I think it started in the NICU. Still sore, swollen and slightly delirious from my emergency C-section—the result of my breech baby making an appearance nearly six weeks early—I’d escaped the maternity ward to sit next to my tiny guy’s isolette, watching, waiting, begging to do more than, at that point, was permitted. Julian needed to keep warm; to stay under the bright, jaundice-clearing lights; to sit tight under observation until test results revealed exactly was what going on (the verdict: he just wanted out early, for unknown reasons).
Knowing I was feeling helpless and hormonal, a compassionate nurse prescribed redirection. I needed to rest—and to start pumping. “Your most important job right now,” she told me, “is to collect that liquid gold.” She wheeled in a hospital-grade breast pump and instructed me to use it every two hours. I took the assignment very seriously. If being a good (first-time) mom simply meant trying to make my new kid dinner, I was all in. No problem. Food is my speciality.
So I pumped like a mother—producing just drops at first, then enough ounces to fill a good portion of Julian’s feeding tube. After each session, I’d take great care, and great pleasure, in sterilizing all of the equipment and putting it away until it was time to make his next meal.
Our time in the NICU was fortunately short—just 8 days—but throughout Julian’s babyhood, the ritual of pumping, preparing bottles, and sterilizing plastic flanges and rubber nipples felt as comforting to me as it did inconvenient.
I might not be able to control how long my baby slept, or whether he was hitting milestones at expected times; I might not be able to control how much milk I actually produced but I did know this: I could pump at 10 and 1 and 4. I could scrub and boil and pour. I could prepare and pack all those little bottles up for his “school.” I could do all of this—I would do all of this, day after day—and I would feel totally in control.
When Jules started eating real food, I took the same care in preparing his purees. I’d steam and blend fruits and vegetables, then pack them all into plastic freezer trays that made perfect little squares. He might house the parsnips and spit out the green beans—no matter. He didn’t have to like everything.
The point was that I was doing this part of parenting right. I was mixing and blending and prepping. In this arena, I knew just what to do, and I was doing it.
Fast-forward six or so years. Now, I’m a mom of two—two boys, almost 7 and almost 5. My husband and I both work full-time, our far-from-perfect organizational systems are ever-evolving (which is to say we haven’t found one that actually works), and I don’t ever really feel in control of anything. Except the food.
I know that, every week, I can go to the store and bring home bags of pristine produce, of simple snacks, of ingredients intended for healthy meals that I can make pretty quickly, on a regular rotation. I know that if I chop carrots and make fruit bars and meatballs at night, I can convince myself that, the next day, when we reconvene as a family after many hours at our respective offices and our respective schools, we will fall into the sort of family dinner captured in a Norman Rockwell.
By morning, I will realize that my meal-plan preparedness won’t protect me from the chaos that comes with being part of a busy, young family. This, I know is true. But for an hour or so on most weekday evenings, I’m happy to delude myself into thinking that making something like meatballs will bring everything into balance.
Here’s my recipe:
1 pound of ground turkey
½ cup panko bread crumbs
2 tablespoons super-finely chopped onion
½ cup grated Parmesan
1 egg, beaten
1 tsp fennel seeds
a pinch of each: garlic powder, salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 400 ℉. Mix all ingredients in a large bowl with your hands. Roll into golf ball-sized balls and place on a lightly oiled, foil-covered baking sheet. Bake for 15 minutes.
Serve with spaghetti (or zucchini noodles) and sauce—or however you like.