Sunday in the kitchen

It really should feel like a chore. But by the time I line up my farmer’s market loot, sharpen my knife, and pull the pots from the cabinet, I am ready. My mind is clear, focused. I am on auto-pilot yet so aware of every crunch and chop and splash. I want to get done fast, but I also savor these two hours in the kitchen by myself. Sam and Drew are in the garage, organizing, sweeping, or whatever it is that men do in their garages.

I spent a lot of Sundays in the kitchen as a child. My mom and dad both cooked and on Sundays one of them hunkered there for most of the day to prepare our Sunday dinner and make meals for the week ahead. The radio was always tuned to a news station and I knew that when the ding-ding-dong music of the noontime news came on, it was almost time to eat. Our kitchen was small and in the winter mostly heated by the large stove. My mom would turn the stove on in the morning so that by the time it was time to cook she wouldn’t freeze. But soon it was warm enough for me to nestle at our dining table and help with whatever I could — peel potatoes, mix raw meat with spices (that was my favorite), chop onions, make cottage cheese filling for paper-thin crepes, bread chicken breast slices, fetch jars of homemade jam from the pantry.

I learned most of my skills during those Sunday cooking marathons. How to measure flour and sugar for baking. How to get onions to just the right translucency as they sweated in duck fat. How to skim the glimmering, golden fat off chicken soup.  How to crush garlic, squeeze lemon, pound meat. How to experiment, to deviate from the prescribed, to be adventurous. To trust that with small adjustments everything will come out all right in the end. To savor the work, the process, the sweat and tears. To enjoy the result without guilt.

I think about all this as I cook in my own kitchen now, with my own tools and ingredients, for my own family. It feels primal, this urge to feed my family, to start the week with a fridge full of food: chicken soup with fluffy white dumplings, meatballs, a stew with pale parsnips and carrots, sticky rice, apple cake. I think about my parents and all the time they spent cooking for us. Back then it all seemed so effortless to get  Sunday dinner on the table — now I really understand the hours of planning and preparation that went into just that one meal devoured in less than 30 minutes.

Sam is still a bit too young to join me for longer periods or to really help, but when he does sit on the kitchen counter for a few minutes with me he wants to help me stir and to taste spices. I sprinkle some salt on his fingers, then he requests cinnamon, cumin, black pepper, nutmeg. He licks his fingers and then runs off to play again. Food for him is just a distraction right now, something that takes him away from his toys. But he is adventurous in his eating and tries everything.

As I take the apple cake out of the oven I think about how so many of our memories are connected to food and eating, to certain meals, the people who prepared them,  and the rooms where we first tasted something new or special. I hope that with time I can pass that kind of nourishment to Sam — that he will have memories of our time together by the warm stove and the taste of cinnamon on his tongue.

Good enough

I declared this week a “good enough week.”

My husband is in the midst of some marathon business trips and while I am not complaining, I can’t deny that holding down the fort at home has been exhausting. Full time work + moody toddler = survival mode.

I hate survival mode. I want to do so much better than that. I want to be present, alert, fully-immersed, attentive, thoughtful — at my job and at home with Sam. I want to make up fairy tales for him, play in the yard, read, and talk about all of the important stuff going through his little head. I want to be patient. I want to have ideas at work and show that I am capable and talented and committed.

I can usually swing all of this when my husband is at home. Our parenting styles are very different and that leads to some tension in our house, but at the end of the day there’s nothing like having him at home. Even when he is tired and I still do bath time and bedtime duties, just having another grown-up in the house is a relief. Someone who can pour my glass of wine, or pack a lunch bag, or run to the basement for the laundry.

When I am by myself, the house is usually a total wreck by the end of day 2. I go to bed at 8 p.m. because there’s nobody to talk to and I am too lazy to get my own wine after putting Sam to sleep. It’s exactly zero fun.

And then there’s the guilt. Oh, so much guilt! Because I should totally be able to handle all of it by myself, right? It should be effortless and graceful and easy. And when I am alone for 1-2 nights, it is. But when I am alone for weeks on end, with just small breaks in-between — well, all bets are off. I am a hot mess from doing it all by myself and an even hotter mess from feeling like the worst mother in the world.

So this was one of those weeks. I knew it was coming and I made a promise to myself: no guilt, no pressure on myself to be supermom and superwoman. I just wanted to be good-enough-mom and good-enough-woman.


Sam and I snuggled every night in my bed and watched cartoons. He slept in bed with me, his warm little hands curled in my hair. We were late for preschool and work every day. We ate at my parents’ every night and I packed sandwiches and Gold Fish crackers every day for lunch. I drank wine in bed while he was asleep. I let the laundry pile grow to record heights. The living room floor is barely visible from all of the scattered toys. I canceled unnecessary late-afternoon meetings at work. I wore jeans all week long.

But you know what? It was all OK. It wasn’t the most stimulating, exciting, or educational week, but it was relaxed and happy and safe. My husband is coming home tonight and I’ll have some dinner in the fridge for him and a happy, healthy 4-year-old tucked in his own bed.

I know that in a few days I will have to gear up again for another long stretch by myself, but I think I am ready.

Mothering — a lonely profession?

Does anyone else find parenting lonely? I guess I should say “mothering…” Does anyone find mothering lonely?

I find it lonely in two ways: first, I feel alone with all of the big decisions. I know that this is not entirely true, because I do have a husband who is very much a part of the big decisions. But it feels like the weight of the big, big decisions — and the small, daily decisions — are always perched on the mother’s shoulders. I read somewhere that if a child is well-behaved, nobody gets credit, but if the child is a terror, people always wonder about the mother. Right? I know that fathers feel a lot of the responsibility of raising a child, but in the end I think it’s the mother who makes it or breaks it. We feel the weight of things more, I think, and we are quicker to judge ourselves if things are not going well with our child. If only I breastfed, if only I stayed home, if only I hired a nanny…

The other way I’ve been finding mothering lonely is the strange way it affects friendships. You’d think that this universal experience of having a child would bring women together and it does to some extent. But at least with my friends I have found that in an effort not to hurt, or judge, or second-guess each other, our conversations have become more… shallow, maybe? I think I am pretty good about not judging how my friends raise their kids. Sure, there are things I might not do myself, but I also get it that if your baby will only sleep in the bathtub, then that’s what you have to do to get through the night. I really do get it.

And yet I find myself measuring my responses, second-guessing what I should or shouldn’t share about my child, weighing whether I should share my experience in good faith, fearing that it will be taken as judgement. And at this point for me, a friendship has turned into a conversation of two polite strangers with barely anything in common.

When I was pregnant it felt like every woman was way too eager to share everything about their pregnancy and childbirth. And that sort of stopped once I had my baby. Nobody really talks about what having a baby does to you, your body, your marriage, your sex life, your finances, your sleep, your career, your confidence, your everything. Are these changes somehow more shameful to talk about than hemorrhoids and swollen feet? If I told one of my friends during pregnancy that my boobs were painful I would have gotten one advice after another about what to do. But if I would tell one of my friends now that my marriage has been turned upside down after having a kid, or that sex is a distant memory, or that I really, really don’t know what I am doing when it comes to raising a child, I wouldn’t get any advice, just some “mhhhms” and “well, that’s so hard” and “it’s really hard to know what to do.” Not real advice or encouragement. Even when I try to talk to some of my friends about practical things like potty training I get the “well, each child is different” cop-out and a lot of confused looks. That is not helpful.

Anyway… I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately and doing a lot of navel-gazing about what I might be doing wrong. Am I judgmental and I just don’t know it? Or is everyday life just so overwhelming for all mothers that we don’t have time to commiserate and really feel each others’ pain? Or maybe, just maybe, nobody really knows what to do.

Strangely, that is a comforting thought.

This is how quickly it goes…

This is how quickly it goes…

Not at 2 a.m. At that time of the night, two weeks in, time stands still. The small person gnawing at my nipple is red and wiggly and insatiable – and awake. “Is it 2 a.m. again,” I wonder. “Or still?” “Is it still that other 2 a.m. when I was rocking in a chair or walking around the living room? It can’t be.” Two a.m. is a good time to cry, so I do and I think that surely by morning I will be dead – from exhaustion, from confusion, from hunger, from love.

But then suddenly I have a hard time remembering the last time I was awake at 2 a.m. Or the last time I sat in the rocking chair – now holding stuffed animals and books and laundry. Or the weight of the small body in my arms – now all long limbs and muscle and showing off daring jumps from my lap into the world. Nipples are healed, the heart is full, the hunger satisfied. Nights are quiet again.

This is how quickly it goes…

Not on my first day back to work. That day lasted at least 72 hours if not more. How long did I sit in my car in the daycare parking lot – a few minutes or days? – crying and convincing myself that this is OK, that everyone goes through this, that it will get easier. It’s unimaginable how, but somehow I put on a suit in the morning, and makeup, and grown-up shoes, while also remembering to pack diapers, pump enough milk, pack extra clothes, his lovey, his binky, his bottles – like preparing for war. “I can’t possibly do this every morning,” I think as I reapply mascara and wonder whether I can get away with wearing sunglasses at the office all day long to hide my cried-out eyes.

The day my toddler is too busy to say good-bye in the morning is a beautiful day. I watch him run off with his friends, his blond curls bouncing on his head, his giggle filling the room and my head. I hold back the urge to run after him for a hug and a kiss. I wipe away a single tear as I get back in the car – not out of sadness, just to mark the passage of time. No need for new mascara or sunglasses. I turn off the ABC song on the radio and switch to the news. I have a faint memory of that other morning a few years ago and I think “nah, it wasn’t that bad…”

This is how quickly it goes…

A break on the big boy potty can take anywhere from 5 minutes to 5 days. There is so much to do – explore body parts, play with the toilet seat, experiment with a mixture of water and toilet paper, take off all clothes, and explore spray patterns on the wall.

As I sit just outside the door – “no, I am a big boy, I can do it all by myself!” I was told some 5-10 minutes ago – I think about the long, lanky body sitting on the potty and how it used to be round and fleshy and pink. He fit on a changing table with room to spare, his wrinkled legs drawn up to his chest like he was still in the womb. Sure, the diapers were a pain, but those times were also so intimate. It was a time to tickle feet and belly, to gently massage little arms and legs, to coo, to make silly faces, to sing songs about the diaper monster.

“Mama! Wipe my butt!” I finally get the all-clear to enter the bathroom and think “well, this is still intimate, in a business-transaction type of way.” When my little boy gives me that look as I make up a song about the toilet paper monster I know that I just lost some of my cool-factor.

This is how quickly it goes…

So many firsts and lasts. His last meal in the high chair. His first time getting dressed by himself. The last time he drank milk from a bottle on my lap. His first tantrum. His last onesie. His first recognizable drawing. The last time he needed help with his shoes.

It’s hard to imagine how many things can be lost and gained in just a few years. At times the gains seem painful and the losses are daily. Other times there is so much joy with each loss and gain that I am convinced that this surely is the last and best thing that will ever happen to me.

It never is. The next day something new happens – maybe just a small tremor of a change, maybe something earth-shattering. I try so hard to commit to memory the day, the time, the event, the change. As if remembering those details would somehow slow time itself, would make him stay a little boy. Of course I know that the change is inevitable. I know that he is already on his way to becoming whatever fate has in store for him – a firefighter, an astronaut, a construction worker, a daddy, a diver, a knight. This is how it should be.

But when he forgets for a moment that he is a “big boy” and slips his hand into mine or twirls my hair absent-mindedly or needs help with PJs, I quietly think – “thank God, nothing has changed for this one moment.”

I hold on to it because it all goes too quickly.

Finding my way home

It’s a running joke in the McMullin family: as soon as two or more McMullins get together, the conversation will inevitably turn to the topic of roads. They all have an uncanny sense of direction. My brother-in-law can navigate you home from a dirt road in Iowa, giving you both the shortest and most direct routes home, like your very own personal GPS. The McMullins don’t get together too often, but when they do, their conversations usually go something like this:

“Did you drive up 22 today,” my brother-in-law will ask.
“No, I ended up taking the Turnpike, because of the construction on 22,” explains my hubby.
“Oh yeah, that was a good idea. Or, you could have taken the old Barree Road to 305 and come up that way.”
“Right where so-and-so lived on that big farm on the right?”
“Yes, that one. Remember that time we took that road that runs by the river and we ended up by Route 11 east of the gas station where we always stop?”
“Yes, that’s where such-and-such used to live before she moved. Just south of her house is a dirt road with two pine trees. If you take that, it will spit you right out on Route 30.”
“Yeah, I will try that the next time we are up there.”

Because I am not a “real” McMullin, at this point in the conversation I usually tune out, bored and somewhat annoyed. First of all, I don’t know any of the places or so-and-so’s they are talking about. And who cares about where some god-forsaken dirt road in the middle of Pennsylvania leads?

But lately I found myself feeling slightly jealous during these discussions. When my husband and his siblings gather around their mother’s dinner table and talk roads and about who lived where, they seem so rooted and secure, so certain of their place in the world – even if it is a small valley in central Pennsylvania. I envy their sense of place, their certainty of where they came from, where they are, where they are headed, and how to get there.

In MY family, the running joke is this: There’s no place like home, except when you are on your way there. Midway, on an airplane, suspended above the earth, quite uncertain of where you are at any moment. No roadmaps here, no dirt roads, no memories of who used to live where. That’s where our home is.

I am not sure when this became our truth, but most probably it happened a long time ago when we lived in China for two years. It was a short stint of living abroad, yet the experience somehow lodged itself in all of us. We became restless, seeking, searching, never satisfied with where we are – in location, in status, in jobs, in relationships. This was kind of our family quirk for a long time, something to joke about and hold up as a badge of honor. “Look at us, we are so cool! We are at home anywhere in the world!” So when I  left home for real at 18 I didn’t know – and quite frankly didn’t care — that I will never have the certainty of roads in my life. That every place will feel foreign from then on – the street where I grew up in Budapest as much as the coast of Maine, or the backwoods of Pennsylvania.

I didn’t understand that this uncertainty will propel me to always look for new places, to not feel satisfied with where I settled and that I will also be unable to return to the home I remember. Because once you get a taste of what life could be – for better or worse – you never stop wondering about whether you are in the right place, where you should be, or if there is something shiner or grimier, but more exciting waiting for you around the corner. Your “home” becomes a place where you are just waiting for the next thing to happen to you, where you are working up the courage to make it happen. Your home is no longer a quiet place to stay – it’s a place you are supposed to leave behind.

I’d like to think that this means that I am a citizen of the world or something glamorous like that. But the truth is that it just makes me homeless. I am not jet setting around the world – I am raising a child, going to work, buying groceries, getting through the day. I am trying to create a home where I am not sure one can exist. But I try anyway, out of thin air, out of scraps and fragments and shiny, slippery thread.

I sometimes wonder if I’d feel the same way if I hadn’t left home. Would I feel as secure and rooted as the McMullins? Or is it my nature – my family’s nature – that got us into this predicament? But that’s the thing about leaving – you can’t undo it and pretend you never left.

Some evenings I fire up Google Earth on my laptop and zoom in on my street in Budapest, where I was born. In the street view image the gate to our apartment building is half open. There’s a woman walking her dog and the lights in the beauty salon next door seem to be on. The leaves on the chestnut trees are brown and shriveled and it looks like someone just washed off the sidewalk with a bucket of water.

It all looks familiar. I feel a dull ache in the pit of my stomach for that home just beyond the darkness of the gate. I know it’s not the way I left it, or the way I remember it, and that it really isn’t mine anymore. My home is on another street somewhere, some place yet to be discovered, yet to be created.