Months before COVID-19, before shelter-in-place, before the world turned upside down, last September, I was just a new, first-time mom with an undeniable itch to cook.
“Sit down, for god’s sake,” my husband, Matt, begged me over and over. I was a terrible postpartum patient. My daughter loved to sleep, and when she slipped adrift I was up and about: writing overdue thank-you notes, throwing the maternity clothes I loathed into donation bags, and, mostly, clawing for my cookbooks, standing for long hours in the newly found comfort of my kitchen.
“Your body has to heal,” he reminded me. This seemed preposterous. I had healed; I was free.
Before I got pregnant, making dinner was an after-work chore. This was true despite the fact that I loved to cook, and spent most days fantasizing about being in my kitchen instead of my cubicle; that much of my writing was about food; and that my first book was an essay collection that told the story of my marriage through the dishes my husband and I shared. The sad reality was that there weren’t enough hours in the day, and real, heavy-duty cooking got pushed to the occasional weekend.
Not much changed when I found out I was going to have a baby—until the last two months of my pregnancy, when I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes (GD). In order to keep my blood sugar under control, I was placed under a strict diet. I started having to jam a syringe of insulin into my baby bump every night. In those final weeks, I felt like I was fighting an uphill battle in full metal. I was exhausted and had trouble breathing. Dinner was simple and formulaic: I followed the doctor’s worksheets, which prescribed lean proteins, complex carbs, and a giant side of vegetables.
But as my due date neared, I felt a determined, panicked drive begin twitching in my muscles. The baby was coming. And when she did, we’d need food, food that felt like our food, the stuff we’d eaten as a family of two for years before entertaining the option of a third.
So, at 35 weeks pregnant, my daughter’s foot in my lung and her miniature fist batting against my bladder, I stood for long hours on the cold kitchen linoleum, dicing onions and grating cheese for container after container of food.
Of course, if I’d have known that Sophie was going to come early, maybe I wouldn’t have used my last weekend without a child in the kitchen. Maybe I would have organized the garage, or disinfected the bathrooms, or curled up on the floor contemplating the fact that I would never be able to return to this place, this Before Time, ever again.
Instead, I made meatballs, giant batches of thick casseroles, and meaty soups. My freezer looked like a doomsdayer’s, a stockpile of cream and carbs to soothe an impending apocalypse. There was a lasagna that could crush a mid-size city. A wall of Ree Drummond’s chicken spaghetti spiked with my favorite Mama Lil’s Hot Peppers. Ziploc bags with ladlefuls of gumbo, brisket chili, and split pea soup.
“We’re going to be so happy for this,” I told my husband Matt again and again, with each snap of the oven door or screech of the timer.
Each frozen meal felt like a gift from the woman I’d leave outside the hospital’s sliding doors, a postdated blessing of comfort. It was a sort of insurance policy against the all-consuming uncertainty that lay before me: Who was this creature, and what would we need in our new life together besides food?
Three days into that cooking scramble, my doctor recommended a next-morning induction. Sophie was born on September 6, our 11th wedding anniversary.
And though I didn’t see it coming—maybe like many mothers—my sense of self was reborn, too. My expectations that I would be too tired or too busy or too distracted to cook could not have been further from the truth. As it turned out, cooking was exactly what I needed to feel like me again.
The exhaustion that plagued my last trimester lifted like a spring fog. Even with a newborn’s sleep schedule I could now make it through the afternoon without nodding off. When I stood on the merciless kitchen linoleum, my feet didn’t hurt. I spent the first few weeks going through our frozen cache of meals, but after a month, I was ready to start from scratch.
I brought Sophie’s bouncy chair into the kitchen and, when she fussed, I strapped her alongside me in the baby carrier. She napped against my chest as I spread a thick layer of chocolate icing on her one-month birthday cake, found in the Back in the Day Bakery cookbook that hadn’t been more than flipped through in my other life. In her emerging rhythm I found my own, rotating sheet pans in the oven for batches of snickerdoodles and gingerbread. I opened a random page in The New Basics Cookbook, a gift from my mother I had never used, and discovered what became our favorite pasta recipe.
I greeted visitors with this bounty, and they looked at me like I’d gone off the rails, into a canyon, and burst into flames. I wasn’t supposed to have time to cook! The one absolute that our baby classes had taught us was to make liberal use of delivery. New mothers didn’t toast their own granola to bake big batches of cookies. But, to everyone’s surprise—especially my own—cooking was all I wanted to do.
Cooking merged the After me, a new mom, with the Before me, a woman who made grocery lists in corporate meetings, who read Laurie Corwin and Ruth Reichl as scripture, who sold her first car to buy a Le Creuset Dutch oven. It nudged me closer to my writing. And brought me back to myself.
To speak of reclaiming one’s self is to wade into the gray area of what we are not supposed to admit as mothers: that our old lives were good without babies. The child is not supposed to be the missing piece, but rather a change that comes to shift what was already there. A baby does not problem-solve, but in a way, presents the most incredible of problems: How to incorporate another human being into an identity that was previously yours alone?
For me, this reclamation was the two of us in the kitchen, taking back that passion I’d lost in the daily grind of my career and the turmoil of my pregnancy. I unloaded all the ambition of that former self and burned it for fuel. And I showed this tiniest of beings from her first days that this is how we love ourselves, and one another. Setting her life, and resetting my own, on the one thing I know—we will always be hungry.