Posted on May 13th, 2012
As I square off with my two-year-old niece, it occurs to me that I may have gone over the edge. She sits across from me, her wispy blond pigtails and huge blue eyes barely clearing the table top. It’s lunch time, and I’ve amassed a startling array of foods – things that I never knew lurked in the back corners of my cupboards. Earlier in the day, I had confidently sprinkled dried cranberries in front of her only to have them unabashedly handed back to me in a sticky glob after she put several in her mouth, chewed for a second before her face puckered into a wince of disgust, and she just as quickly took them back out again. Now, still smarting from the rejection, I place various bite-sized items on her plate and watch anxiously as they are unceremoniously mauled by her tiny baby teeth.
When I was 19, I thought I knew what women meant when they talked about their biological clocks ticking; “I definitely want kids,” I said blithely to my friends. When I was 22, I thought, oh THIS is what they meant, as I relinquished newborns back to their moms. Now, at 26, I’m in constant battle with the ravenous appetites of my uterus. She makes me eye babies like a mother wolf who’s lost her pups. She coolly assesses men I pass on the street for their paternal potential. It’s bad, guys, and it’s getting worse.
I have seriously considered the pros and cons of different stroller models.
The cherub in front of me compounds the problem; she’s just so satisfying. Crackers, pieces of apple, cucumber slices, they all go down easily. I build my case with julienned red pepper, a small pile of walnuts, and my crowning achievement, pieces of spicy red radish. This flurry of peeling and chopping is, however, merely the sideshow that keeps her sitting in one place while I fry quesadillas, the cheese melting to a beautiful ooze between toasted corn tortillas. She stuffs one whole wedge in her mouth and coughs when it jams up against her uvula. I quickly cut the remaining pieces in half as I watch her masticate the giant mouthful, nervously running over the toddler Heimlich in my mind. She’s finished her entire quesadilla before I’m halfway through mine, and stretches out a greasy hand toward my plate. “More,” she declares, even though she’s consumed roughly six times her own body weight. I slide the last two pieces of my quesadilla over. When she’s done, we wipe her hands (“wipe!”) and head upstairs. It’s nap time, for both of us.
Is the schism between brain and endocrine system a phenomenon of women in their twenties? If so, where do I opt out? Whether or not I actually want children is immaterial, the second I scent a baby around, the red phone rings in my ear. It’s my ovaries calling. “Look how cute it is,” they say, “it’s so snuggly,” and when said infant wraps a little hand around my finger, one of them punches me in the kidney. Luckily, what can only be an evolutionary survival mechanism has kicked in. Are you paying attention, dear Charles? In an effort to appease the ferocity of my lady parts, I’ve temporarily squelched the urges of ovulation and implantation, and have instead skipped merrily into the land of grandma-dom. That’s right, come on over, young men; let me feed you.
In the early part of the month, it’s all fresh fruit and raw vegetables. I toss elaborate salads with my homemade red wine vinaigrette. I slice and quarter kiwi. I serve risotto on a suggestive bed of arugula. We are light and free, things are casual, and though I graciously describe my salad dressing philosophy, I do not obsessively check that you’ve had enough. The urge to mother is under control.
Peak fertility finds me hovering over complicated dishes with many steps and names I can’t pronounce: butternut squash and caramelized onion galette, arroz con pollo, shakshuka. I turn up the blender to drown out the knock, knock, knocking of ovaries on my frontal lobe. If my stare makes you uncomfortable, I’m sorry; it’s just that knowing you enjoyed your meal is so much more filling than actually eating any of it myself. My womb brims with happiness. I have fed you.
Mere days later, I crouch over a medium-rare burger, the bodies of those who dared to offer me stir fry strewn in my wake. Fallopian tubes take no prisoners on the hunt for iron. When my uterus realizes that I have yet again failed to impregnate her, she takes a swift and vicious revenge. I get out butter and sugar and flour in between waves of pain, trying to distract her from her endometrial loss with banana chocolate chip muffins. In this, the autumn of menstruation, I go for the highest fat content. If I can’t gain baby weight, well by God I’m going to gain other weight. Frosting is the only salve for this wound.
Food is not merely a diversion, however. I derive a deep sense of fulfillment from creating meals that are delicious, beautiful, and healthy. I gather friends and family purely to try new recipes and sleep soundly at night after particular successes. Cooking and eating transcends the base biological need for calories and instead satisfies the human social drive for community. Having joined their ranks before my time, I understand our grandmothers now. Divested of the demands of dependent children, they – we – are simply trying to regain the closeness of family. As young people, struggling through the phase between leaving our own childhoods and becoming parents ourselves, my friends and I create family with each other. We are a chosen family, and we eat together. When I’m feeding you, when we are cooking and eating together, we are all mothers, just as we are all children. This garnish? This garnish is pure love.
My niece wakes up from her nap, sweaty from sleep on this summer afternoon, and I take her outside, two popsicles in hand. She sits on my lap and we drip juice on each other. I may not be able to keep her, but at least I’ve fed her, as she has me. So, until such a time that I find myself hanging onto my maternal membrane, my embryonic pudding, you’ll find me in the kitchen. I’ll say, are you hungry? and the answer had better be yes, or I can’t be responsible for the consequences. Unless we’re baking with the baby oven, get out your potholders ‘cause I’m makin’ a casserole. Man or woman, adult or child, one way or another I will nourish you, body and soul.