I am that woman, disheveled and overwhelmed, pushing an overflowing cart of groceries while my children run in the next aisle playing ninjas. There are four of them and one of me. I am trying to buy food because we have to eat or we will die. My children don’t seem to care.
Maybe I have showered, or maybe not. Maybe I’ve hidden my greasy hair under a scarf, or maybe I’ve left it down and wet. I’m probably wearing tennis shoes and a pair of dangling earrings and I’ll probably heat up leftovers for dinner. Under an old sweater, I wear a tank top and a sports bra. My breath is short, my eyes are bouncing, and my stomach is gurgling. Maybe I’m hungry, or maybe I’m just stressed out. If mothers are supposed to have eyes in the backs of their heads, then where are mine? Most of the time, I feel blinded from every position.
I hear my children squealing, but I’m not sure what to do about it. Should I tie their hands to the corners of my cart or let them play freely? I homeschool and take these kids to the grocery store at least twice a week. I could encourage scavenger hunts and list making. I could teach rounding and estimating. I could help them figure the mean of all our items. It’s a great exercise in math application, but I have no time for teaching the mean of a set of numbers when I am caught within the homonym. Mean. Mean. Mean. The mean of our grocery receipt. My mean boys who push and shove and laugh at crude jokes. The meaning of it all.
Is motherhood a distraction from what we want out of life, or is motherhood a generous calling to look for what is beyond, an invitation to get personal with the life that is always falling around us?
I speak loudly the names of my children, asking them to move in close and help me examine all the types of lettuce. I ask which kind we should purchase this week. I don’t expect to hold attention for long, but I do expect my children to come and look and answer. Three of them race to me and crash into our cart, which thankfully holds its place. My oldest son is slower at responding. He has collected handfuls of recipe cards and is reading them as he walks. They enthrall him; all recipes do, and, actually, all words do. He is always reading, and it doesn’t seem to matter if the book has a story. My son has a drawer full of cookbooks which he loves to read, and still, he searches magazines at the checkout and puts the store’s recipe cards in my face. My son likes to cook, too, but he’d rather be reading than anything else. “Barbeque Mac-N-Cheese Hot Dogs,” he tells me. “Braised Apple Pork Chops,” and “Blackened Trout.” He doesn’t like most of these foods, but he wants to keep the recipes. They are ideas. They are instructions. They are literature.
The combinations in these hypothetical kitchen adventures are often compelling. They give me hope for my own kitchen, offering new life to things as tired as hot dogs and macaroni and cheese. Yes, I could just boil hot dogs and serve them in buns alongside macaroni, but the recipe from the grocery store suggests them as a combination, along with store-bought barbeque sauce, and I am fascinated. It’s a new food now, a reminder to give space in our everyday normal for a little bit of the avant-garde.
My mother once said that to cook, all you have to do is read. I understand what she meant, but it seems the best food is only created when one breaks the rules and goes beyond minimal expectations. She is a retired math professor and my father a chemistry major who sold insurance to pay the bills. My mother has told me that when I was little she couldn’t stay at home. It wasn’t the money. She just wanted to go to work. She loved her children, but she couldn’t stand to cook and clean and care all the time. She sat on our couch and graded stacks of papers with red ink. In her free time she knitted hats and blankets for the local homeless shelter while watching reruns of M*A*S*H. Frequently, at six o’clock in the evening, she would set Taco Bell burritos on the table.
I was in college when I met the man who would become my husband. At that time, my kitchen had all the ingredients to make PB&J and cereal. Sometimes I would make chicken and broccoli over spaghetti, or tuna noodle casserole, but that was as far as my kitchen knowledge went. I didn’t own a set of measuring spoons.
This man detested pasta, but noodles were all I knew, so once we started dating, he would cook or we would go out. Those were the days, when life brought no cares. A loving man would bring me sunflowers and I would sprawl on the couch listening to him play guitar as I sketched whatever caught my eye—the curtains at my window, an old ragdoll tossed on the floor, a basket of laundry too full to carry—it didn’t matter as long as I could hand a completed sketchbook to my Drawing 1 professor by the end of the semester.
My husband never went to college. I went to a fancy private one and dreamed my way through a liberal arts education. My diploma says “B.A. English.” I leaned more toward creative writing than literature, swooning over classes that charged me to write flash fiction and personal essays and to study the ways other writers used the forms. I dove into the work of making symbols out of all moments, whether made or given, and in my bedside journal, I wrote first-draft poems to recite at coffee shop open mic nights. College was a fun $100,000 or so, and I might be regretful of spending all that money if it were my own debt. Instead, my grandmother paid every penny of it. Before that offer came, I had decided to stay at home and attend community college. This is one of those moments that I reimagine often, one of those pivotal times where my path stretches in two vastly different directions. I know that my grandmother didn’t just pay for me to study an unprofitable subject. She gave me this life I now have, where my husband is this man I’m chatting with at the dinner table. We’re unpacking our hard days and celebrating our good ones, and all around us, our children are that loud batch with mismatched clothes and cowlicks turning every little thing into a grand adventure.
After college I searched for jobs, but I didn’t want to teach and I didn’t have the certificate anyway. I thought I could be a secretary, but I never landed an interview. Instead, I kept busy working retail. I told myself that I still loved writing but I wanted to take a break from it. I wanted to set aside what I had learned in college and truly find my own way. I wanted to write without assignment, to see if I really still wanted to write. In the middle of the housing crash, I worked a desk job at a mortgage insurance company. I sat and investigated loan applications for fraud. Were they signed? Often not. Was the debt-to-income ratio too high? Yes, probably. Was I terribly bored and often searching for ways to stand out against too many gray walls? All the time. I worked that job until I had my first baby. Then I quit the gray-wall salaried life and dove into the monotonous chaos of motherhood. Cook. Care. Clean. Mean. Mean. Mean.
When I graduated college, my grandfather wrote to me, saying something that once made me squint but today makes me gasp. This was a man I had met only twice in person, but he somehow knew my truth. He and my grandmother had divorced before I was born. He remarried and had another son. My grandfather’s new family left little room for his old one, but when I was in college my grandfather was a terrific pen pal, always with beautiful stories and a perspective I never expected to hear from anyone in my education-focused family. He was the chief psychiatrist for the United States Army during the Vietnam War, and he continued to work in the field, teaching at the University of Illinois until his death. He was an advocate for music therapy. He loved photography and painting, and every word he wrote to me is still like a little bit of therapy for my soul. Though my childhood holds nothing traumatic or terrible, it took me a long time to accept that I am not logical like my math-and-science parents.
Days after I walked across the stage of my now alma mater, a letter arrived. “All graduates today seem to be looking for jobs,” my grandfather accurately judged. “But to me that feels inappropriate for you. What good is high salary or great business power compared with artistic creativity?”
Artistic creativity. How did he know that I was on that path? What good is high salary or great business power compared with artistic creativity? I think now, as a woman who makes almost nothing in the form of currency but is forced to use creativity by the minute. Mothering is not a job that boasts a description; it is an act of constant creativity. Daily, I care for four small children who can wrestle me to the ground and might one day rule the world, and everyday I think how motherhood is the artistic, creative adventure I never could have imagined.
I love to make things, but I feel inadequate at making meals. Though I’ve learned a lot about cooking since my college days, the act is still unnatural, and I often choose to make the simplest things. At the store, I shop the same aisles, purchasing tortillas and refried beans, chicken and ground beef and fresh spinach, so that I can serve tacos and barbeque and meatloaf with veggies. Then, I repeat. We likely would not find my usual meals on the grocery store’s recipe cards, at least not written the way I make them. In my kitchen, I require no fancy ingredients, no unusual combinations. There are things, though, that I wish to complicate on purpose. It’s bread, usually. While bread is abundant in every grocery store, the difference between a homemade loaf and a store-bought one is immense, so it is worth my time to make one at home.
I’ve been practicing the art of bread making since I got married. It started as something intriguing. It turned out that I loved the trying, and I continued. One day I made a sourdough starter. This is an ancient practice, and one that plenty of other moms do. It is not unique to me. Yet every sourdough bread varies with its maker, so I know that what I make is mine.
Sourdough is a living creature, and it must be fed, like a pet. Because of this, us bakers often name our starters. Mine is called Felicia, meaning happy and lucky. She lives in our dining room, which is now a room we call “The Bakery” because it is completely devoted to bread making. On the weekends, I set up at our farmer’s market with four crates full of loaves and boules and baguettes, cinnamon rolls and croissants, and the people of our city meet me and take my bread home to their own tables where they add it to the meal they have prepared for their family and friends. They eat it next to a glass of wine and they spread it with butter and they eat it toasted for breakfast, and they tell me it is the best bread, that store-bought bread holds no joy anymore.
I know it’s not luck that makes bread, nor luck that made my bakery. It’s like the act of writing, where I have kept my sourdough starter alive by continuing to feed it, and I have practiced the art of baking over and over again, knowing that not every loaf will leave my home, that some of them may even go in the garbage or become croutons. It is only because I continue that I succeed. Even on days when the bread is finicky, when the humidity shifts and the temperature drops and the dough is sluggish, I bake, and the bread may be different, but it is still bread. Sometimes, I may skip a day or two of feeding my starter, but then I return to her and I give her extra care on the next feedings because she has been starved and has started to smell like vinegar. Right after feeding, she is flat and lifeless, but with time she will bubble up again. The microbes will find her and they will eat and they will burp. Then, I will know that the wild yeast has been activated. All it takes is a few seconds a day and a couple of ancient ingredients to make her thrive.
I continue motherhood in the same manner. Making breakfast, grocery shopping, and breaking up arguments will never end. We return to each other, to our kitchen, to our table, even on the days when everything is hard, and we eat together the bread that we have created.
On my kitchen counter, I keep a small ceramic tray that is engraved, “write.” It was a gift, something beautiful from a good friend, something that would fit well on my writing desk, but I placed it on my kitchen counter instead as a reminder that creation breeds creation, that feeding even the simplest of foods will sustain our lives, that beautiful words can bubble anywhere if I wish, nay practice, nay continue. Feeding my writing life is like feeding my family, like feeding my sourdough starter, like feeding my need for creativity in many forms. I do not every day find my answers, but I continue my simple daily tasks, sustaining the life that I have built alongside my family, knowing that our days will always, sooner or later, result in something that we cannot live without.