All time all the time

Time has gone funny. In a way, I have no time; meaning I rarely do what I want to do, mean to do, or need to do. In another way, time is all there is.

I function on a system of clicks, timers, and alarms. Our schedule is loose, but the order of operations is tight. 5 AM, the twins start us off with a dawn chorus. Nurse. Diaper change. By 6 AM we are all awake. Avery calls from her room, Coo-ee! Mama! Wake me up! I go in for a cuddle. Breakfast, then Avery and I draw at the table with Toren trapped in his highchair. Otherwise he climbs and there is no peace.

At 8 AM, I verbally check off Avery’s list (Dressed? Check. Socks? Check. Teeth brushed? Check. Homework? Check. Bag packed? Check. Warmies ready? Check.) and plug her in. Nurse and diaper change again. At 8:35 the shoes-on alarm goes off. Grab Avery’s snack and waterbottle. Change whoever pooped. Remember what I forgot. Alarm goes off again. Shoes on. We are out the door.

I think a lot about the culmination of a life; which means I am always rushing. The people who walk regularly at 9 AM think I am a maniac driver; and I am.

Time comes in three basic types: bronze, silver, and gold. In bronze minutes my lap is on non-stop rotation. I sling pancakes and kiss away tears. Prioritize, execute, repeat. The dog will be fed later. Silver minutes are those when the kids are copacetic. No one is injuring one another. As long as I don’t remind them of my presence I can wash dishes and boil noodles. Gold minutes are the rare, jeweled beasts that come around when everyone is asleep or at school. Everything gets quiet. I can can pour a ceramic mug of hot tea and leave it unprotected and without a lid. It doesn’t spill or break, and no one gets burned. These minutes are pure wonder.

People ask how I find time to write but I don’t find it; I create it. I cultivate creativity and adventure for our family through some serious temporal upscaling. I invite playmates over so Avery uses her imagination instead of kicking the couch. When kids start to spin out, you will hear my battle-cry: Get in the car! Hop on your bike! Anywhere but here! I do my best to turn bronze minutes silver and silver minutes gold. I am always working this alchemy.

Gold time is never enough to do all the things. One must choose. Life with kids is crazy making and rest is necessary. As one mom put it: “Sometimes when I get a minute, I just want to sit down.” But if you want to accomplish anything then this is when the real ass-kicking needs to begin.

Make time for yourself in the same way you would make time for your new boyfriend. Drive across town on your lunch hour to make-out in a stairwell for fifteen minutes. Do it because you want to.

I waste precious little gold time; even in that moment before writing when emotions start to bubble and the dishes look pretty enticing. I eat all of the cookies, but at least they are finite. Remembering how precious these minutes are is usually enough to get me started. For example, today is Wednesday. My husband arrives home tomorrow afternoon, and school is canceled on Friday. So the next 90 minutes is the only time I will get until next week. Sit. Down.

Is writing work or play? It is both. It is desire over duty and the ego enlisted to do the work of the heart. A little writing time ensures that I am happy more often than I am grumpy; also that my kids will know me, have family stories, and learn that even as adults they may take time for themselves.

Looking around the house, most people would have no choice but to clean. But do this math: If I spend two gold hours cleaning, and the kids trash the house within five minutes of reentering, what was gained? The house is no cleaner, I am not rested, and I am mad about the shape we are in.

I joke with myself about “Heidi’s time-saving tips”. Like cleaning always happens in the presence of children, and I skip chores that don’t make sense. For example, I don’t fold laundry. Who cares if we look like a big wrinkle? I wore jeans to a school drop-off once last year and another mom commented. “Props, dude,” she said. “I haven’t worn jeans since I left Dallas.”

Gold minutes are my time. I claim very little for myself these days; not my body, not my food, not my bathroom, not my sleep. Weekday hours from ten until noon are as close to sacred as I get.

Time is nothing; it is all around us. But mess with my time and there will be hell to pay. I teach Avery to be very careful around the word my. “That little word starts a lot of fights,” I tell her. Whenever possible we skip my in favor of the simple article the. There’s no need to get excited about the cup, the game, the stuffy. But my cup; my game; my stuffy. That is another matter.

My poor husband, M, works out of town; so he is either very much gone or very much here. He thinks gold minutes are an opportunity for couple time, or to talk about bills, or to address the pile of broken toys behind the fruit bowl.

My can be a selfish and entitled word or it can reflect a healthy sense of self-worth. M doesn’t understand my obsession with time but he feels this way about food. According to him, food must be hot, delicious, and well-plated. It may not be touched and made weird by children. He definitely doesn’t eat their scraps.

Everyone is entitled to a my now and again. Forget the guilt, and claim whatever gold minutes you can for yourself. Clear two-square-feet of peace and do whatever makes your heart sing.

I function well within the structures I have created. But my lack of flexibility (it’s real) makes including other adults in our day difficult. Even my husband struggles to figure out where he fits.

Before I had kids, I wanted to be a helpful auntie. In the one morning that I was with my sister’s family, I served my nephew’s oatmeal. I took the bowl from my sister, placed it on a wobbly high-chair table, and watched in horror as the whole tray crashed to the floor. I wiped it up while my sister made more oatmeal.

How can a passing adult help a busy parent? It’s never easy to jump in and do the things mom usually does. My lists of “daily chores” and “weekend chores” are generally covered but there is room for improvement in other areas. Can someone convince Avery to clean-up after herself? Help the brothers fall back asleep at 4:30 AM? Teach the dog to feed himself?

Unlikely. When M comes home, I shower. I sweep under the beds. I play with my children. The brothers are better supervised and suffer fewer bonks. No child waits or cries for very long. And I get less gold time than I would have had on my own.

It comes down to this: I struggle to use gold minutes in the presence of other adults. I worry about what people think and I get sucked in to this thing that my mother did, and her mother before her, where until the work is finished there is no time to live.

What I really need from the supporting cast is 90-minutes whenever possible. Not a clean kitchen. Not special time with the brothers. Not an extra pair of hands when they’re getting out of the bath. “I don’t need help,” I tell my husband. “I need escape.”

Caring for three kids is hard. I struggle to imagine how another adult would do this so I rarely leave them; even with dad. But, every now and again, the feeling that I have nothing left to give manifests in my putting on my shoes.

This weekend my breaking point was a spaghetti squash that I served with marinara for lunch. I mean, it was a little bland but it wasn’t disgusting. No one would eat it. I laughed until I cried and then I said to my husband, “I’m walking away from this dumpster fire.”

“It’s not a dumpster fire,” he said.

“Yes, it is,” I said. “I just make it look really good.”

I throw elbows to protect gold minutes because no one is going to do it for me. But I don’t like stomping out of the house to get an hour. When that happens I waste half of my allotted me-time calming down. It doesn’t have to be this way.

When Avery was a toddler, I made a schedule that designated equal “autonomous human units” of free time to each of us. I had an unreasonable hour-and-a-half each morning before my family woke up, and M had an unreasonable hour-and-a-half every night after we went to bed. Additionally, we each got one evening a week and a three-hour block of time on the weekend. I knew when my gold minutes were coming, and it was pretty great.

Three kids and my husband’s commute now prohibit my scheduling ideals; but it’s okay. The more I work through this the more I realize time is a proxy. My real need, both simpler and more complicated, is to exist as my complete self.

I try to explain to M but he doesn’t get it. “I think you’re missing the old you,” he tells me. “But the new you is a beautiful thing.”

What I am trying to impart, is that the new me is dangerously close to becoming no-thing. This kind of loss plays a huge role in post-partum depression. We expect our new bundle to fill our lives with joy and instead a mom is faced with the private grief of losing everything she used to be.

The mothers of my ancestors did not talk about this loss of self. Women of the past couldn’t get fifteen or twenty adult years before having a family like women today. They had less to lose; but they smoldered with questions over who they might have been.

As a child, these women cared for me and taught me to nurture. But unconscious flavors simmered with their warmth; a scorn you heard only when they spoke to their husbands. I watched and learned to include that quiet resentment in my own recipe for how a mother is made.

I am a wife and mother. I would also like to continue on with my inner life of creativity and spirituality and an outer life of words and leadership. I hope to find a way.

My husband spends quiet evenings scrolling on the couch, finishes meals, leaves the house without much fanfare, even disappears for weeks at a time without ruffling the family feathers. He does as he pleases during bronze minutes when I am absolutely scrambling. It isn’t fair; but it is this way. My walking around like a bristlecone pine isn’t going to change anything.

My friend, S, jokes about this phenomenon. She says that before she had kids it was all planned out. “Parenting would be 50-50,” she said, “until I realized, Oh. I am the mother.”

So I get up every morning whenever the children wake and my husband sleeps another two hours. Other inequities swing my way. I recently handed him a list of “never gets done” chores, and he vacuumed my car and repaired the toaster. Last night, around bedtime, I noticed that the toilet was glowing from waaay down under the water. Eirik had flushed an LED nightlight. I will not be the one to recover it.

My husband works very hard for our family. Certainly he feels the tug of freedom as a strain against the weight of our responsibilities. But for all of my husband’s daily sacrifices, he is not shamed when he takes time for himself. Becoming a father did not require that he give up his drive, ingenuity, ambition, or bodily needs. His sense of self is alive and well. He does not worry about what other people think when he uses his own damn gold minutes.

In a recent podcast, I heard Esther Perel say, “Instead of anger, communicate hurt. Instead of criticism, communicate longing.” So yes, familial tasks take all of my time and I feel angry about what I lose in that transaction. I criticize my husband’s bottomless fountain of gold minutes because I have so few. I am hurt by the way family life snuffs out women’s voices and forces a withdraw of our work from the world. My heart goes out to all the moms who are part of this Great Resignation, especially to those who would rather earn a paycheck than caretake. We lament the loss of your faces in the workplace.

I want to be home raising my brood, and I long to be my whole self instead of a sweep-it-up mom robot. My husband wants me to be happy, but it is not important to him that I do a thing. He does not ask how much writing I’ve done lately.

May we value ourselves enough to take the time we have to do what we want. May our creative fires burn bright and grow. May children see their parents thriving.

***

Lament

So far my twins have been easy. Not cake walk easy but at least walking with two cakes easy. I will definitely pay for putting that in print.

First the oven, then the world!

I thought my first baby was hard as an infant, but I had never had a toddler. Toddlers should be illegal. Yesterday Toren dropped his poopy diaper under the dining room table and ran away laughing. His canines are irrupting and all shall suffer. Eirik is a buckle Houdini. He crawls like an army tank and climbs even unclimbable things.

My mom hustle has become a 15-hour day that includes cooking dinner with a crying baby standing up against each of my legs. What’s the pay? No pay.

I don’t mean to imply that things aren’t going well. This morning I picked blueberries with Toren on my back, Eirik asleep in the car, and my daughter by my side. On the bumpy car ride home the brothers played with their lips and voices, and Avery asked, “What is fart, mama?”

“Fart is an adult word for toot,” I said.

“Do trees fart, mama?”

“No. Trees don’t fart because they don’t have bottoms.”

“Maybe we could get a marker and draw on all these trees,” she suggested. “Eyes, ears, mouths, and bottoms, bottoms everywhere.”

Who could ask for more? Awesome is mine for thirty minutes a day. Maybe twice a day. In the afternoon we also read a library book called “Unicorn Diary.”Avery called it, “Unicorn Diarrhea,” and I teared up with laughter. The rest of the day, however, was about kindly extracting pulling fingers from hair, scrubbing old food off of walls, and wearing sick babies who wouldn’t nap. If I am a happy person it’s because I am stubbornly optimistic, and not because of any unicorns prancing through my house with rainbows shooting out of their butts.

Nobody knows.

Before I had kids people told me that parenting is the best. Amazing. Not to be missed. Reflecting on this cultural norm fills me with questions. Have you people never had fun? Are my kids crazier than other kids? Did my mother go through this? (I really don’t think she did.)

My husband gets it. “Your job is hard because it’s emotional,” he says. Ahem. My job is emotional, physical, and involves withstanding chaos and fatigue that at times qualify as torture. I’m honing a strategic and tactical skill set that might qualify me for a future career in the special forces. Until then, need a lasagna made in a burning building? I’m your gal.

I had a goodish day but let’s be clear about the score. My only objective is to teach three little kids how to be great humans. What I get out of this is not happiness, nor joy, but an endless opportunity for personal growth.

No one touting the “joy of parenthood” should be trusted unless they are currently in it. Even then, check references. People must stand firmly by irrevocable devisions, and under stress we cease to create memories. Parents can’t remember what happened yesterday much less a decade ago. I know because I wanted to capture a time lapse of an actual evening for this post and I could barely do it. Here is what happened:

Bath night. Toren is crying to be let out of the tub before I even turn the water on. Avery gets into the bath voluntarily; a real miracle. Eirik pooped in his diaper so I wipe him. The “waterfall” (shower) fills the tub. Toren is crying. I get in and wash my hair quickly while the kids splash among the tub toys at my feet. Then I hop out and towel off, needing to dress before they all want out. Everyone is copasetic so I dart into my bedroom to pull fresh sheets on the bed while listening through the open bathroom door for emergencies cued either by screaming or silence. I put the crib mattress on the floor to change the sheet. Toren wants out. Avery cannot tolerate Eirik who is dumping water out of her Duplo’s; so I get him out of the tub with my left arm while holding slippery Toren under my right arm so he can’t escape and splash in the toilet. I nurse the brothers on my half-made bed. Toren thrashes and head-butts me in the mouth. Eirik is feeling playful and his teeth come down hard on top of Toren’s head. He starts bleeding from his gums and Toren is crying again. Avery gets out of the tubby and runs through the house dripping water everywhere. She comes back in a pink party dress and is spinning and spinning around my room. Toren is still crying. Eirik is bleeding; so I wet a washcloth for him to suck on and carry him while I drag a towel through the house with my foot to dry the floor. Avery jumps up and down on the crib mattress, and the brothers join in. Someone is about to get hurt so I tell Avery to go brush your teeth. I put the mattress, with fresh sheet, back in the crib. The babies go into their cribs and I put on some pants. Avery returns with her water bottle, climbs into my bed for books and cuddling, and head-butts me in the mouth. Eirik bounces on his mattress and knocks his teeth against the wooden crib railing. He’s bleeding again. I read to Avery as fast as I can over both babies crying. Her water spills and soaks my bedsheets; I proceed with the books as if nothing happened. When three books are read, I pick up a baby under each arm and off we go to tuck in big sister.

Motherhood is the one job you cannot walk away from and maintain status as a decent person. I recently heard self-care defined as “taking enough care of yourself that you don’t need to run away from your life”. I get that. I like my gig but I still need an hour to myself every day; a morning once a week; a week’s vacation once a year. I have no idea how to get this kind of time; but if I don’t I may well want to run away from my life, and that motivates me to figure it out.

I wish previous generations of women had told us what we were getting ourselves into; not that it would have made any difference. No prospective mother is going to opt out because someone tells her it’s hard. We are all the more intrigued.

If I didn’t have my kids I would have been sad forever. It is amazing to watch them grow and become who they are. But more often than not, parenting is also, as one mom puts it, “like bleeding from your eyeballs”. Just this once I would like to send a different message out into the world, and say: If you wanted kids and didn’t end up with them, you might be doing all right.

Life offers a fine line between have to and get to. Responsibilities bring joy. Hard work is fun. I am so pleased to raise my children, and sometimes I would like to do something else. Because satisfaction lives just over the horizon, and this shit is only fun if there’s nowhere else you would rather be.

Real things

I’ve been reflecting on a conversation I had 15 years ago, with my friend E, when we lived at the edge of the Arctic Circle. Neither of us had partners or children yet, and we shared great conversation and sourdough waffles every Saturday morning.

“What do you want your life to be about?” I asked.

“I think a lot about real things,” she said.

This woman, in her early 20s at the time, earned a perfect score on her SATs and opted to major in home economics. She was a flawless baker, sewer, knitter, teacher, and cafe owner. She once taught me to properly fold a fitted sheet (sorry E; I continue to wad it up into a ball).

For me, blinky-flashy things like phones are the opposite of real. Everything in there is virtual. I held out on getting my first cell phone until a day in 2006 when I needed a payphone, and I couldn’t find one. In 2011 I finally sent a message to all my contacts that said, “I text now.” I pushed the 7 key four times to get the letter T.

Today I have an outdated iPhone that I use (yes, writing on it now), but also sort of resent. I resent the $160 a month we pay for a service I value at half the price. I resent the way music, which used to play continuously, is now interrupted. I resent the way my husband texts while I am speaking to him and calls it “multi-tasking.” We’ve been together ten years and still don’t recognize each other’s hand writing.

Technology, fine. But what of relationships? I prefer that people use their phones in private (gasp!) because a phone used in shared space quickly shifts we energy into me energy. In gaining all of this personal choice, we’ve lost a lot of comradery.

Photo by R. Evanson

In my home, I am the ultimate real thing. My children are forever climbing on, playing with, and eating me. I rarely use a phone in front of my kids because I can’t. It’s impossible. My husband is exempt from all this and I am very, very jealous.

I also save phone use for nap time because Avery models herself after what I do, and not what I tell her to do. I carefully call this thing a phone and our phone instead of my phone, and I let Avery use it whenever she has a reasonable purpose. I hope she won’t decide she needs one anytime soon because I will never hear the end of it. #littlebull #strongwilledchild #taurus

There is nothing wrong with phones as tools. Photograph. Call. Look up. Pay. Deposit. Text. Social. Read. Listen. But be conscious of how you distract yourself from life. On days when I am over it, I sneak one earbud in and use an audiobook to tune out my children while I parent. I will die the day Avery does this to me.

*

Little kids love real things. Avery employs what we call the object of the week: Life jacket. Ice pack. A few yards of magenta ribbon. Hand soap. First aid supplies. Two breast milk saver bags. Some long blades of dry rye grass. A broken strand of faux pearls. She plays until the object’s uses are exhausted and then moves on to the next real thing.

She is also fascinated by the blinky flashy.

Well-meaning adults are always trying to connect with Avery through their screens. The first time baby Avery met her grandpa he handed her a phone to chew on. When I objected, he was confused. “Because it’s dirty?” He asked.

Once I had to work on a Saturday and my daughter stayed with dad. When I came home, I found two-year-old Avery plugged in and watching the movie Frozen for the second time that day. I will never forgive him this.

Childhood is short and every minute of screen time makes it shorter. To everyone else: I am with them for 100 waking hours a week. You have them for a minute. Couldn’t you do something else?

Adult priorities are clear: All a child has to do is follow your gaze. Yes, getting things done with kids around is impossible. But whenever you can, engage. Swings. Books. Blocks. Paint. Soccer balls. Monkey bars. Bikes. Dirt. Animals. Plants. Music. Food. Love manifests as time and attention.

*

Avery and I have a friend who comes from the last generation of real things. She and her husband have lived in a cabin without running hot water for decades. They turn compost, prepare root vegetables for lunch, ride bicycles as often as they drive cars, and repair their own shoes. This woman reads poems to Avery about kids splashing in creeks and taught her to make little boats out of alder leaves. For all the outside influences my kid is exposed to, she is the one I’m most grateful for.

I want my kids to grow up rooted in real. I sometimes pick up maps, cameras, and novels instead of using a phone for everything just so they learn to use these objects. I want to start buying CDs again so Avery can thumb through them to discover music. I’m sure all of this is mostly futile but maybe not completely.

Childhood is about exploring places and objects, building skills, following curiosity, and discovering the power of creativity. I thought summer vacation would be a time of dandelion crowns, sand castles, and tadpoles. And it is. It is also an endless opportunity for a child to beg for sugar and episodes.

Screen time is a serious crux of parenting. On one hand, a child in front of a screen is doing almost nothing of value. On the other hand, the thought please go away and leave me alone so I can do something is never far from my mind.

I aim to keep our family’s screen time just under the brain rot line. I don’t care if my kids are plugged in for 45 minutes at a time if the show won’t inspire nightmares or teach bad language; and as long as kids do something involving brain, muscle, cooperation, or coping skills before and after watching.

I deal with Avery’s constant requests by making screen time predictable and available for a price. She earns daily episodes by napping or playing alone for 30-45 minutes. Between the earning and the episode, I’m able to make dinner.

That’s the theory. But I’m struggling a little this summer with sneaky screen time: We both like it when Avery is plugged in; so I keep finding excuses to allow her more.

Like, she watches something while I do her hair and continues while I put the brothers down for their morning nap. I justify this screen time by requiring it to be in Spanish.

But she actually watches twice each day.

Then there are storm days, which are long; especially when we are up at 5 AM. When a blizzard or torrential rain keeps us inside, and I am tired, the thought please go away and leave me alone so I can do something is very, very loud. So Avery watches a movie while I listen to classical music, drink black tea, and write for an uninterrupted couple of hours the way I did before I had children, and I feel very, very happy.

And screen time happens a third way.

This morning, Avery showed her dad a video game on her little camera. It’s been fun for her to change the screen and hear the bubbly electronic music; but thus far she has not known how to play the game. Within a few clicks of his thumb, however, my husband has her disappearing bricks from a candy-colored wall. And now I shall be in constant conversation with Avery about when she’s allowed to play this game, and for how long, and why she’s not allowed to play it more.

Because I don’t want a fourth reason.

*

My friend E and I have each moved a few times since those languid, chatty Saturday mornings. We each married and birthed a couple of kids. Our interactions are usually limited to an exchange of holiday cards but I got in touch while working on this post.

“Remember, the real things?” I ask. “What does that look like for you these days?”

For her, as for me, real things are defined as much by what they are not as by what they are. Her family confines laptops, printers, scanners, speakers, and phones to a technology room (Did I mention she taught technology?). The rest of the home gets to stay real.

She also recognizes the importance of real food. She prioritizes cooking farm-fresh meals and canning salsa with her daughter while the baby sleeps. “My kitchen is a disaster 100% of the time,” she says.

E prepares fresh veggies and homemade pasta, but her daughter’s request for lunch will always be… you guessed it. “I have no idea what the allure is with boxed Mac and cheese,” she says. “There must be a spell on it or something.”

Kids get hijacked into virtual worlds and virtual foods at least as easily as adults are. Certainly we have less control over what content and calories they consume as they grow. But for the millionth time, caring for others is an inroad to caring for ourselves. At least E and her husband are eating homemade pasta. At least her daughter understands this as a possibility.

Buttressing family life with real things feels like a sort of protection from the spell of the blinky flashy guaranteed to show up in our childrens’ lives. “As long as their days are filled with curiosity and adventure,” says E, “I don’t think a few shows will hurt anyone. At least that’s my hope.”

Photo by R. Evanson

*

Culinary Adventures

I like to cook; but I love to be fed. Somehow this dichotomy served me well in my first two decades of adulthood. But then it was 2020 and I found myself cast as the mother in a family of five. My under-confidence in the kitchen exacerbated our dinner stress, and I figured, as long as I am responsible for feeding all of these hungry people forever, I might as well learn. Time to take my meatballs out of my apron pocket.

I’m not a bad cook. I can make something robust, filling, and even tasty; but I am slow and my repertoire is limited. I only cook when I have unlimited time and that occurs under one condition: When pigs fly.

A big problem is that I start making dinner without an end goal. Seriously. I have no idea what these ingredients might combine to become. My only objective is to use up the vegetables before they liquify in the bottom of the refrigerator. I chop and sauté, add things from cans, and voila! A soup is born.

If I make anything other than soup, I screw up the details. I start with polenta, but turn the whole steaming potful into a baked cornmeal pizza crust. Toppings shift out of beans and cheese and into pesto and olives. Or leftover brown rice sneaks its way into Thai dishes. I am forever mixing and matching Asian sauces. Every meal is as much a surprise to me as to anyone else. Nothing ever tastes quite right.

“You are crossing cultures,” my husband complains.

This from a guy who puts ranch dressing on tacos. “How come when you do it, it’s fusion cooking, but when I do it it’s a mistake?” I ask.

“Because when I do it,” he says, “it’s delicious.”

Fine.

I surround myself with good cooks; which is not entirely coincidental. My husband must have been a five-star chef in a past life. He is a wealth of culinary insight, and for no obvious reason.

One afternoon, M stops home for lunch and I proudly serve him a turkey-havarti melt with avocado and homemade pesto. His response: “Any chance of a little tomato?”

M always knows what he wants. The flip-side is he doesn’t receive mediocre food well. He does not even receive good food well if it could be improved upon. For ten years I have avoided conflict with my husband by not bothering to feed him.

I slice the tomato, muttering not-so-under-my-breath. I’m fishing for an apology. He opens his mouth, and I look up. He says, “Do we have any red onion?”

I would hate him for this, except the sandwiches turn out so special.

Food presses me to answer questions of desire that I have long avoided: What do I crave? What might fulfill me? What do people eat, anyway?

My home cooking started the way all of my best learning does: By circling in from a seemingly unrelated point, taking my sweet time, and enjoying myself along the way.

Several months in, I had little to show for my efforts except better breakfast foods and baked goods that I was already pretty good at making. I spent hours in the kitchen, and still there was nothing to eat. One night, all I had to show for myself was peanut sauce, roasted veggies, and rice. “Is this dinner?” Avery asked. Um, yes?

Feeding children is tricky. I prepare dinner under the guise of feeding them but let’s be honest: They want yogurt and toast. And tacos. I could throw a taco at them every night and nobody would complain.

Best that I please myself whenever possible. I find myself doing crazy things; like I’ll be inspired by a vegan recipe but then I’ll add dairy and meat or make it gluten-free. Good stuff happens this way but it isn’t efficient. Fake parmesan and vegan butter, while interesting, are not exactly necessary.

Also, I do have to feed the children. I did a couple of experiments with meatless meats that didn’t go over well. Avery refused to eat the first one, and that should have been my sign. On the second foray she said, “Mama, if it doesn’t look like meat, and it doesn’t taste like meat, it isn’t meat.”

Learning any skill necessitates a certain willingness to fail. I experiment with new recipes when M is out of town so that my inner midwestern farm-wife doesn’t fret about pleasing him. But Avery let’s me know if I miss the mark.

Avery has her father’s pallet. She will eat whatever I make as long as it is delicious. Also, she needs presentation. I can have all of the elements of a meal ready to go; but if it falls apart into a pile of crying babies at the last minute and looks like pig slop she goes on hunger strike.

I want to make wholesome, healthy, delicious food. Sounds simple. But who cooks this way? Where are my people? Also, how do I create delightful meals without a lot of planning and fuss? If mung bean sprouts and ripe avocados grew out of my ears I would be much better at this.

Time to get goal-oriented. Every weekend I jot a quick list of things to make throughout the week and endeavor to do one creative thing in the kitchen every day. I visit the library and check out all the cookbooks. I bookmark everything that looks good, then become so overwhelmed that I go back and shove everything through the slot.

Later, I try again. Mercifully, an epiphany brings relief: Food is themed. Ethnicities. Seasons. Colors. Certain things go together, and certain things don’t. With a little research I also pick up a new recipe app that allows me to organize recipes this way and it gives me the feeling that life will go on. This is where I’m at, people.

Here are some profiles I am playing with:

Southeast Asian: Red curry paste, mung bean sprouts, cilantro, peanuts.

Mediterranean: Parsley, basil, thyme, tomato, olives, lemon, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, mozzarella, parmesan.

Mexican: Black beans, tomato, corn, chili powder, cumin, avocado, lime, red onion, cilantro.

Japanese: Soy sauce, miso, ginger, sesame, green onion, rice wine vinegar, seaweed.

Themes keeps me on task. I get a lot of mileage out of making sure I can name a dish, and clarify its ethnic origins before I start cooking. It’s also possible that thematic thinking affects my shopping more than my cooking. I don’t need to know what’s for dinner when I put in an order; but if I buy green onions then I also need ginger and miso. If I’m craving sun-dried tomatoes it’s worth picking up some feta. You’re welcome.

Getting interested in food, leaning in, has turned cooking from a source of stress into a source of pleasure. If I accomplished nothing except that I change 100 diapers and a day I feel sort of, meh. If I change 100 diapers, and make ratatouille, I feel awesome.

Eventually, I found a few sources that check all the boxes for me. Favorite cookbooks include Nourish by Cara Rosenbloom and Nettie Cronish and the Run Fast, Eat Slow series by Shalane Flanagan and Elyse Kopecky. Angela Liddon of Oh She Glows is a vegan genius and few things taste so good as vegetarian dishes by Cookie and Kate.

Cooking has also improved my diet more than restricting food ever did. The more I prepare inspiring vegetables, and seek protein in beans and seeds, the more I crave those foods.

My time in the kitchen is shifting out of responsibility and into play. I get to have a little adventure, protected there behind a gate. When the babies toddle over they always leave with a snack. If anyone cries then everyone gets a cookie. I want them to enjoy time with mom in the kitchen, too.

Let’s begin.

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