurant chefs I know were unwilling to do that, and don’t have children. (My chef friends with kids are all men.) Procreation is a personal choice, to be sure. But no one should be forced to leave their chosen field because they also want to be a mom.
I told myself that pregnancy and motherhood offered the same set of challenges for millions of years. There was no maternity leave for hunter-gatherers, or Carolingian serfs, or Aztec farmers. They just did what they had to do, and so did I. It was only when I started comparing my experience to women in other modern industries that I got a little irked. That I justified my situation by comparing myself to hunter-gatherers — rather than accountants, or teachers, or policewomen — is pretty messed up.
Most employers offer some sort of paid maternity leave. Some enlightened bosses also offer family leave, so everyone can share in the joys of sleepless diaper-changing. But not the food industry. Few restaurant employers will tolerate, much less accommodate, a pregnant worker. If you have trouble completing tasks because you are suddenly much larger, you will be replaced. If you need to leave the line (say, to relieve your morning sickness, cry for a minute because your world is about to change irrevocably or pee 30 times a day), you will be replaced. If you need to take three months off to recuperate and tend to a newborn, you will be replaced. Especially in fine dining, there is always someone waiting in the wings for your low-paying, high-stress job. When faced with inevitable time off for childbirth and child-rearing, employers are unable to hold these positions open until the mothers return. There is no pool of restaurant subs. There is no cook temp agency.
Once the kids are born, it doesn’t get any easier. I worked with one chef who brought her kid to work for a couple hours each day because she couldn’t afford childcare on a line cook’s salary. She usually parked him in our pastry department, where we would let him play with scraps of dough, or make him crack flats of eggs, which we would later strain free of shells. When he got out of control we’d trap him in a giant stockpot, which we creatively renamed “the playhouse.” (Note to parents — language in a professional kitchen is not conducive to child-rearing. Also, knives and fire are only recommended for ages 8 and up.)
To raise my family I traded the world of fine dining for a job in culinary education. I got a short maternity leave for kid No. 2 and was able to work until the birth because the job was much less physically demanding. When she was born I took on a part-time schedule, so day care was short and affordable. My husband’s secure government job certainly played a huge part in my ability to be flexible. Teaching was not part of my professional plan, and it was not where I wanted to be in my career. But that’s how the cookie crumbles and, in the grand scheme, I was luckier than most.
The sad fact is that a restaurant pregnancy has become, for many, the place where dreams of a culinary career go to die. We can clearly connect the dots of this problem to the much-discussed lack of women in high-ranking food-service positions. Such discrepancies in rank and pay are hardly surprising, given the culinary world’s anti-mom culture.
So what is to be done?
We can shrug and capitulate. We can complain and commiserate. We can discard our dreams of parenthood. We can toss our dreams of management and ownership, and take less demanding positions. Or we can demand that the food industry get on an even footing with other industries by pushing for an overhaul of policy and culture.
The proposed $15 minimum wage is a sign that the industry is capable of change. Why not ride this momentum and encourage something more meaningful? A mere 40-hour work week should not be seen as a sign of weakness. Time off for illness and childcare should be easy and encouraged. Mandatory paid family leave should not bankrupt the boss. (Incidentally, these policies would benefit all employees, not just those with a bun in the oven.)
And so, I’m issuing a challenge to all high-profile chefs and restaurateurs with a voice and a platform. Can we get you to stand up for families? Can we get you to go out on a limb for universal job security? Can we give pregnant cooks the same consideration given to the “revolutionary” idea of not tipping? Can we all pretend, just for a few minutes, that men get pregnant? Now, how would we handle it?
Does that answer your question, kids?
Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker, chef and the author of Mug Meals: More Than 100 No-Fuss Ways to Make a Delicious Microwave Meal in Minutes. She lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.