In my spice cabinet, there resides a simple tin shaker emblazoned with a big red “C” (Nail polish color: Fire Engine Red). The container is filled with a mixture of cinnamon and sugar, and I use it to occasionally add a dash of sweetness to my children’s apple slices, applesauce, oatmeal, or buttery toast.
The shaker is just like the one my grandfather – known as Papa – used to have in his kitchen. And so every time I see it stashed in my cabinet packed in with the clear cylinders of dried basil, crushed ginger, and cumin, I’m reminded of my papa, a man who believed food and serving it to others was the chief nourishment of life itself.
Growing up, my family made the trek up to my grandparents’ home in Illinois from Georgia each year. There we celebrated with family, fun, Mass, and food. Lots of it. From the moment you slipped out of bed you were well-fed. Papa, in the fashion of a professional short-order cook, would whip up breakfast for a gaggle of hungry kids and their parents. We’d all gather around a long picnic table covered with a vinyl red and white checkered tablecloth. Here, we laughed and waited for Papa to feed us mouths poised like a bunch of hungry, helpless baby birds. Then we’d eat, and it was love at first bite. We’d applaud his culinary brilliance and often ask for seconds. He’d happily oblige.
Papa was a dutiful chef who took personal orders – especially at the breakfast table. My mom might request a poached egg. Dad might order white rice swimming in butter and dusted with cinnamon-sugar from the very tin I modeled my own after. But the grandkids – we all wanted Papa’s famous cinnamon toast. Papa somehow always managed to toast the bread to perfection. I’ve never had much luck with toasters – the bread always comes out brittle or not toasted at all. But Papa’s bread turned a slight golden brown, and he spread butter evenly across its warm, crispy surface. Then he sprinkled the perfect amount of cinnamon-sugar mixture over the bread so that you tasted the creamed sweetness with each bite but never encountered any sugary clumps. I’d chomp into it and taste his genius and wonder how a man who was legally blind – Papa suffered from macular degeneration – could possibly know how to add just the right amount of butter and cinnamon-sugar to make the best cinnamon toast my taste buds had ever encountered. In between bites, I’d take swigs of cold milk. It was a sublime breakfast.
My grandparents eventually left Illinois and joined the flocks of snowbirds and moved to Florida. We no longer had the big table to gather at, but food remained the highlight of our visits.
When my firstborn was only a few months old, my husband, our baby, and I went to visit my grandparents. When I woke up in the early morning to the sound of the surf dancing across the sand below, I crept into the kitchen. Papa, also an early riser, was there to greet me – and to serve me as well.
“What would you like for breakfast?” he asked.
I wasn’t really hungry yet but to turn him down felt like rejecting his love.
Before I could answer, he asked his grown granddaughter if she wanted some eggs. Almost shyly, I asked if he could instead make his cinnamon toast. He grinned, clapped his hands, and said, “You bet!” Then he pulled out his token sugar-cinnamon tin can.
My papa had always been big (he loved to make and eat food), but old age was taking its toll on him. This larger-than-life man was shrinking before my eyes and as I watched veined, wrinkled hands at work in the kitchen, I knew there might not be too many more breakfasts of Papa’s cinnamon toast to savor.
I’m not always so prescient, but that was the last time I tasted Papa’s cinnamon toast. His body would shut down and he would die not long after.
But Papa left a legacy behind. An aunt of mine compiled his favorite recipes – handwritten in his writing in big letters his weak eyes could decipher – and made copies for all of us. Today Papa’s love lives on in drops of his signature orange sauce, the deep flavor of his vichyssoise, and in the simplicity of old standbys like cinnamon toast and buttery white rice served every Christmas morning.
With America’s obesity epidemic and the myriad health problems an excess of eating brings, to say that food is love has become somewhat taboo. But my papa taught me that food is indeed more than just something you make or eat. It’s an act of love to both graciously receive well-prepared food as well as to make it. There is something sacrificial in dishes prepared by our hands, dough kneaded, risotto stirred to the perfect consistency, and homemade chocolate chip cookies gooey hot out of the oven served with a side of love to a hungry child or spouse.
Papa nourished the ones he loved with meals. He understood that we are meant to break bread together. For Papa, the art of celebrating food and family was more than tradition – it was a way of life. Just like the Eucharist is to the Church family. We feast, and we receive the love that is God in our hearts. We are nourished. We want for nothing. Food is most definitely sometimes love. It goes down so easily.
In my own kitchen, when preparing a meal starts to feel more like a burden than a labor of love, when chopping my toddler’s food into minuscule, choke-proof chunks is tedium rather than an adventure in the culinary craft, I think of my papa who trained me well in the art of serving food and love on one platter. Like holy relics, the cinnamon-sugar shaker or the notebook of his favorite recipes scrawled on paper as jaundiced and thin as pages of parchment come out of their hiding places. And as I stir, chop, and taste test, I’m reminded that in this kitchen, I’m don’t only fill stomachs, I fill hearts – just as my papa showed his love for all of us as we gathered around his kitchen table. Just as Christ offers us the Bread of Life, in serving my family meal after meal, in gathering them together, in preparing and sharing an extra meal for a friend who has just had a baby or is just having a hard time, I am nourishing souls and offering the taste of God’s goodness in the gift of wholesome and delicious love.
I was in the kitchen making final dinner preparations as my older children were setting the table when I overheard my then 4-year-old ask her 9-year-old big sister, “Maddy, why is sexy a bad word?”
There was a pregnant pause. Then Madeline slowly began to speak, “Well…uh. You know, I think that’s a question for Mommy.”
The kids have asked me why I don’t want them to listen to certain pop songs that have sage phrases like “I’m sexy and I know it” or “bring sexy back.” I haven’t gone into great deal, but I have started to explain the difference between the words “beautiful” and “sexy.”
When I first became a mother, I harbored a lot of fear about my daughter’s perception of beauty because I had suffered from an eating disorder and struggled with my own body image and had made my appearance my idol. I was terrified that my own children would make let their outward appearance become a barometer of their self-worth and waste precious years of their lives at war with the scale and the mirror.
Fortunately for me, my first daughter was born pining for pirate parties and soccer. She didn’t seem to pay much attention to the frilly stuff. Rachel, my second, liked to play dress up and pretend she was a princess, but it was just one of many interests, and these days she prefers reading while wearing comfy clothes rather than pretty frocks.
Enter Mary Elizabeth. The girl has loved makeup and shoes from the day she first discovered my vanity and closet. She piles on the pink puffery, and most of her tantrums involve bad hair days or wardrobe malfunctions. She never leaves the house without myriad accessories. At a recent birthday party, a friend of mine complimented her shiny bracelet bling. She told her thank you and that it was her “party bangle.” I’m not sure I’ve ever used the word bangle.
When she was probably around 2, I recall her picking up a blush brush and making it dance across her cheeks. My first impulse was to tell her to stop, but I hesitated when I saw the way she was smiling at her reflection. I had a parenting epiphany. I had no business trying to dissuade her from pursuing beauty or encouraging her to eschew all things feminine. God designed her to be a mark of beauty in the world and to find a way to express her femininity. For some women like my Mary Elizabeth, that may involve applying tasteful makeup and wearing pretty things, and that’s okay. And truthfully, taking one look at my closet clues you into the fact that I am drawn to pretty things (shoes!), too.
Over time, I’ve grown in wisdom and now recognize that when any of my daughters want to slap on some lip gloss or play with a makeup brush, they aren’t on an extreme makeover mission. My daughters don’t (yet) see their bodies or faces as objects to be adorned or altered. They see them as canvases on which to paint, as mirrors with the potential to reflect inner as well as outer beauty.
As humans, we are drawn to beauty. As women, we may be similarly drawn to making ourselves beautiful even as we recognize that beauty transcends the external and the material world. This desire to be beautiful might make some women uncomfortable. It may feel an awful lot like superficial vanity. But as Pope Benedict XVI explained, our attraction to beauty is a power that “unlocks the yearning of the human heart, the profound desire to know, to love, to go towards each other, to reach for the beyond.” In other words, the pursuit of beauty is good because it leads us to a deeper yearning for the divine. God is the source of all beauty.
But most of the pop singers aren’t crooning, “God made me beautiful, and I know it.”
One of the problems is in today’s world “sexy” and “beautiful” have become interchangeable and seem to mean the same thing even though they’re entirely different. Mary is beautiful without drawing attention to herself or being “sexy.” Sure, Marilyn Monroe was beautiful, but so was Mother Teresa.
Sorry, Justin, but we really don’t need to bring sexy back. It’s already rampant. We need to put it back in its place and reserve it as an offering from a wife to a husband, not as the goal for our daughters.
What I will one day tell my daughters is this: Pursuing sexiness over beauty leaves a woman feeling empty. A “sexy” woman might feel she’s only as valuable as how much she’s noticed. She feels all she has to offer the world is skin. I know because I was once the college girl singing in the church choir who wore her skirts way too short. I didn’t believe in my own worth, so I needed men to notice me to affirm that I was someone of value. In fact, I still struggle with searching for external ways to give myself value, but I am hoping my own challenges will better equip me to empower these lovely daughters of mine.
And I know I am not alone in my struggles. Modern Western society has distorted what it means to be beautiful as well as worthwhile, and this is why so many grapple with poor body image. It’s why young women feel the need to wear flashy, immodest clothing, or moms chronically diet, or grandmothers tirelessly fight the aging process. Attention from men or even compliments from girlfriends make us feel attractive, and, hey, if others think I’m attractive or sexy, then that must mean I am a little bit beautiful and if I’m beautiful, then I’m worthwhile and have something to offer the world.
But we’ve got it backwards. To reclaim the beauty of Creation, we have to turn that equation inside out. I want my daughters to recognize their worth and their dignity lies in their being, not their doing or their looks. I want them to know that it is in their ability to love and accept love in return that makes them truly beautiful. This is the kind of beauty cannot help but attract people. We know our value and have dignity and so we express that beauty to everyone we meet, and that is what makes us beautiful.
Unfortunately, our primary conception of beauty is that of the pretty, sexy variety. It’s a kind of beauty that grabs our attention and takes our sensations hostage.
Most wouldn’t argue that a woman on the cover of a Victoria Secret’s catalogue isn’t beautiful, but she possesses a kind of beauty that doesn’t give. Sexiness grabs. It seizes. It can be almost violent – a force that takes a hold of others. Sexiness has its place. A woman who feels sexy for her husband is one thing; a child who sees being pretty and sexy as synonymous and wears flashy, immodest clothing is another. Sexiness should be reserved for our spouses, and it shouldn’t be inexorably linked to our beauty.
Pursuing raw sexiness (no pun intended) simply takes more than it gives.
Real beauty, on the contrary, is a gift. Authentic beauty is Eucharistic; it is transformed to what is offered and becomes a living sign of Christ’s love.
I brought dinner into the dining room and smiled at my daughters. My young daughter forgot to ask me about why “sexy” isn’t a good word, and I considered sharing my heart, but I’m not sure they’re all ready for that. For now, I will keep blacklisting the word “sexy” from their vernacular. I’ll keep encouraging my girls to be drawn to the beautiful, to share their beauty with others and to believe in it, and to sing with all their heart, “God created me. I am beautiful and I know it.”
A dear friend of mine is on the cusp of welcoming her third baby into her arms. I can’t wait to get my hands on her little guy, especially since I won’t be in charge of feeding him throughout the night. I know she has some sleepless nights ahead of her. Although I still wake up to pee at least once and a child occasionally needs me in the middle of the night, I am no longer drunk with exhaustion upon awakening each morning. Usually, when I don’t get enough sleep now, it’s because I’ve foolishly shortchanged myself. I can no longer blame unsleeping children. We also have really just embraced the family bed. I just recently stopped sleeping with Thomas, but my husband and I usually end up with two or three kiddos wedged between us. This is just what works for us.
My first “baby” turns 10 in a few months. This was the baby who I thought would never sleep through the night. She still doesn’t need as much sleep as her siblings. She frequently stays up way too late with her nose in a book. She remains a night owl and is quite good at stalling the bedtime routine, but once she’s out, she’s out. I can tuck her in, plant a soft kiss on her forehead, and say good-night, and she actually stays put in her bed and goes to sleep on her own. Once upon a time I thought this would be impossible.
But as I wrote in this essay – which is eight-ish years-old now – it’s important for us to remind our exhausted or frustrated or burned out selves that “this too shall pass.” You won’t always emanate Eau du Breastmilk. You will sleep for more than three fragmented hours. Repeat after me: This too shall pass.
My little boy is very challenging right now, but I know he won’t always be hurling toys at his sister. I know now, too, that his physical outbursts aren’t red flags that he’s going to lead a life of delinquency. He is a normal, active, almost 3-year-old boy going through a very normal, albeit exhausting, stage. Despite the tantrums and unprovoked attacks, I’m trying to soak his littleness up – not so much the hair-pulling or screeching – but the sweetness of his age like how he calls me “Mama” and holds my hand and says, “Carry me! Carry me!” when he’s tired or needs to feel safe or loved. He won’t always need these arms of mine so much, and there are moments when the idea of not being needed so much feels like a big relief. But looking at my big girl and how she just keeps getting taller and needing me less and less is a reminder of how brief this hands-on mothering period really is.
Anyway, this post is dedicated to my friend on the eve of postpartum fatigue, any new parents out there, anyone who has given birth to an insomniac, and to my beautiful, oldest daughter.
If I were to write a bedtime story right now, it might go something like this:
In the great green room, there was a telephone, a deflated birthday balloon from a party two weeks ago, and a frustrated mom whose brain has turned to mush and is snarling, “Hush.”
Goodnight blasted moon. Goodnight messy room. Goodnight everybody…except for this squirming, little insomniac. Goodnight stars. Goodnight air. Goodnight noises everywhere. (Will all the airplanes please stop flying so my child’s supersonic hearing won’t pick up the slightest humming of their engines?)
As my due date draws closer, I’m starting to panic. Not because I’m afraid of pushing out another baby, although it would be nice to be a panda. During a recent visit to the zoo, Madeline and I learned that the Giant Panda gives birth to a baby about 1/900th of its size. So this 200-pound bear has to squeeze out a cub about the size of a stick of butter. I bet she doesn’t have to worry about getting any hemorrhoids.
Nor am I worried about a floppy head, pulsating soft spot, crusty umbilical cord stump or changing a half-dozen mustardy-poopy diapers a day.
What I am worried about is transforming into a walking, sleep-deprived “mombie” or worse a terrible, short-fused parent who yells more than laughs. When I was pregnant with Madeline, I expected sleepless nights. Restful sleep and newborns generally don’t go hand-in-hand. With this baby, I’ve once again braced myself for nighttime nursing and an alarm clock that doesn’t stop buzzing (or should I say wailing?) just because you feel like you’ve been run over by a Mack truck. What I didn’t prepare myself for was an energetic 2-year-old whose baby days are behind her but who still insists on waking up every couple of hours.
Although Madeline has never been what you’d call a good sleeper, we’d made tremendous progress. We’d established a relaxing bedtime routine and she was sleeping nearly 12 blissful hours most nights and taking a nap. Life was good.
Then, about three weeks ago, something happened and she’s decided that being in the horizontal position is akin to the apocalypse. To Madeline, bedtime certainly is an end, if not the end of the world, the end to fun, the end to interacting with the people she loves the most, and the end to a secure, well-lit kingdom where killer bumblebees (her latest nightmare subject) don’t menacingly buzz nearby.
Her boycott against sleep began subtly. First, she became a professional staller during our once peaceful bedtime routine. “One more book, peaaaaaaassssss.” “Use potty, peaaaaasssss.” “Thirsty. Go get water, peaaaaaaaaas. Just one more itty-bitty sip.” “Ma-Ma [she refers to herself in third person as “Ma-Ma] scared, Mommy. Turn light on, peeaaasssss. Stay with me, peaaaaaassss.”
And so on.
This was frustrating but manageable. But when it came time to try to transition her to a big-girl bed, we discovered just how tenacious our little girl was. I made a big deal over the move, bought a comforter, decorated the bed with some throw pillows and showed off her big-girl roost to the grandparents. She resisted falling asleep the first night we curled up in her new bed, but when she did finally drift off to the Land of Nod, she stayed there for a good ten hours.
“Wow. That was easy,” I remember thinking.
Foolish, foolish woman!
Madeline knows that a big-girl bed has no boundaries – at least physical ones. So she pays frequent homage to Mommy and Daddy’s bed, which I wouldn’t mind so much if it also didn’t take me 2.8 hours to get her to sleep and if she didn’t like waking me up in the middle of my slumber to carry on a little tête-à-tête.
In fact, the first time she crawled into our bed Dave and I were happy to have our sweet angel wedged between us. We’ve never been against co-sleeping. We slept with our little one nearly every night that first year; yet, Madeline is fidgety and didn’t sleep well beside us. We definitely didn’t sleep too well either.
The night started out peacefully enough. I woke up when she threw her arm across my face, but I rolled over too tired to really care. This isn’t so bad, I thought. She feels so warm and cozy next to me.
My feelings of tranquility abruptly dissipated when half of Madeline’s foot ended up in my butt and her face was burrowing into Dave’s abs. We looked like a big “H,” and like that co-sleeping meme pointed out, “H” most definitely is for hell when you’re not sleeping. All nightlong she squirmed and sometimes even woke up enough to try to strike up a conversation. Meanwhile, I tried to ignore the baby’s nightly kung-fu fighting routine in my womb. I slept far less than 40 winks – maybe two, at most.
This was not going to work.
Time for Plan B, so I set up a cozy pallet beside our bed. “Madeline, see this bed on the floor. If you wake up and want to be near Mommy and Daddy, you can come here and sleep.”
She nodded and amazingly, this worked the next night. I woke up to pee after feeling my little yogi do a headstand on my bladder and discovered Madeline sprawled across the pallet sleeping soundly.
Woo-hoo! Two points for Mommy!
That was the last time I scored. Madeline definitely has the upper hand. Our little jack-in-the-box pops out of bed constantly. At first I tried the gentle but firm approach of immediately putting her back to bed after each rising. “Madeline, it’s bedtime. I love you.”
I’d read that it might take a few nights of doing this 20 or so times each. On the first night I lost count at 67. Even though I’m a stickler for consistency, I finally gave in and toted my stupid and cheap body pillow (should have splurged on the expensive one) that’s supposed to help my stupid third-trimester-preggo-bod sleep better (at this point, I think I’d need a heavy dose of valium) into her room and plopped next to her. She groped for my hand in the dark, found it, and held it close. The sweet gesture helped melt some of my frustrations, but when she fidgeted for another hour or so, I was ready to scream or cry – I’m not sure which.
Every night it’s been something new, but I’m determined to overcome these bedtime battles. After combing the Internet and reading a great book on gently solving sleep problems of toddlers and preschoolers, I’m currently putting together a sleep plan and am hoping we’ll be able to solve some of our shut-eye (or lack thereof) issues before I’ve got two nocturnal babes on my hands.
And yet, every time I finally get her to sleep – whether it’s at bedtime or 3 a.m. – I can’t help but stay awake a little bit longer to watch her doze. Maybe I just want to cherish the rare moment, though I suspect it’s something more. Sleep is my obsession right now. I’ll do anything to get her comatose. Yet, before I know it Madeline won’t need me at night. One day I’ll sneak in and stare at her sleeping form and I hope I’ll see the baby again – the one I thought would never give me a moment’s rest.
Our bedtime routine has become Dickensian for me. It is the best and the worst of times. The worst because I’m exhausted and will do anything I can to get my kids comatose. But it’s the best, too. It’s this long ritual that connects me to my children. The sun is setting and so, too,
All these phases we go through – even the bleary-eyed wakeful ones – are only blips in our history together. So the next time Madeline tugs on my hand in the wee morning or asks for the twentieth cup of water, I need to remind myself, “This too shall pass…and one day I’m going to miss it.”