My babies didn’t just breastfeed, they devoured me whole. My firstborn was a nursing tyrant. He demanded to be fed in impossible places at impossible times, like the crowded subway at rush hour. When his gangly toddler legs outgrew the span of my lap, he simply overflowed into the adjacent seat, kicking the passenger next to me with his brown Velcro sneakers. My second child was an efficient eater, a no-nonsense kind of guy. Thanks to my robust supply of milk, his growth curve shot off the charts soon after birth and kept climbing. My daughter, my last baby, visited the milk bar every hour all night long, for what seemed like an eternity. She drained me. And yet, the week before her second birthday, when she finally accepted a bottle of warm milk in place of her morning feeding, I cried. I had fed my children with my own body on and off for nine years, and when my very last baby was weaned, I had to look outside myself to nourish them.
Back then, my mom friends coveted my ample supply of milk. I was lucky—I had no painful pumping sessions and no need to supplement my babies’ feedings with formula. But there was one downside to being blessed with bountiful breastmilk: the unbidden let-down that threatened to ruin my favorite shirts, cut errands short, and stop date nights—or worse, work events—dead in their tracks.
My husband’s first holiday party at his new job was one of those nights. I fought the urge to sink into the red cushions of the rocker as I nursed my three-month old baby to sleep. I watched for the telltale flutter of his eyelids, listened for his breath to slow, then eased him into his crib and sprinted across the hallway to struggle into my one pair of un-snagged pantyhose. As I hiked up the too-tight waistband, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. My round cotton nursing pads protruded like headlights from under my black dress. No matter how carefully I smoothed the edges, they refused to submit. I cursed under my breath and crept down the stairs to greet the sitter, who waved away my litany of instructions with a wooden spoon. “Go have fun!” she chided, shooing me out the door. I kissed my three-year-old boy and fled. The nursing clock was ticking.
My husband paged through the department directory as I drove, reciting names out loud. I shivered with nerves. Even though we had just moved to this medium-sized Midwestern town from New York, I felt like a country bumpkin on my first trip to the big city. It was hard enough to be new; even harder to be new and sleep-deprived. Adult conversations felt clumsy to me these days, as if I were trying to unwrap a fragile gift with oven mitts on.
Having successfully navigated the throng of people in the buffet line, my husband and I sat down at a table next to a couple about our age. The woman wore perfect red lipstick and a tailored emerald dress, the neckline plunging just low enough to reveal a flash of cleavage. I glanced down at my own chest burdened with its clumsy nursing bra and disc-shaped diapers, and leaned forward on my elbows, pretending to inspect my stuffed mushrooms. When my husband didn’t introduce me right away, I assumed he had forgotten her name despite his efforts in the car. I extended my hand. “Hi, I’m Lisa,” I said.
She was an anesthesiologist; her husband worked at a tech company in town. They had recently moved from Philly. They had a three-year-old son like we had. We traded information about preschools, compared notes on the terrible threes, and then chewed our last bits of food in silence. Then came the dreaded question: “So, Lisa, what do you do?”
The spotlight of her attention reduced me to a schoolgirl, silly and small. I reached for a two- dimensional version of myself, an image she could pin up on the bulletin board of her mind. “Right now I’m working on my doctorate,” I heard myself say, as if reciting a line. “But it’s slow going, with the kids,” I added with a sigh. I felt my husband’s eyes on me and shrunk further into myself, feeling like I had somehow been caught in a lie.
It wasn’t a lie. But it wasn’t the whole truth either. Staying home with the kids is what I chose to do, what I loved to do. But rather than claiming motherhood as the center of my life, I had presented it an inconvenience. Why was I reluctant to say what I meant to this fellow mother? Was I afraid she wouldn’t understand my longing to stay home? Or was I afraid she understood it just fine, but had pushed through her own maternal instincts to forge a different path? A path I could have taken?
Just then, I felt a hot rush of breast milk seep through the cotton pads under my bra and looked down to see quarter-sized dots materialize on the black polyester fabric of my dress. I squeezed my upper arms tight against my chest and excused myself from the lady in green. We thanked our hostess, mumbled something about needing to get home for the sitter, and grabbed our coats.
Safely in the car, I slumped into the front seat and fished the damp cotton pads out of my dress. I flung them onto the floor where they mingled with plastic Starbucks cups and half-empty baggies of Cheerios. “It was time to go anyway,” my husband offered, squeezing my shoulder. But he had only been only halfway through his glass of wine and carefully-memorized list of names when we had made our emergency exit.
I scrolled through my phone to find the sitter’s number—she would be surprised to see us home so soon. As I stared at the blur of numbers through my brewing tears, I queried my husband about our dinner-mate. She was new, he said, but seemed nice. An excellent doctor, good with patients. My imagination filled in the gaps. The image of her perfectly fitting dress, sexy neckline, and disarming confidence burned itself into my mind as the symbol of everything I could have been. But as we pulled into our driveway, the shimmering mirage dissolved into the urgency of motherhood. I ran up the stairs to my baby’s crib, picked up his sweet bundled body, and carried him to the rocker, where we both found relief.
Three years later, my daughter was born, and I was still working on my dissertation. I was “finishing it up” as I liked to say, when people asked what I did. But mostly, I was a mom. I made Playdough ice cream with my three-year-old, built Lego ships with my six-year-old, nursed and snuggled my baby. I read piles of books to them, made mud soup with them in the back yard, fed them. Drop by drop, I nourished my children with a pure and potent love. And they fed me in return. Even as I gave my family all I had, the intimacy and immediacy of those early years filled me up.
By the time my baby went off to kindergarten, my dissertation was long done—defended and deposited—and yet, I still found myself leaning back on it like a crutch. “I just finished it,” I would say, my excuse for why I was still at home, even though my kids were no longer at home with me.
But even if I couldn’t speak my truth, I was intent on living it. I gave myself permission to ease back in to the world rather than launching myself at it headlong. Going back to work was a slow unfurling of myself, a gradual release of flavors into my life. I began coaxing skills that had gone missing for decades back into my life, like teaching Italian. And I re-fashioned old talents to suit new purposes, like writing. I even sprinkled some brand-new elements into the mix, like teaching yoga, and was always on the lookout for new ways to expand my repertoire.
But creating my own recipe wasn’t always easy. Inevitably, one aspect of my life would swell with importance and threaten to upset the balance, requiring me to recalibrate my formula. Other times, I felt spread too thin. When the lesson fell flat, when the writing didn’t come, when I forgot to bring school snack or was late to pick up the kids, I remembered the woman in green. Her monolithic accomplishments dwarfed my quaint smattering of passions, and I felt myself shrink under her imagined shadow. I loved all the things I did, and yet I felt plagued by my inability to answer that one simple question she had asked me nearly a decade earlier: Lisa, what do you do?
As I chopped vegetables for dinner one night recently, I found myself coming back to that question. What do you do? After all these years, I still lacked an elevator speech. I needed a tidy three-word answer that would sum me up satisfactorily to a well-meaning stranger. After all, I thought, a calling should be an easily-defined, quantifiable thing, that one thing you do best. Not a list of ingredients. With each slice of a carrot I ventured a response: I teach Italian. Yes. In that answer, there was something sturdy, something people could sink their teeth into. But this answer felt lopsided. I teach yoga, I mused, as I chopped the kale and tomatoes: something wholesome, a nod to the spiritual side of me. But still incomplete. As I minced the onion and garlic, I dared to speak aloud the words that scared and thrilled me most: I’m a writer. Yet even those three words fell flat. The essence of what I did was somehow simpler and more complex than the sequential listing of my doings.
I looked at the pile of vegetables for my soup, all clumped together on the cutting board, no single ingredient more glamorous than the other. Soup has no starlet, I thought. Each individual cast member does its part, but ultimately depends on a base for support—a broth, a cream—a stage on which to showcase its talent. I loved the variety, the complexity of soup, but without a base, I realized, there is no soup. Just bits and pieces knocking together.
I slid the onion, garlic, and carrots into the pot in front of me, and a waft of warm comfort met my nose. I relaxed, savoring that initial leap into soup-making, the sautéeing of the mirepoix, that colorful harbinger of flavors to come. I added the broth, tossed in the kale and tomatoes, some beans, and brought it all to a boil, then to a simmer. I relished the anticipation of warmth inside my belly. I covered the pot and waited.
But my waiting is never empty. In the hour between first boil and final simmer were the moments that ground me amidst the whirlwind of my endeavors: I helped my fifteen-year-old tighten up the introduction to his Freshman English essay, I sipped chamomile tea with my middle-schooler, giving him space to expound on the antics of teenage boys—who got sent to the office, who has a crush on whom. I stroked my third-grade daughter’s hair as she sat on my lap and unraveled the day’s drama at school. In these moments, I realized, lurked the missing piece, the unspoken truth that unlocks the meaning to what I do. I am a mother. I may do many things—things that shift and change according to the season—but I am wholly and completely a mother.
I may never be the kind of working mom that does one big thing outside of motherhood, but I’ve realized that I do have a tidy, three-word response to the question what do you do? It’s an answer I can live with, an answer I can grow into. It’s an answer that says exactly what I mean, without betraying a single fact or nuance: I make soup.
I savor the process of making soup—the stirring and simmering, the continual balancing of different ingredients that calls upon intuition as much as experience—but above all, I love the “aha” moment that arrives when my recipe is exactly right. I vary the seasonal ingredients, play with the spices and the cooking time, but my base remains constant. My family is what holds it all together. My soup is more than a collection of ingredients, more than the sum of its parts. It is my masterpiece, and making soup is what I do best.
Lisa Reisig Ferrazzano is a linguist, Italian instructor, and nonfiction writer. Her essays have appeared in Mothers Always Write, Her View from Home and Literary Mama. She lives in Madison, WI with her husband, dog, and three old-soul children. You can find her at https://solarnoon.wordpress.com.