The Parent Interview #6: Raising kids, baking bread, seeking peace

On her blog Pan and Ink Lis Fogt shares stories about raising her two boys- Gabe, age 3, and Owen, age 2- and recipes, usually for something delicious enough to make you want to run from your computer straight into the kitchen.  In the last couple months these have included instructions for Sweet Potato and Kale Quesadilla, Apple Cupcakes with Lemon-Cream Cheese Frosting, and Cherry Cornmeal Upside-Down Cake.

In the following interview Lis explains that she sees the orderliness and precision of baking as a counterpoint to the helter-skelter rhythm of taking care of two young boys.  She also talks about the hardest four months of her life as a parent when her husband was on assignment in Afghanistan, about how spending her days with Gabe and Owen is a little like having “clanging symbols” going off in her head every 20 seconds, and about the unimaginable abruptness and unexpected rewards of the transition from childlessness to motherhood.

So, thank you Lis, for taking the time to share your thoughts on life, parenting, and baking with the Growing Sideways community.

Can you tell me where you were in life when you and Steve had kids?

Steve and I had been married for six years (and together for fourteen!) when Gabe was born. I had been an English teacher for eleven years and had recently earned my master’s degree. Steve had been a journalist for the same length of time and was just embarking on a part-time master’s program for working professionals. We owned a home and felt we had enjoyed our time being together, just the two of us, as a couple. We were fortunate to have a lot of it before the kids came along.

You stopped teaching when Gabe was born.  How did you decide to leave your career to raise your kids?

When I was pregnant with Gabe, I had no idea what parenting would be like. I knew that teaching was very demanding, involving hours of work at home on weeknights and weekends. I wasn’t sure that I could be a good teacher and a good parent at the same time, so I decided to take a year “off.”

The decision was made easier by the large cut childcare would take out of my salary, and I think my own mother’s choice to stay home to raise my siblings and me must have made leaving work a more natural choice for me as well. When Owen came along (and he turned up quite a bit sooner than we had planned), the financial benefit of my returning to work was diminished, and the reality of parenting made me even more anxious about how my returning to work would impact our family, so here we are.

Very much like teaching, I find that the more years I put into parenting, the more I enjoy it. This is, of course, because my confidence level is much higher now than it was those first couple years. I expect that I will return to teaching some day, though I am enjoying working part-time as a tutor right now, and I love having time (albeit not a lot) to write.

The stories you tell on your delightful blog Pan and Ink almost always combine parenting and baking.  Do you see similarities between the two?

I have not thought about the similarities between the two, but I have often reflected on the differences. I think I became drawn to baking after making the decision to stay home with the boys because it offers a level of concentration, control, order, and predictability that is completely lacking in my life as a parent. I love to be in the kitchen when it’s quiet in the afternoons, while the boys are napping; to wipe clean the countertop and set out my ingredients; to follow a simple recipe; to lay out cookies in orderly rows or to smooth the batter of a cake or quick bread. When I have more time, I love to make a dough, roll it out, and enclose something in it. Not only do these sessions restore me mentally, but they also produce a little treat for the boys and me to enjoy in the late afternoon.

If I were to choose a culinary analogy for parenting, I think I would tap cooking rather than baking. Whereas baking requires exactitude in its amounts and processes, cooking lends itself to improvisation, to a bit more looseness and responsiveness. To me, this is much like parenting, the way in which I’m constantly observing, making adjustments, and shifting course as I make my way towards various ends. With baking, once you combine ingredients and pop your mixture into the oven, you have to just wait and hope things turn out well. I’d hate to think parenting is that formulaic.

Last year your husband Steve spent four months in Afghanistan on assignment from the State Department.  What was it like being home alone with the boys for such a long time?

Last summer was one of the hardest times of my life. I am still processing it, but I see it as both a time of great stress and despair and an opportunity for personal growth. Being the sole parent to the kids for all those days and nights helped me to tap into reserves of strength and resourcefulness I didn’t know I had. And it reinforced one of the most important lessons I have learned as a parent: This too shall pass. I knew that somehow I’d get out on the other side if we just kept plugging along, and I/we did. The experience gave me a tremendous appreciation of what military spouses and single parents go through. And it presented an opportunity to connect with neighbors, friends, and family in a way that would never have happened had Steve not been absent. I will never forget the kindness that so many people bestowed upon me in the form of childcare, meals, the lifting of heavy stuff, and, most importantly, companionship. I plan to pay it forward.

In your post “Rescue” (which included a recipe for a Fig and Frangipane Tart) you write that after a day with the boys you often have “no mental energy available for savoring.”  That got me thinking about this question: While raising kids, there are lots of moments to savor yet a lot of the work lies in the long-term project of helping them grow up.  So how do you think about the balance between savoring and making progress towards long-term goals?

It has taken a long time, but I think I am finally learning to savor the moments I have with the kids. I attribute this to a few things: Gabe starting school and the accompanying realization that he will soon be off all day doing his own thing without me; Owen entering his two’s and a new appreciation for how much Gabe has learned and matured since he was a two year-old; and a frustratingly gradual learning curve when it comes to parenting. For me, it took a long time to come to terms with the ways in which motherhood requires you to set aside your own cares and truly put others first.

I wouldn’t say that enjoying the present and pursuing long-term goals are mutually exclusive. In fact, for me it is helpful to remember that the more I can be present and positive with my children now (rather than checking Facebook constantly or fretting about a dirty apartment, both of which I do often), the better off they will be in the long term.

You often bring up Buddhism and your search for equanimity.  In a post called “The Treat Cure” you write that before you had kids you were someone who would “dependably face challenges with composure and optimism.” If you could snap your fingers and be calm and content all the time, would you do it?

This question echoes your post about friction! And of course I agree with you that life would not be life without the friction of challenging relationships and responsibilities. I have learned a lot through the trials of parenting.

I keep hoping, however (probably in vain), that someday I will feel more in control of my life. I often feel anxious about forgetting something important or not being able to get somewhere on time. I’m sure that some parents are better at staying organized and keeping their heads on straight. If I could do this all the time, yes, I think I would.

My life right now reminds me a little bit of “Harrison Bergeron,” Kurt Vonnegut’s story in which citizens judged overly-smart by the government have a buzzer implanted in their brains. Every twenty seconds or so, they receive a jolt of loud noise (crashing cymbals, ten-gun salutes) in their heads that makes it impossible for them to sustain a thought. The one thing I would miss if I could return to the days before I had the equivalent of periodic cannon fire in my head would be the delightful ways in which the children combine and pronounce words, and the opportunities for fascinating, intimate conversation that their many interruptions present.

In your post “Life is Just a Bowl of…” (that featured a recipe for a Cherry-Almond Tart) you write that despite a day of tantrums, “At evening’s final reckoning the accumulated joy far outweighs the moments of despair.”  I liked that a lot and it made me want to ask: Has being a parent been the way you’d imagined it? 

I had very little understanding of what parenting would be like, and for this reason, I did not spend much of time imagining myself as a mother. When I was pregnant, I read a lot about pregnancy and labor and delivery. I was so focused on the seemingly impossible task of getting the baby outside of my body that I barely investigated what life would be like once I was Gabe’s parent rather than his incubator.

I have read about the research showing that parents are on the whole less content moment-to-moment than non-parents, instead experiencing higher highs and lower lows. The intensity of the highs and lows of motherhood is something I could never have imagined before I had children. Had I been able to time travel forward and see myself struggling through some of our hardest days, I think I may have balked at the prospect.

I recall that in Rachel Cusk’s novel Arlington Park, a character’s transition from childlessness to motherhood is likened to falling off a cliff. The person she was before she became a mother stopped existing and a new person now walks around in her body (which, of course, is irrevocably altered as well). Cusk’s portrait of motherhood is a bit dark, but I generally appreciate her honesty, which is not to be found everywhere, and I think she’s onto something with this analogy. All that is to say that, no, parenting is not at all what I imagined!

Additional posts from the “Parent Interview” series:

The Parent Interview #1: A dad looks back

The Parent Interview #2: Where Wall Street meets motherhood

The Parent Interview #3:  Wanting to be a mom and a woman, too

The Parent Interview #4: The nest is empty

The Parent Interview #5: Irrational love

The longest 12 seconds anyone’s ever spent in the men’s room at Whole Foods

This morning Wally woke up early.  I blame it on the cold.*  Zero degrees outside at sunup. When Jay was eighteen-months-old he was waking up before 6am everyday, until we turned up the heat in his bedroom.  Problem solved.  Since then, anytime a baby wakes up early, I say it’s the cold.  My sister, whose 11-month-old son Peter wakes up at ungodly hours regardless of the temperature in his room, is tired of hearing this.

Anyway, Wally was up early, so I parked him on the floor to play with his brother’s toys** and lay down on the couch.   I wanted to go back to sleep but instead I started thinking about an essay I read the day before by mommy blogger Glennon Melton called “Don’t Carpe Diem.”  It’s been circling the Internet over the last week and a few people have sent it to me, saying that it reminds them of Growing Sideways.  I read the essay.  I liked it. I agree.

Melton’s point of departure is an experience in the supermarket that’s common to all parents of young children.  She’s in line with her three young children, who are busy committing all manner of shenanigans, when an older woman comes up to her and says, “Enjoy every moment. It goes by so fast.”

Melton hates being told this.  She says it makes her “paranoid and panicky” because she doesn’t in fact enjoy every moment.  She says those kinds of admonishments make her feel “guilty because honestly, I [am] tired and cranky and ready for the day to be over quite often.”

Two thoughts in reply.  First, I’m with her on the general point of battling feelings of guilt whenever I’m not fully engaged with Jay and Wally.  This morning, two hours after I got up with Wally, I went upstairs to brush my teeth while he and Jay were playing in the living room.  And then, instead of going back downstairs to play with them, I flopped face down on my bed.

Even in this totally exhausted state my brain had just enough juice to perform one last nagging calculation: “Maybe,” it said to me, “There’s a more fulfilling/meaningful/interesting way to spend the next five minutes of your life than with your nose pressed into your duvet.”

“Shut up brain,” I replied, and closed my eyes.

"You're not allowed to drink milk from cows," Jay told his brother helpfully.

My second thought in response to Melton’s essay is that there’s a more generous way to think about what that woman told her in the supermarket.  When people say, “Enjoy every moment” they don’t really mean every moment.  They just mean that it’s really easy to slip into a lowest common denominator state where you let fatigue and frustration and anger and boredom rule the way you experience your life. And it’s worth being aware of that tendency in order to consciously fight against it.  So when an older parent tells me to “Enjoy it because it goes fast,” I appreciate the reminder.

There’s one more thing I want to say about the essay. And then a story.

Towards the end Melton draws a distinction between two kinds of time.  The first she calls “chronos” which she says is the kind of time you experience when, say, you’re up before dawn with a kid and you keep glancing at the clock and it keeps saying 5:48am.  The second kind of time she calls “kairos,” which is meant to describe experiences of complete harmony when, for a moment at least, the tick-tock fades away.  A couple of months ago I wrote about the experience of watching Jay sleep in his crib.  That would be an example of kairos time.

Yesterday afternoon was heavier on chronos.

Jay, Wally, and I were in Whole Foods buying a loaf of bread. Wally was strapped to my chest and Jay was in the shopping cart.  We’d been waiting for a few minutes—the man who cuts the bread was nowhere to be found—when Jay said in about the most urgent voice he’s ever used, “I need to go pee.”

“You need to hold it,” I snapped back at him, just because I was in a snapping kind of mood.

He started squirming vigorously in the cart.  “I need to get down, I need to get down,” he said, utterly panicked.   Oh boy. This is a kid who peed just once on our recent 10-hour car trip from Virginia to Michigan.  He knows how to hold it.  And clearly he couldn’t anymore.  It was exactly the scenario I’d been dreading since we potty-trained Jay back in October.

I dropped my un-sliced loaf of bread on the bakery counter and made a quick U-turn with our shopping cart.  On the way to the bathroom I knocked over a basket of potato chips and upended a chair in the Whole Foods café.  But we made it before anything trickled down Jay’s leg.

“But now what?” I realized as I pulled the stall door shut. Jay is too short to pee in an adult toilet without being held up.  Wally was strapped to my chest (in his bulky winter suit, btw), which made it hard to hold Jay up under his armpits the way I usually would have done it.  And there was nowhere to put Wally down because public bathrooms are disgusting.

By then Jay was knock-kneed and teary.  Finally, I droped his pants and decided to pick him up like he’s a 2×4, completely parallel to the floor.  I couldn’t really see him because Wally was blocking my view, but with my arms outstretched in what I’m pretty sure was a torture position used by the Japanese in World War II I tried to position Jay so that his penis was directly above the toilet.  It wasn’t. We readjusted.

And then that boy proceeded to let out the longest pee of his life.  I’m holding him up in the air and my muscles are dying and I’m thinking he’s never peed more than five seconds in a row ever, but he just kept going and going and going…

*One unrelated story involving the cold.  This morning, around 7:45am, my neighbor came outside and started shooting hoops in his driveway. He’s in his early-twenties and lives at home with his dad.  I see him shooting in the driveway often, usually in the afternoons around about the time we leave to get Caroline at school.  I’ve never seen him do anything particularly athletic, but he’s clearly practiced a lot.  He dribbles well and when he shoots more often than not it’s a swish.  I get the sense that mindlessly shooting around in his driveway is an important part of his daily routine.

Even so, I was surprised to see him outside on what was the coldest morning of the winter so far.  He had on a hooded sweatshirt but no gloves.  I expected him to take a few shots and then run back inside, but he stayed out for nearly an hour.  I kept sneaking glances at him through the window.  From what I could tell, he never cupped his hands over his mouth, or shivered, or gave any sign that the cold was getting to him.  The whole thing was moving in its way.  I figured he had something he needed to work out, and that cold be dammed, playing basketball was the best way he knew how to do it.

**Another theory.  If Wally’s not waking up early because of the cold, maybe he does it to play with Jay’s toys.