Eating My Humble Cheesecake
Updated: Mar 20, 2021
“DON’T LICK THAT!” I shrieked in a strained, unfamiliar voice. My one-year-old daughter put the dirty spatula in her mouth anyway, covered in cheesecake batter with six raw eggs in the mix. I moved to snatch it away and tripped over the long rubber feet of the baby bouncer cradling my tightly-swaddled five week-old son. The semi-athletic reach gave an aching reminder that it was time to nurse and my stitches hadn’t quite healed yet. I recovered the spatula and tried to open my daughter’s swallowing mouth. One gulp is probably not enough to get salmonella, right? I tried again to engage her in the myriad of toys I had lugged into the kitchen so I could bake in peace, but nothing was as inviting as touching the hot oven or climbing onto the pantry shelves.
It was my husband’s 30th birthday and the man truly doesn’t ask for much. I once found him googling “gifts for men,” trying to think of something to put on his Christmas list (not kidding). When he does break from his heroically selfless nature and share a desire, I jump. Every year, his one and only birthday request is a New York style cheesecake, made from scratch and topped with cherries.
I was a month into being a mom of two under two, and I was determined to live in denial of the utter insanity our lives had become. I ignored my body, still recovering from a complicated and painful pregnancy due to my Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. I laughed off my daughter's new "barnacle mode," the girl only having begun walking three weeks before her little brother was born. (The day before, she had held onto my knees and screamed, looking me dead in the eyes, while I used the toilet to express her displeasure that I was not currently holding her.) It didn’t matter that my husband had just returned to his job and was working twelve hour days, or that I was beginning to experience alarming aggression and mood swings. Today I would simply rise above it all and bake a cheesecake worthy of a French Patisserie.
While I was at it I would make sure the house was spotless and I was wearing my dressy sweatpants when my husband got home because I am a powerful, capable woman and this shouldn’t be so dang hard.
The truth is that I knew, even elbow deep in nasty, mustardy newborn poop and cheesecake batter, my husband would not care if I didn’t make the cake. He would pull me into an understanding hug, laugh knowingly at my own hard-headedness, and listen empathetically to the foibles of the day. He would say, “It will be extra special for next year, honey. And you know what, I even like that cheesecake from the Jell-O box if it would be easier.”
But if I didn’t do this, I would be admitting I couldn’t. Failure would say I was in too deep, beyond my own limits, and I needed help. It would mean the strangers who eyed my tiny toddler and expectant belly were right—I really did “have my hands full” (condescending tone included). It would show I was drowning in postpartum depression, physical exhaustion, and spiritual bankruptcy. It would be the tangible proof I was not enough, my worst fear coming true.
And so I mixed, cleaned, nursed, baked, fretted, rocked, sweated, and cried the whole afternoon. It took approximately six hours longer than it needed to, but I conjured up a decent cheesecake. Then I scooped up my tiny children and apologized to them for the chaos of the day, promising I would give them more of me tomorrow. Tomorrow, I would get down on the floor and play with my daughter, make sure my son got tummy time, start looking at that postpartum workout plan, reply to my work emails, and put away my son’s newborn clothes he had already outgrown. Tomorrow, I would prove I can handle this. I would prove it to my husband, my Instagram followers, my mom friends… to myself.
It took about another year of this stubborn behavior (and more humbling disasters) to realize I won't have more to give tomorrow. Sheer grit and determination can’t add hours to the day. Self-discipline and multitasking won’t lead to my children waking less at night or potty training themselves. I can’t fast-forward this time of my babies having extremely high physical and emotional needs, and I didn’t want to miss it anyway. I need to slow down, breathe, and give myself some real grace. I would have known to give this loving advice to a friend from a mile away, but it took me plunging headfirst into burnout to see it for myself.
I needed to shift gears. My time is entirely monopolized by two tiny, helpless, hilarious, majestic, stinky, loud, perfect beings who need me from the moment their little feet hit the floor until the last goodnight kiss. Survival is the priority, getting dressed now optional.
They need me on the ground, looking them in the eyes, speaking truth about who they are. I belong to them, my heart irrevocably tethered.
Even while I am working or enjoying coffee with a friend, it is their needs that govern my rhythms and occupy my thoughts. My body has new limits, too. Although growing two humans and birthing them made me feel like a goddess, it was only emotionally empowering, not physically. It will take time to look and feel like myself again. I needed to replace the idea of “bouncing back” to evolving into something new. The shift hurt at first. My fists ached as they opened to unclench around my expectations. But what I found was that once I did, my hands were open to receive more fullness than I had ever dreamed possible.
My husband’s 31st cheesecake was made with my son racing cars around our feet and my daughter at the countertop helping. The sugar was definitely not measured accurately and the cream cheese made it into multiple mouths before the mixer. My husband came home, kissed my unwashed hair piled in the same bun as yesterday, and asked how our day was. This time, the items on my mental list of accomplishments were completely different than a year earlier. “It was great,” I responded honestly, thinking only of the tears that had been kissed away, books that had been read with silly voices, tummies fed, and bottoms wiped clean. And it was enough.