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Losing Myself in Motherhood, Finding Myself Again in Cooking

Published:
May 8, 2024
April 29, 2024
Read this article about a journey of "finding myself again" from a first-time mom rediscovering her love of cooking in a new phase of life.

When Tara became a new mom to a sleep-resistant baby, she became so focused on fulfilling her child’s needs that she neglected her own. After realizing this wasn’t a sustainable form of motherhood, she re-introduced a familiar (and nourishing) hobby to better take care of herself and her family.

Twenty-nineteen was the year of the muffin. In March of that year, we welcomed our first child, Reagan. She was healthy and big and sweet, but alarmingly curious. While most newborns nuzzle and snooze and lay there all doughy and warm, Reagan launched into the world ready to learn and explore.

Despite a severe lack of sleep, Reagan happily spent her days, nights, and in-betweens awake and alert, staring at the ceiling fans, at the walls, at the hundreds of toys I wiggled in front of her hoping to wear her out. For months, we survived on nothing but 20-minute micro naps. I bounced and rocked and swayed as I tried to coax an hour of rest, even 30 minutes so I had enough time to prepare and inhale a hot meal. It was to no avail. And so, I ate a lot of muffins. I’d Heisman hold the baby in one hand, a lemon-blueberry muffin in the other. I’d munch a pumpkin muffin while pushing the rock-and-play. Even with an aversion to eggs, I succumbed to broccoli frittata muffins to force a protein-packed one-hand option.

We somehow survived, without scurvy, on muffins alone for many months, but when my son came along the next year, I knew things needed to change, not only to avoid malnourishment but also for my holistic well-being. 

Since I was a young writer, baking has been my foolproof cure for writer’s block. When I was an editor at a university magazine, I’d fill the proofs table with versions of oatmeal cookies and zucchini brownies and one less-than-successful oozing peach galette. I’d puzzle piece together a nonchronological timeline while I sifted flour, or mentally monkey with the tempo of a narrative while I tempered chocolate. Most often just focusing on a recipe unlocked the creative part of my brain so it could overtake the logical one, and it typically resulted in a better story. 

It also resulted in a more balanced me. The kitchen is one of the only places I don’t overthink. I trust my instincts. I am confident, creative, and unafraid of missteps.

The opposite was true of my maiden months of motherhood. I checked on everything, once, twice, three times: the baby monitor to ensure her room was an appropriate temperature, the ingredients in every jar of baby food, the baby book to make sure her wake window was timed perfectly, the Instagram moms, blogs, websites, and on and on. I was intent on doing everything perfectly by the book for this tiny human, and in the process, forgot about myself.

“As I untangled my love for my child from the need to utterly self-sacrifice, I started to realize I could satisfy both our needs, pursue both our goals, and nurture both our persons, all while adding another new baby to the mix.”

I quickly succumbed to the belief that in becoming a mother, I didn’t just have to put my needs on the back burner —  I had to put them in the trash. But as the haze of the newborn phase cleared, I realized how unsustainable, and in some ways how unfulfilling, this myth was. As I untangled my love for my child from the need to utterly self-sacrifice, I started to realize I could satisfy both our needs, pursue both our goals, and nurture both our persons, all while adding another new baby to the mix.

To avoid falling back into bad habits, and to jumpstart my creativity, I set the goal to cook 52 new recipes, one per week, for a year, even with a newborn and a one-year-old both clamoring for attention. 

The first week of January, my toddler and I attempted homemade fettuccine with chicken and mushrooms. She refused to touch, let alone knead, the gooey dough, but she gleefully dusted the work surface, herself, her hair, and the floor, with flour. She had also recently shattered our ceramic rolling pin, so we tried using a water glass to roll the noodles which left them irregular and thick, more like a dumpling than a noodle. The meal was edible, but little more. Still, it was a start.

The next week we notched two recipes: eggplant parmesan boats and blackened salmon. Homemade soft pretzels with beer cheese were followed by bourbon peach pork chops. We experimented with new preparations of common ingredients like cabbage and flank steaks and short ribs and butternut squash. We traversed the globe with attempts at pho, lo mein, polenta, chimichurri, enchiladas, and strudels. We swapped out our traditional chocolate birthday cake recipe for raspberry lemon, chocolate strawberry, and a dairy-free banana smash cake — a recipe that I conceived, wrote, and executed myself. And yes, there were muffins. French toast muffins and strawberry muffins, scones and focaccias, crumbles and cheesecakes, and cookies and bars of every flavor. 

Strangely, what initially seemed like a lofty goal came easily. I was genuinely excited to pencil in something new to our meal plan each week. In total, 58 recipes were made in 2021. Some were made with my toddler in her countertop tower as she scooped sugar or peeled brussel sprouts or stirred a sauce. For some, I had a newborn snuggled against me in a baby carrier. And then other recipes demanded solitude so I could focus on a series of multi-tasks or whip out the large knives to prep and chop. That alone time was some of my first as a mom where I didn’t feel guilty or selfish. In those moments, I was working to feed my family and nourishing the creative part of me.

In a year of creative cooking, I learned that I rarely intuitively season things enough, so I should always add another pinch of salt, another teaspoon of cumin or chili powder or ginger, or a splash of vinegar or citrus at the end to wake things up. I learned how long to braise a short rib until it gives way to a silky indulgence. I learned celery seed is potent and should be used very, very sparingly. But I also learned that setting an individual goal and investing in my own hobbies was not and is not selfish. I learned that taking time where I step away from the role of mama and allow myself the freedom to have my own aspirations, my own ideas, even my own fun, actually allowed me to serve my family better. Much how baking once greased the creative skids for my best writing, it now gives me a mental release that lets me reattack motherhood refreshed. 

We repeated the experiment again the next year. We took it a step further and planted a garden from which to harvest lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries, and zucchini. So, so much zucchini. I taught my children about seasonal ingredients and focused our menus around them. We frequented the weekly farmers market. My daughter adopted a favorite “pear guy.” She learned to count by scooping flour and sugar. What began as a much- needed solo reboot, blossomed into a multi-layer learning experience for our whole family.

I will admit that in year two, I had two opinionated and suddenly picky toddlers who did not eat some of the end results, but I hope my two little sous-chefs have at least witnessed the joy and peace this hobby brings their mom. That’s valuable nourishment in itself.

Creators:
Tara McMullen
Published:
May 8, 2024
April 29, 2024
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