Baby Cooking and Maternal Instinct

When I had my child at age 34, I was completely unprepared for parenthood. A lot of parents say this, but god -- what did I imagine having a baby would be like? How could I have sat through all those parenting classes without deriving the least hint that life would change? I didn't realize what sort of schedule the baby would impose on me, so I had, while pregnant, agreed to give a lecture seven weeks after my due date; my plan was to research and write the paper after she was born, in between her feedings, while she was sleeping. No problem, right? I mean, they say about babies, don't they, that they don't really wake up till they're six weeks old, right?


I refused to imagine that I needed rest, or that I needed to switch gears from my manic ability to juggle every possible thing (work, home, husband, parents, friends, entertaining, writing, yard work, etc. etc.). I couldn't figure out why having dinner parties two weeks after I had given birth would be... difficult. My husband wanted to help but was incapable of imagining how tired I was, and how scared, and he projected his own anxiety about how much this was disrupting his work onto me, making me feel guilty (without meaning to) about not getting back to my scholarship fast enough. He was going through his own trauma about being a parent, and his reaction was a desire to get things back to "normal" as soon as possible. And my mom, a product of a generation that was kept in the hospital for a week after childbirth rather than thrown out of your hospital bed after 36 hours, seemed intent on getting me to exercise at the 72 hours postpartum mark. So: I stuffed my instincts -- which were telling me "SLEEP! TAKE IT EASY! WATCH OCEAN'S ELEVEN JUST ONE MORE TIME!" -- back into my gut, and tried to get with everyone else's program.

I had terrible postpartum depression, which expressed itself as a complete anxiety about my ability to breastfeed my baby and an obsessive need to Google every single question I had because I was convinced that I had no abilities as a mother. (I didn't have even a Bachelor's degree in the maternal arts, let alone a PhD, which seemed necessary.) I regularly dragged myself and my baby to a lactation consultant to talk and get advice. I am a smart woman, and knowledgeable about the way my body works, but I just couldn't get my mind around breastfeeding. It didn't make sense. It took me three months to figure out that nursing was a way that you could put your infant to sleep. I was in a constant state of panic that she wasn't eating enough despite the fact that she was growing and I was overflowing. It didn't help that she wanted to feed every forty-five minutes. It didn't help that she was mildly colicky and so cried a lot (or was on the verge of crying a lot). It didn't help that her little mewling cries sounded like fire alarms going off in my brain. It didn't help that I had moved to a new town only two weeks before the baby was born, I had no friends, a distant family, and a husband who was working all the time. After my umpteenth visit to the nurse, she looked at me and said, "You know, if you stopped worrying so much, your depression would go away."

If I just stopped worrying so much my depression would go away. Is that how that works?

My depression went away, more or less, only at the five month mark when two things happened: I went back to work, and my baby insisted on eating solid food. (I remember her almost jumping out of my lap because she wanted to put that thing I was eating in her mouth; she was desperate to know what it was.)

I was elated. Food! That doesn't come out of my body! That was something I could handle. That was something that would let me relax about breastfeeding her because I knew she was getting sustenance elsewhere, too.

So: I cooked.

I pureed chicken cooked with onions and yams and apples, and I cooked soft yellow mung dal with vegetables and soft rice, and I cooked different combinations of vegetables and fruits and every time adults would enter my kitchen they would ask for tastes because it smelled so good. When she was older, I made homemade macaroni and cheese and chicken fingers and turkey meatballs and chicken curry. Now, I make her kale and asparagus and turkey kheema and Chinese noodles. She loves my cooking. She tells her friends to come over to eat when I've made something particularly good. She tells everyone she meets that I should be a soup chef. It makes her proud of me.

Postpartum depression has a very long half-life. It makes you doubt your ability as a mother for years after the depression is gone. If you can't feel immediate and overwhelming love for your child, if you can't tell her cries apart like everyone says you should be able to, if you are terrified of the times that she's awake because you don't know what to do with her or how to engage with her -- if you can't do or feel those most basic things, how can you possibly be a decent parent? Right?

But I could make her food that she loved, that made her excited, that stimulated her curiosity. And slowly, my confidence in my ability to feed her built my confidence in my ability to care for her. I learned that I did actually have maternal instincts. And I started to hear them, and listen to them. And now we are on our own, and we're okay.

Two recipes here, one is the version I make for P., and the other is a more adult version of the same dish. Although every adult I know likes the kid version just fine.

Turkey Kheema

1 small onion, diced
1 garlic clove, smashed
1 small coin of ginger
1 TB vegetable oil
1 lb ground turkey (94% lean -- don't use the superlean 99% kind)
2 tsp coriander powder
2 tsp cumin powder
1/4 tsp turmeric
1 c chopped tomatoes (canned in juice or fresh)
1 c diced carrots (optional)
1 c diced potatoes (optional)
1/4 c water
1 c frozen peas

1. Heat oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. When heated, add onion, garlic, and ginger and sauté until softened. Add the ground turkey and stir and break up with a wooden spoon until its no longer pink.

2. Add to the pan the spice powders and salt. After 2 minutes, add the tomatoes, carrots, and potatoes (if using) along with 1/4 c water. Turn heat to medium-low and let simmer.

3. When everything is cooked and smelling good (after about 10-15 minutes), add 1 c frozen peas and cook for a few minutes longer until peas are heated through. Serve hot with rice.

Kheema Mattar (Minced Lamb with Peas)

1. In a skillet, heat 1 TB canola oil with 1 tsp cumin seeds, 1 small cinnamon stick, 3 cardamoms, 4 cloves, and 2 bay leaves. When the spices are fragrant, add 1 medium diced onion and sauté until golden brown. Add 1 tsp minced garlic and 1 tsp grated or minced ginger, plus up to 2 minced green chilies if you'd like.

2. Add 1 lb minced lamb. (You could use beef here, though it would be sacrilegious and you might be reincarnated as a cockroach if you do. But feel free.) Sauté till it's lost its raw color and starts to brown. When the fat has rendered, spoon it out of the pan or throw the contents of the pan into a strainer to drain it off; return the meat mixture to the pan and the pan to the heat.

3. Add 1 TB coriander powder, 1 TB cumin powder, 1/2 tsp turmeric powder, up to 1 tsp red chili powder, and salt to taste. After sauteing for a couple of minutes, add 1 c chopped tomatoes and 1 c water, turn heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring and adding water if necessary.

4. Add 2 c frozen peas and let simmer for another 10 minutes. Adjust for salt. Serve hot with rice or Indian flatbread (parathas, chapatis, naans, etc.) with some raita (cucumber and yogurt relish) on the side.

Raita (Cucumber and Yogurt Relish)

1. Cut peeled, seeded cucumber into a small dice -- you need about 1/2 c -- and place in a small strainer over a bowl. Sprinkle with a good pinch of salt, toss around, and let sit for 15 minutes until some of the water releases.

2. Put 1 c plain Greek yogurt in a bowl; whip with a fork until lightened and smooth. Add the diced cucumber and 1 TB finely minced onion. Adjust salt. Garnish with a bit of chopped cilantro and a dusting of red chili powder and ground cumin powder if you'd like.

UPDATE: I don't really know how to deal with things like revisions when it comes to this blog. I modified the essay up top when I realized that I should have really started 3 paragraphs down. It sort of seems like cheating to change it, but it was driving me crazy to see the unnecessary paras every time I opened the blog. 


Unknown said…
I make something close to this with tofu. One of the tricks is to really let the tofu brown in some good toasted sesame oil--this gives it flavor and texture in the dish. Your versions sound delicious too.
Hi Pamela! That sounds great -- not for me, as I'm allergic to tofu, but I know vegetarians will appreciate the sub. I used to make this using Morningstar Farms Crumbles (it's a ground beef substitute) -- that works really well, too.
Unknown said…
Ahh, good to know for future soirees!
Leash said…
Wow Amazing post. Very Helpful, Thanks for sharing.

I have written a Blog about postpartum care.