Alison Cayne is the founder of Haven’s Kitchen: a cooking school, cafe and event space in New York City. What drew me to Alison’s story is that she launched her business six years ago at 38 years old—after spending two decades raising five children. Most of the women I speak with for OKREAL are doing things the other way around: career first, kids later. I wanted to hear Alison’s perspective on going back to school at 38-years-old for six years, getting an internship, launching a business at the same time as getting a divorce, and what she teaches her teenage girls about feminism in a time of nuanced, wide-ranging interpretations (is being half-naked on Instagram body positivity? Is free the nipple a progressive movement?). This is what she told me.
“When I think back to before I started Haven’s Kitchen, its almost as if I wasn’t in the drivers seat of my own life—even though I thought I was at the time. My main priority, starting at about 11 years old, was to have a family. That’s why I was so into cooking and why I always had friends over. I was always nesting and nurturing and trying to make what I thought a perfect family should be. When I got out of college, I knew I was interested in urban development and how cities work, but if I’m being honest with myself, my main goal was to have children.
I met someone at the time who was wonderful and made me feel very loved and happy, and I had five kids in eight years. They were all easy and happy babies. It was just sort of, ‘Oh it’s another baby, great!’ I never really decided exactly where I was going to live, that just seemed to happen. My father had a lot of money, and while I never felt like it was ‘mine’ per se, I never felt that pull towards work in that I needed it in order to live. I look back now and think—you really took some stuff for granted there. I was genuinely privileged and wasn’t doing a whole lot of thinking. Then in my thirties, as I started to emerge from my baby bubble, that started to shift. You know that Talking Heads song; ‘This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife…’ I was sort of, like, am I this person? I started to feel a disconnect. I had been cooking in my house and teaching cooking for years, so when I decided to go back to school, I didn’t think I was making a major life change. But it ended up being the impetus for all the life changes that happened pretty rapidly afterward.
You can almost always tackle the outside stuff with action, but the deep stuff is tougher.
It was 2010 and I was 38. I was the oldest person in all of my classes. I have a very poor sense of direction, so walking around NYU I felt lost (as well as old) most of the time. All of these kids knew where to get their ID Badge and how to make a bibliography using a computer. The last time I was in school I wrote term papers on index cards. I would lay out all of the cards and organize them by sentence and fact, then I would put them in a stack. Then I would write a paper, put it on a floppy, and print it at Kinkos. And now all of a sudden I’m in a school with these kids and they’re all talking about things that I never studied. In year one, my advisor told me that I needed to find an internship, which seemed ridiculous to me because I didn’t see myself as hirable—I had five kids under 12, and the last time I’d had had a job was 1998. But sure enough, an internship coordinating the Education Station at the Green Market turned up. I didn’t even have a resume, but the woman running it told me to come meet her. When I arrived, she looked like she had just been in a tornado—like she she was holding on to the table to keep her upright. She asked, ‘So, you have five kids?’ And I said, ‘I do.’ She reached into her bag, took out the keys to her van for the Education Station and said, ‘If you have five kids then you can do this. I can’t. I’ll see you at the end of the year.’ So I did it. And as I ran these groups I was thinking—I’m teaching one group of people how to cook, and I’m teaching another group of people about the importance of local/seasonal food, and farm-labor/agricultural practices. I need to have a place where it can all come together, where people aren’t just learning how to make recipes, they’re learning how to use the ingredients that are available each season. It was 2011 at the time, and while there was environmental awareness, there was not a strong connection as to how that related to your food choices. That was the inspiration for Haven’s Kitchen.
It has been challenging every step of the way. From pleading with the Department of Buildings, knocking on the church door every night for three weeks to get them to sign a waiver because we were two feet within the hundred-foot-rule, there was an expediter who I genuinely think was a bad human being (and I’m not used to feeling that way), getting a liquor license, getting a certificate of occupancy, learning how to enter a POS system, building a website—all of it. The deeper challenge was asking myself: Who do I think I am? I don’t have a business background. I’m a stay at home mom. I don’t understand money.
I’m also the type of person who thinks communication solves everything, but I’ve learned that sometimes this is not true. I always say to my kids: 'If you’re having beef with one person, it’s probably both them and you—maybe half and half. But if you’re having beef with a few people, you should go check yourself in a little room and sort your shit out because it’s you.’ So if I’m looking around and there’s all this stuff going on, my first instinct is that it’s probably me. That’s why I think it was especially challenging when there was no, ‘How can we get this done? How do we work this out?’ All of those things are really confounding to me and cause me a lot of stress.
I have a friend in LA who did kids and career the opposite way to me. She was extremely career focused and built up an incredible reputation for herself. She had her first baby at 42 years old and her second at 45 years old, and still has her career but in a different way. She thinks that the way I did it seems better because my kids are now teenagers, and I could be there when they were little. But the flip side of that is that I’m always feeling like an outsider who doesn’t have the 20-year reputation. The net result is that there’s no better way.
I will say, for me personally, now that I have a career as well as kids, I am a much more complete person. I think that is good for my children—to see what work can do for someone—how fulfilling it is and how creative endeavors can be not just personally satisfying, but also lucrative. They see what I put into the business: working with a team, managing people and being nervous about making decisions. Having a very human mother now is very different to the mother they had eight or so years ago. I might not be playing soccer as much, but my guess is that they’ll look back and say we probably had less time but it was better time. Then again who knows? Inevitably, you mess things up in a completely different way than you think you’re messing them up, in your mind.
My divorce impacted everything. I kept having this vision that I was this mommy bird in a nest with my babies and someone took a shot gun and exploded my nest. But then I started to realize that the nest wasn’t there before I built it. You start to believe that the scaffolding is holding you up, when in fact you’re the one who made the scaffold. There is something really terrifying when the ground goes out from under you. It wasn’t even about my ex-husband in the end, it was my fear of being alone. I think that was the reason I wanted a family so badly from such a young age—that fear. I also never wanted my children to feel responsible for me—I didn’t want to rely on them in any way. Now, even though I’m in a much better place and in a great relationship, I think, what happens if I get sick? Does everyone move in together? There are a lot of unanswered questions. Marriage doesn’t necessarily mean that you have unconditional security, but there’s definitely something about being a single agent that is scary—and yet also empowering in a lot of ways.
My divorce and the launch of Haven’s Kitchen happened at the same time. We opened in January 2012, right around the time my ex-husband moved out. I think this was the best thing that ever happened because I couldn’t just get back into bed. I certainly had my time on the bathroom floor, but for the most part, I had a team that depended on me and expected me to show up. So I became a complete workaholic, obviously, but I am so grateful that I had something to put my energy into instead of mourning the loss of my marriage. And really, a loss of life, in the way that marriage becomes such a significant part of your identity. I went from being a wife and mother who goes to school, to being a business owner and single mother. I would think, is that what I am now? Do I have to be in a ladies group now and go to the theatre? Should I be in book clubs? Do I travel alone? I tried on different things, but it turns out that I really don’t like Broadway shows and I don’t like traveling by myself.
I think my kids see me as someone who got the shit kicked out of them and stood back up.
In terms of raising girls—my girls are three very different people. They are 19, 16 and 14. Something happens as they grow up. You have this nine-year-old who is just glorious. She is sparkly and smart and affectionate and interested and interesting. She’s not perfect and she has her moments, but for the most part you’re just like ‘wow, she is awesome!’ And then one day she wakes up and says, ‘Why are you looking at me like that?’ And you can literally see her head spinning. And that turns into, ‘You don’t understand. Why don’t you ever like what I do? Why are you always judging me? Why can’t I just do this?’ I remember feeling that way and really believing myself and taking it really seriously. The other day my 14-year-old said to me: ‘I don’t have this tension with anyone in my life except you.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I know, because I’m your mother. And I don’t have this tension with anyone in my life except you! But I did have it with your sister exactly two years ago, and I did have it with your older sister exactly five years ago. And we’ll get through it.’ My eldest daughter is introverted and super cerebral, and, like me, needs to make up before she goes to bed. We need to have a moment of ‘OK, we’re still right.’ My 14-year-old is that way too. My 16-year-old is a tougher cookie. She’ll say, 'I know that you want to resolve this right now to feel better, but I’m actually OK with being pissed for a while.’ And she means it. I think that with parenting, you can teach all you want, but in the end you really have to model.
I think that teaches them a very good message about being a woman. I think my kids see me as trying to constantly learn new things and be open minded and I think that teaches a good message too. I do think we are in an interesting time when it comes to feminism. Like, is 'free the nipple’ feminism? There are all these different angles, which makes teaching it challenging. I prefer to just show them how I can be the best woman that I can. Equally as important as setting an example for my girls, is setting one for my boys—they have to learn too.
All things considered, I wouldn’t want to change a thing. I am so grateful. I have these five amazing beings. It was a pretty nice road and it still is. Even the stuff that has befallen me is nothing compared to what most people are going through, and I am very aware of that. Maybe the one thing I would change is my nature to constantly look forward to the future. When I was in middle school I wanted to be in high school, when I was in high school I wanted to be in college, and when I was in college wanting to be married, when I was married I wanted a baby, etc. This is really the first time in my life where I have no idea what the next couple of years are going to be like. I don’t have any real things that I want to happen, because I don’t even know what the possibilities are. I think something I’ve learned is to feel the bad feelings because it is part of being a human. Sit with them for a bit. Perhaps if I’d learned to do this a little earlier, I would have had less of a burdened mind. But I doubt it!”