Balsamic Quinoa Salad with Roasted Tomatoes + Green Beans

I read an article a few months after giving birth that said something to the effect of, “It can take up to a year to get your pre-pregnancy body back.” 

“OK,” I thought. “I can do that. I can be gracious and patient and let myself have a year.”

It’s been 16 months, and I’m not even close. 

I thought I had moved past the body image insecurities I had when I was younger. I don’t struggle as much now with the shame monster that used to rear its ugly head while I leafed through glossy, Photoshopped magazine pages in high school. I haven’t worried like I used to about measuring up to those around me who are running faster or racing farther. I thought I’d learned to be content with my body, and this negative self-talk battle was behind me. 
 
It’s not. That battle is still right in front of me, but it looks different now. I compare myself not to others, but to who I used to be and what this body used to be able to do. I’m not as agile, as strong, as flexible, as (fill in the blank) as I once was - but I’m learning to be okay with that. I’m learning to hold my expectations loosely and to appreciate where this body has taken me. Just like everything else in my life, my physical self has changed drastically since becoming a mother, and I’m slowly learning to love and embrace this new self. 

My new self includes stretch marks that weave their way around my torso, stopping only to make way for my C-section scar. I have widened hips that give me a place to carry my babies, and love handles add an extra, comforting cushion. My stretch marks remind me of the privilege I had to carry two children in my womb for 37 weeks and 3 days, and that C-section scar bears testament to a healthy delivery that complications could have made more difficult. I ran a local race a few weeks ago that was one of my slowest race times ever, yet I came home from that race surprisingly proud of myself. In this new body, finishing was an accomplishment. 

No, this body isn’t what it used to be. There are things I want to change. I want to be stronger and healthier. I want to continue to be intentional about what I eat and make exercise a regular part of my life. I’m a firm believer in physical health, and I want to treat this body well. 

But you know what? This mom-bod? This soft, cushy, slower than it used to be, stretch-marked body that hasn’t returned to its pre-pregnancy state?

This body kicks ass. 

Balsamic Quinoa Salad with Roasted Tomatoes + Green Beans
Yields about 8 servings

1½ - 2 pounds cherry tomatoes, halved if large
1 pound fresh green beans, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2-3 Tablespoons olive oil
2 cups quinoa, rinsed
4 cups water (or use chicken or vegetable broth for more flavor)
3 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Handful of chopped fresh basil

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Add the tomatoes, green beans, garlic, salt, pepper and olive oil to the prepared baking sheet and toss together until everything is evenly mixed (I just use my hands). Bake for about 20-25 minutes, stirring halfway through, until the vegetables are tender and slightly browned.

While the vegetables are roasting, combine the quinoa and water (or broth) in a medium pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for about 15-20 minutes, or until the quinoa is translucent and tender and the liquid has been absorbed. Fluff with a fork and allow the quinoa to cool slightly. 

Add the cooked quinoa and roasted vegetables to a large bowl. Pour in all the leftover oils and juices from the baking sheet into the bowl. Add the balsamic vinegar and mix well. 

Season with additional salt and pepper to taste, and top with chopped fresh basil. Serve warm, or cover, refrigerate and serve cold. 


Words and photos by Sarah Hauser

To Be Brave.

We are walking along the concrete that outlines our neighborhood street. Pink snow is swirling around us. Every April the trees lining these roads explode in fluffy blossoms. It happens nearly overnight. I take a deep breath; after three years of witnessing the trees’ rebirth, at last, my body accepts the pollen filled air. 

I love our life here.

***

I remember when he got The Call.

His phone is tethered to the outlet in the kitchen wall, charging. I hear the default ringtone play in sequence with a demanding vibration. He groans; it’s work. He is on his third week of paternity leave. Immediately, he sounds confused, aimlessly inquisitive. He keeps asking absurd questions. I wish he was closer so I could hear better.

I am sunken into the couch, breastfeeding my colicky newborn for the twelfth time that morning, and concerning myself with my milk supply. I try to decode the conversation while only hearing one end of it, all the while trying to hush Anabel. I am tired, unable to focus, but still fixated on the anticipation of this mystery call. Why does he sound so concerned?

He hangs up and inhales deeply. Then, he says six words that would change everything.

"We have to move to Japan." 

I hold my breath. I am blindsided. I try to swallow, but the knot that was coiling in my stomach is now stuck in my esophagus. I instantly start to weep into my three week old baby's already damp onesie. I sink deeper, dissolving into the sofa. My body hasn’t even healed from childbirth yet - and here we are getting news that feels bigger than willing new life into the world. I feel undone when I imagine my daughter's first moments going unwitnessed by our support system. I feel like a branch being involuntarily taken from its tree by a hurricane. 

This wasn’t part of my plan.

***

Five months from The Call, we are gathered with nearly everyone that we care for. Our village. We are circled around a giant wooden table eating crab legs and boiled potatoes. I am twiddling my thumbs, taking my time to get the meat out of the shell. I know when the meal is over I will have to say goodbye for what feels like a lifetime. I don’t think I will ever be ready. I embarrassingly, awkwardly, sob into the arms of my family. I choke on my words, trying to laugh through the parting. My grandparents, God bless them, they're so old, and I am not sure when I will see them again. I think that is the hardest part.

My aunt grips my shoulders as we try to say four year’s worth of words. Through stifled sobs she says something that feels like a lie, 

"You. Are. Brave."

The next morning we climb onto a Boeing 757, and fly across The Pacific. When the airplane’s wheels touch Japanese soil, I look at my sleeping baby, her profile glowing next the the oval window and I cry again. It is all a lie. I am not brave. I am terrified. 

***

I am at the bathroom sink, looking through the medicine cabinet trying to find the Allegra. The trees are flowering outside and my respiratory system is protesting. My own body rejecting our new place of residence. I see Anabel’s reflection in the mirror. She's pulled herself up onto the side of the bath tub. She's dancing, bobbing her head like a pigeon when it walks. Laughter is thundering out of her tiny body. My sweet, cheeky nine month old. Her smile makes this brand new barren house feel a little bit like home. I talk to her in a sing song voice trying to encourage her to keep moving. And then all at once she slams her toothless gums on the porcelain. Blood is pouring out of her mouth and she is screaming. I’ve had nightmares about this, so I panic. My fingers fumble over the face of my new phone and I realize I wouldn’t even know how to call 911. And I don’t have my international license yet. Eventually, the blood slows into a paper towel, like rainwater seeping into dry earth.  A sliver of guilt is alleviated when Google confirms it is just a torn frenum. I fall to the floor in my trashed living room, and I lose it. I am fenced in by cardboard, isolated by my own belongings. My daughter could have needed emergency help and I wasn’t ready. It felt so dramatic in hindsight. I feel the opposite of brave. I feel inadequate. I feel like a coward.

***

I am half-naked and howling in the middle of the night. It is just after midnight, and it has been almost two years since The Call. Noise is bellowing from a depth within me that I didn't even know existed. It is animalistic, really, but it helps with the pain. The room smells like latex and rubbing alcohol; it is uncomfortably sterile. The lights are too bright. I am spastic, and tearing my IV from my right hand, but everyone else around me is more stoic than I am convinced that they should be. It is almost as if they are tiptoeing around me. There is a catheter halfway into the cavity of my spine, and simultaneously my second baby's head crowning between my legs. The anesthesiologist is silently begging me to hold still so that he doesn't paralyze me. The moment the okay exits his lips, I roll over and immediately Olive is born. I didn't plan to do this unmedicated, but I didn't have a choice. The OBGYN hands me my wet, wailing girl and says something that feels like the truth, "You did it. You are so brave." 

I catch my breath and inhale my newborn. 

I am now a mother of two living on a different continent than my village. No one comes to visit while we are in the hospital, but I don’t feel alone. I feel the roots of my own tree solidifying into the Earth. I finally feel a little bit brave.

***

Anabel is running by my side, her feet shuffling, kicking petals, while Olive shouts out at her echo in the stroller. This is our last spring living here. This place all the sudden feels like home and I can’t believe how much my heart hurts when I imagine leaving it. I think back to the Big Moments. Holidays, and birthdays and promotions, and sicknesses and accidents, pregnancies and births; triumphs and tribulations. The girls grew entire mouthfuls of teeth here, learned how to move their own limbs, and how to communicate. Anabel blew out her first candle here. Olive took her first breaths. I think of everything that has transpired since The Call. Some moments were hard, depressing, isolating, even, but we have gained so much from our life here. 

I catch a glimpse at the light slicing like a knife through the popcorn on the branches. Just a few months ago these same branches were blazing orange in Autumn, and lush and abundant in the summertime. From here, I can see clearly all that we have acquired. For every day of anxiety, or loneliness or the absence of bravery, it is matched with an intense sense of comfort. Like seeds buried deep in the Earth feeling sunshine for the first time. The warmth can be felt, but it still encourages them to reach further to the surface. Comfort found its way in through steaming bowls of butter chicken curry, and hot naan slathered in melted ghee, and dancing to Disney songs with strangers. It was found in inhales of cold air in front of the magnificent mount Fuji, or standing, feet planted firmly into the floors of a subway, our knees shaking, while those around us smiled with sincerity. We have sat, cross legged on tatami mats while being offered delicious meals and teas and mortars and pestles to be part of a culture that is not our own. We have listened to taiko drummers boom through the skies, waving flags and walking on fire with bare feet. We have been loved on by the elderly, and walked with other young parents through parks while our children played together. We have learned so much from the people that live here. 

The Japanese have shown us what humanity looks like. They have taught us the importance of kindness and respect to the people and places that surround us. In a country that caters to the convenience of young families, I am reminded that motherhood is the most important work, that I am recognized, and appreciated. In a city of rapid chaos, I am always seen. There is always someone looking for an opportunity to serve. I have never felt more protected, or more honored, in my entire life.

***

These years have taught us how find strength in each other when each other is all we have. This time away has bent us in ways that have made us love harder and love better. It has made us more confident parents to our daughters. It has given us the opportunity to stretch out of our comfort zones, and into something bigger than fear. It has taught us that having children doesn’t always mean staying and settling - sometimes it means chasing after our best lives and our best selves (even if it feels forced and uncomfortable). We learned that sometimes your village doesn’t look the way you imagined it. Sometimes, it is familiar, and sometimes it is foreign. Sometimes, it is a dinner table full of family and sometimes it is someone you don’t know, using broken English on the train to guide you and your babies home safely when you have gotten lost; or it looks like an old man in a suit who can hardly walk holding his umbrella out over you and your daughter while you walk across the street, and he gets soaked. 

This country wasn’t part of my plan, but this country became our home.

***

A gust of wind whips through the tunnel of cherry trees. Some branches are getting stripped bare. I wonder if each petal is terrified to detach from its home. I wonder if they do not feel brave when they are forced to fly off, not sure where they will end up. 

I wonder if they know that it is necessary to leave, so that the tree that’s left behind can grow stronger, and greener, and more abundant. I wish I could tell them to trust the process.

I wish I could tell them (and the new mom terrified and crying on her couch) to be brave.


Words and photo by N'tima Preusser

About A Boy.

“Ok, with each contraction, I want three good pushes,” the midwife said, her eyes focused on the top of my baby’s head as it peered out.

I braced as I felt the arms of the next wave begin to wrap themselves around my belly. Deep breath, hold it. Push one. Push two. Push three. Still, the contraction was cresting.

“Give me just one more big push,” she said, sensing the opportunity. I grew furious as she reached into me. There hadn’t been time for an epidural - not exactly my plan. I was feeling the fullness of all the pain. I had been told only three pushes were required. One more would be four. I could not do four, and so, red faced and exhausted I shouted back, letting loose the four letter word I’d only ever really let myself whisper before:

I am not f***ing pushing ANYMORE!”

My husband, while trying not to laugh and holding my leg, lifted his head and his brave eyes to mine. “You need to push!” he commanded.

I resented being told what to do, and roared back as my body gave itself over to the pushes that I could no longer contain, working jointly with the hands of the midwife. In an instant I was stretched to the breaking point, and in a flood out came the head, shoulders, torso, tiny limbs, fingers and toes of a baby.

I breathed out my tears, my relief, and my anger as I watched the medical team cut the cord and move the tiny body quickly to the examination table. The meconium had been dark green when they broke my waters, so I was expecting this: probably not serious, but erring on the side of caution. A time to be alert, but not panic.

It was hard for me not to panic.

There wouldn’t be time for immediate skin-to-skin, there wouldn’t be time to stare at eyes, face, fingers, or toes right away as I had with my firstborn, my daughter.

“Is it ok?” I asked, simultaneously realizing I was lacking a certain key piece of information. “Boy or girl? Boy or girl? Is it a boy or a girl?!” I asked my husband on repeat. He squeezed my hand and then left my side to find out.

If I couldn’t hold or see my baby right away, I needed some piece of tangible information to hold onto. We had chosen not to find out the sex the first time around, and this time was no different. One surprise element about our baby to get me through the labor.

“It’s a boy!” my husband called out to me from the other end of the expanse that separated me from the baby that was supposed to be in my arms.

My heart startled a little bit.

A boy.

A boy.

I hadn’t been expecting a boy.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want a boy. I wanted a baby. I wanted this baby. I knew I would want this boy. I just wasn’t sure how I felt at this very second.

For months, when we had told people we weren’t going to find out, the inevitable question would follow: but what are you hoping to have? A boy or a girl? I never felt completely comfortable answering that question. It felt a bit rude. The party line, of course, was “It doesn’t matter to me. I’m just glad we get to have another baby!” because, well, isn’t that what you’re supposed to say?

But in my heart, when I let myself go deep, oh, how I was hoping for another little girl. I was a girl. I knew girls. I knew how to handle girls. And most of all, I wanted so much to have daughters who could know the kind of sisterhood I had with my own sister, and to have the kind of close mother-daughter relationship I had with my own mom. I didn’t know how to do that with a boy. And going even deeper, there were the thoughts that stretched too far into the future: a boy would leave our family someday for another woman. A girl might stay close or at least come back to me when she needed help mothering her own little ones.

But, I couldn’t say those things out loud. Never. And there was always the possibility that the story of my children would work out quite differently.

“He looks great, mama! No complications - and he’s a big boy - eight pounds ten ounces! Good work!” I heard the medical student as he walked toward me, a bundle of blanket-wrapped baby boy in his arms. I held my arms out, instinctively but with mental reserve. I was already feeling guilty about the hopes I’d had - this poor little frail baby had spent the last nine months inside of me, not knowing I had let feelings and hopes become pictures and dreams in my head about who he would become. He probably deserved a better mother, I thought, a mother who actually didn’t care whether he was a boy or a girl.

I can’t truthfully say that as soon as I saw my son’s face that all of my dreams of having a girl disappeared. It took a little while to reconcile pictures of what I had imagined another girl would mean with the beautiful boy I held in my arms. I still feel guilty about that sometimes - about how long it took. But the truth is, the moment I did see his face, I started to fall in love all over again. Immediately, in all of the mess of post-labor haze and lack of confidence in knowing how to be a mother to a son, I knew that, just as with my daughter, this baby was mine. I would give my life for this baby. I would hold this baby, snuggle this baby, let this baby fall asleep on my chest to the beating rhythm of my heart, sing to this baby, rock this baby, keep this baby as close to me as I could for as long as I could.

Staring at him in my arms as I was wheeled from the delivery room to the recovery room, I leaned in and kissed his cheek. “Hello, son,” I whispered, letting that unexpected word escape my mouth. And as those words were born out of my mouth, so too were born new pictures and new dreams.


Written by Catherine Gordon. Cat is a wife to a wonderful husband and mom to two imaginative and hilarious kids, all of whom she loves beyond measure. A Spanish teacher on long term leave from a traditional classroom, she thinks parents of young children should get stickers for doing things like remembering to move clothes from the washer to the dryer. A born & raised Michigan gal trying to make sense of an unexpected life in So Cal (she actually does miss the snow), you can find her blogging at The Cathartic Blend, on Instagram and on Twitter

*This essay was crafted in our Known Workshop based on the prompt to write a secret confession. Sign up here to get advance warning and early access next time we host a writing workshop.

Photo by Kelli Seeley.

Parental Drift.

The closest I’ve ever come to being murdered in my sleep by my wife was just after our first daughter was born. I’d adopted the odd little custom, in the wee hours of a restless night, of making an unnecessary announcement: “I’m just gonna get a little more sleep.” My wife might be nursing the baby, I’d rouse, ask if I could help, and then offer the catchphrase. It’s unclear exactly what it was that enraged my wife so wholly about the saying, but to this day, if reminded of it, her left eye twitches, searing with fury, and she mutters something I can’t understand before storming out of the room. Maybe it was the word “more.”   

The sleep issue wasn’t the only instance of what felt like divergence for us. Very early on in my life as a dad, I discovered that my primary mode of contribution to the family was as chief sanitation secretary. My routine included the changing of innumerable diapers (of varying hygienic severity), cleaning the litter box, picking up hairballs, spraying where the dog accidentally peed, scooping the dog’s leavings on our walk, and fixing the clogged toilet. It wasn’t uncommon, frankly, for me to be wrist deep in something’s excretions all the live-long day. More than once, on hands and knees scrubbing a carpet, I thought, “this is what I’ve amounted to as a husband, as a father, as a person: a cleaner of cat vomit— this and nothing else.”  

Sometimes, perhaps while bouncing an interminably fussy three-month old, or trying to coax a dirty diaper out of the jaws of our dog, I’d recall that funny little idiom: “I was such a great parent before I had kids.” That is, the challenges of parenting quickly cease being theoretical, or purely philosophical, and it can be difficult to predict how you’ll react to them. These challenges don’t originate solely within the home, either. Take away the reckless politicization of issues like unpaid leave, insurance, and child care costs, and what you’re left with are very real, often very stressful hurdles for your family. On tougher days, these stresses alongside the everyday rigors of parenthood can leave you and your spouse a little ragged. 

I remember one particular evening of frustration, when my wife and I had confidently carved out some personal time: the baby slept calmly in her bassinet, and I passed my wife a glass of wine as we sat down to watch a movie. Like a thunderclap, the baby awoke screaming, shattering our attempt to return to married life— it was an all-out collapse, as I could do little to help. Both of us had to work in the morning, but there was my wife, bouncing on an exercise ball with our little bundle of anger, exhausting herself into the late hours while I tried to get some sleep—my commute meant I needed out of the house no later than 6:50am, rapidly approaching, and for that night, and maybe a few others, it was as though my wife and I were leading utterly disparate lives. This didn’t happen often, I should emphasize, and those rare tough moments certainly aren’t the memories we’ve taken away from those amazing early months of parenthood— but they sure didn’t feel great when they did happen. 

As the months of parenthood piled up, I noted a number of instances wherein similar forces operated on my wife, making her less herself, and more— sometimes—an outsider in her own life.  Bra purchases, for example, went from, “oh, this is cute,” to, “this is least likely to leak breastmilk onto my shirt.” Similarly, her role as breastfeeder occasionally made her feel like “a dairy cow” (her words). Paradoxically, the often preferential attention she received from our daughter— of which I was deeply jealous— could sometimes leave my wife drained. Throw in a needy husband, a big dumb dog, and a couple cats, and she had some living thing attached to her close to 24 hours a day, leaving very little energy left over for herself.            

We have two daughters now—a two year old and a two month old—so those sorts of issues have multiplied. My wife and I sometimes live as cellmates, commiserating, but ultimately unable to relieve each other’s plight. Some days, my wife and I sit on the couch as two husks— once proud, passionate adults, now desperate, hoping only that the closed captioning on the Today show is accurate enough to communicate Kathie Lee’s sass, lest another morning be wasted in silence as the baby sleeps.

“If I ever get outta here,” I’ve said to my wife, “I’m gonna have merlot at 10am like Hoda.” 

Once, after teaching a morning class, I returned home to my visibly frazzled spouse.

“It’s just been a really crazy day,” she said. It was 9:30 in the morning. 

On another occasion, I got up before the rest of the house and made coffee. When my wife migrated downstairs, our two daughters in tow, and realized that coffee was ready and waiting, she gave me a look I hadn’t seen since our wedding day; she whispered “thank you,” as a single tear rolled down her cheek.

So clearly she and I—caving to the cliché—are in the same boat. In fact, it’s the same boat we got on six years ago, when we met and fell head over heels in love. Running with the metaphor, I never left the boat, neither did my wife, but both of us definitely had to figure out how to regain our sea legs as new parents, as a new family entirely. Sure, I felt exterior some of the time, but strangely enough, so did my wife—“She doesn’t love mom,” my wife once told me of our infant, “she loves milk.” 

Recognizing the challenges both of us have met has brought us even closer, and I’ve realized that whatever energy I once spent on negativity—feelings of loneliness or uselessness—I want to spend on loving my family: my wondrous daughters, my luminous wife. For now the boat, as it were, may be captained by tiny lunatics and is sometimes rife with tensions, but to whatever extent we are adrift, we are finding our way together, and we are bearing onward with boundless joy.


Guest post written by John Wells. John is an Ohioan teaching rowdy collegians in North Carolina.  He lives with his wonderful wife and two young daughters.  He also plays music and writes as often as possible; his poems, essays, and short stories have recently been published in After the Pause, Driftwood, Best New Writing, and other journals.

Photo by Taylor Johnson Photography.