Strawberry, Basil + Goat Cheese Panini

The alarm clock on my phone rings, and I hit snooze for the first of several times. I’ve never been very disciplined about getting out of bed right away. Despite the previous night's vow to wake up before my kids, I reluctantly crawl from beneath the covers only when I start to hear, “Mama! Mama!” from the next room.

Today, fortunately, the calls for mama are interrupted by laughter. My two-year-old twins jabber to each other about something hilarious, but in a language unknown to me. I leave them to giggle and chat for a few more minutes, giving me a chance to put on clean clothes and spray my hair with dry shampoo (an innovation I should have embraced long ago). Then we hit the ground running—or waddling in my case, being eight months pregnant.

I change one diaper, then the other. We head downstairs, a migration which lately includes nearly all their stuffed animals—Bear, Sloth, Gorilla, and the rest of Noah’s ark. I fill my favorite white and gray mug with coffee and make my kids a plate of scrambled eggs and toast. They (usually) inhale it contentedly, although some days they suddenly deem such a breakfast inedible. I snag bites of their leftovers in between sips of coffee before wiping the worst of the mess off the floor (a feat that’s getting more difficult as my pregnancy progresses), and we’re off to do whatever the day has in store for us.

Sometimes the days feel chaotic. There are more spills, more cries, more clawing at my legs, more inexplicable fussiness. Other times, I aimlessly wander through our daily rituals, not stopping to give them much thought. I like routine. I crave structure and schedules and plans. But those ordinary moments can easily blend together like one homogeneous block of time, and the routine starts to feel too ... routine.

When my kids took two naps, I started using the first nap to stop and eat—actually eat, as in sit down at a table with a real plate and real utensils. I didn’t cook anything fancy, often just a couple slices of toast with avocado and an over-easy egg. But the practice forced me to slow down, even for just 10 minutes, rather than simply grab a granola bar and a piece of fruit on the go.

My kids now take one nap, so my late breakfast routine has turned into lunch. Soon after they’re settled in their cribs, I make myself a salad or a sandwich, or heat up last night’s leftovers (and try to take a few extra seconds to eat them off a real plate rather than cold out of Tupperware). It’s not even about the food, although good food is important to me. It’s about what happens when I physically stop and give myself permission to hold still. As mundane as it sounds, I’m realizing that sitting down to a meal nourishes not just my body, but my mind. It helps me pause long enough to think. To listen. To rest.

It doesn’t happen every day. Some days require me to move with more urgency than others. And I know my midday break won’t always be possible. We’re expecting Baby No.3, and I’m guessing he or she won’t care much about sleeping at the exact same time as the twins. But hopefully, eventually, I’ll find a way to press pause during our ordinary days.

Maybe despite my habit of hitting snooze, I’ll learn to make it happen early in the morning over coffee and a muffin. Or maybe I’ll savor the late night stillness with a glass of wine and a few slices of cheese. Whenever I can, I want to be able to stop in the midst of the routine. I want to nourish more than my grumbling stomach and make room for moments of quiet. I want to press pause long enough to notice the life I’m living and be thankful for the beauty of the everyday.

Strawberry, Basil + Goat Cheese Panini
Yields 1 sandwich

2 slices of bread*

Olive oil

Salt

Pepper

Crumbled goat cheese

A handful of fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced

A few fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped

Preheat a panini press or grill pan. Drizzle olive oil on both sides of the two pieces of bread. Season both sides with a pinch of salt and pepper. 

Layer the goat cheese, strawberries, and chopped basil onto one slice of bread, and top with the other slice. Cook in a panini press (or grill both sides on a grill pan) until the bread is toasted and the cheese is melted. Serve immediately. 

*I like to use relatively thinly sliced white Italian bread for this recipe. If the bread is too thick, the rest of the flavors won’t come through and you’ll end up tasting mostly bread.

**If you really want to take this sandwich up a notch, add in a few pieces of dark chocolate. So good!

One, Two, Three

A Facebook memory popped up this weekend: three years ago today, I first met my son. His hair was black, his cheeks were pink, and he was so small I could fit him in the crook of my elbow. I feel as if there should be some sadness as I write this. To be done with that delicious time. Snuggled together on the glider, rejoined, if superficially, in the carrier

But there isn’t any sadness. I am glad to be done. I am glad our family is done. Or not done, but complete.

It’s hard to say I am past the toddler stage when my youngest is so firmly, dictatorially in diapers. No amount of bribery can dissuade him from his preferred means of elimination. But I am, definitely and forever, past the infant stage, the baby stage. The all-consuming, don’t-turn-your-head, don’t-leave-them-alone stage. The era of firsts that tumble after each other like beads bouncing from a broken necklace. First smile (ping!) first head lift (ping!) first roll, word, step (ping! ping! ping!). The end of two seems like the end of an era. He doesn’t toddle or wobble. He runs. He dances.

I never thought of myself as a natural mother. When I was young, Cabbage Patch Kids were all the rage. I detested them. I didn’t even like to touch them. Their cartoonishly large eyes, their button noses, their creepy back story. (To be grown from cabbage plants? What?). Barbie dolls were slightly more engaging, in that you could take their clothes off and bend their knees not only forward, but also backward. But my house was Dream House-less. My one brunette Barbie lay abandoned, knees at awkward angles, somewhere below a pile of well-loved Care Bears.

Years later, as a camp counselor, one of my eight-year-old students said to me, slight accusation in her voice: “You always talk to us like we’re grownups.”

“How should I talk to you?” I asked, genuinely curious. Her courage faded. “No. It’s fine. It’s fine.”

It was years later still when my first good friend had a baby. “Can I hold her?” my husband asked. It didn’t even occur to me to ask. The baby, so tiny. My arms so big. I had vague ideas of soft spots and the damage I could unintentionally do to this fragile, healthy girl. I stayed silent, watching warily as the baby was passed into my husband’s hands.

After my first was born, though, I felt the pull to motherhood ferociously. I remember just days after he was born, looking at my husband and saying “I want another.” The equivalent of signing up for a marathon upon crossing the finish line.

My second was harder, in all respects. Before I ever laid eyes on her, she made her presence known with aggressive kicks and a series of false alarms. When she was good and ready, she arrived, sunny-side up, and weighing nearly nine pounds.

Life, it turned out, was also harder when trying to juggle a newborn and a 23-month-old.

Especially when said firstborn needed forgotten objects on high shelves as soon as I sat down to nurse. I was tired, in a way that is foreign now, blessedly out of reach. I made up a game once of blowing up the air mattress and lying on it. All twenty-ish pounds or so of my son would try to rock me out of it. My eyes closed, my breathing heavy. I was at sea.

A year or so later, our little family of four walked to the playground. It was one of those times when it’s almost too ridiculous how bad of a time you are having. The kids were falling, screaming, crying. The setting incongruous to the mood. Joyfully-colored monkey bars, shiny-silver slides. Sobbing children. My husband and I both took out our phones, opened the notes sections. “Only two kids,” we both wrote. “No more.”

My husband used to joke, “I wanted to have four kids, my wife wanted to have two, so we settled on two.”

Gradually, I realized, it did feel like settling. “Oh, let me hold her!” I would sing to my new mother friends. “Take a few minutes, we’ll be right here.” The baby nestled in the crook of my arm, all warmth and weight and trust. Afterward, holding my own children, they felt impossibly heavy. My arms impossibly light. I felt, not nostalgia, something more basic. Was this it? Was this our family? Were we really done?

I am a worrier, made more so with each pregnancy, with each life brought into this world, with each near-miss and horror story. Were we to have another, I would be entering that fraught landscape of “advanced maternal age.” And while I knew the risks (oh believe me, I knew them) and knew the odds were on my side, I also knew I didn’t want to wait much longer if we were going to have another. The spacing, every two years, dit dit dit. There was rhythm to that.

How does one decide these things? Ultimately it came down to this: If we had another, we wouldn’t regret it; if we didn’t, we might.

So we did. And hooray, too. Because he completes this family. With his joyfulness, and his “mean monster” face, and his refusal to use the damn toilet. He is the air and water to my oldest son’s earth. To my daughter’s fire. He is what we were waiting for, even before we knew we were still waiting. On that day when we took out our phones and cavalierly put a period down on a sentence that was only partly written.  

Perhaps that’s why, when I saw that Facebook memory, that tiny face, I felt no tug of longing, no ovarian release, no what-ifs or how-abouts. We’re not waiting anymore. We’re living it, this family of ours. We are living it with joy and heartbreak and tenderness and strength and messiness and unbelievable noise. With all of that. We are writing the story of our family, the five of us. And even though our family is complete, the story has only just begun.   


Guest post written by Ali Wilkinson. Ali lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, three small children, and two large cats. She is a lawyer, writer, knitter, runner and over-consumer of Nutella. Her writing has appeared on Red Book, Babble, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy and Elephant Journal, among others. She blogs about parenting and other things that make her laugh (and cry) at Run, Knit, Love. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Give Us This Day

In the beginning, before they could talk, I would tally their dirty diapers when there were questions about whether or not they were getting enough to eat. How many wet diapers? How many poopy diapers? How does this compare to the usual? Eventually we taught them baby sign language and they could start to tell us themselves, when they wanted milk or food, if they wanted more or were all done. They are little boys now, four and six years old, and there are no more questions about it. They tell me exactly when they’re hungry, when they’re not, what they hope to eat, what they won’t touch, what’s too spicy, too hot, too gross, or too green. I worry they’re eating too much sugar and not enough vegetables. 

So much of motherhood is about feeding children.

When I was pregnant with my first son, reading all the books and the blogs and asking my veteran friends all the questions, I mostly overlooked the amount of time and energy that would go into feeding him. Of course I knew I’d have to feed my baby — and eventual toddler, and eventual big kid, but I thought it would be more of a checkbox task. Feed him to keep him alive, and then move on to the real work of motherhood. I thought the feeding part was just a prerequisite to get to the juicier stuff like sleep schedules and discipline philosophies and socialization.

And then I actually became a mom.

The very first time I lifted that tiny baby to my breast, both of us delirious and exhausted, it was evident that the act of feeding him was hardly about food at all. My body was suddenly something brand new. The way he instinctively knew what to do was perhaps the second greatest miracle I had ever witnessed firsthand, the first having been his arrival into the world just moments before. I was at once filled with worry about whether or not I was doing it right, and contentment that I was doing it at all. And with that, my motherhood journey had started.

Breastfeeding always toed that line of being about feeding and being about something more. The connection between mother and child, the celebration of what a woman’s body can do, the amazement at the divine design of it all, the way he looked up at me so adoringly and made it all seem so simple and romantic, if only for that moment.

I’ll never forget the first time I fed my second son, either. He was 14 days old and we met him in the NICU a few hours earlier, called in by our social worker after a long process to become foster parents who hoped to adopt our second child through the foster system. He was only four pounds, bug-eyed and doll-like. He had a feeding tube permanently inserted up his nose as he hadn’t fully developed his suckle reflex yet, but the nurses had starting giving him bottles for a few minutes at a time. One of the nurses showed me how to do it, unwrapping a slow-flow nipple from it’s sterile hospital wrapper and securing it onto a test-tube sized bottle of high calorie baby formula. I cradled his tiny body in my left arm and touched the rubber nipple to his lips. I held my breath, hoping he would latch to the bottle easily. I needed to know I could do it, feed this baby that was not born of my body. I needed to know he’d accept it from me, a stranger whose voice and heartbeat and smell were all brand new. He latched, and I breathed a sigh of relief. And from that point forward it was my responsibility to feed him, because that’s what mothers do.

We feed our children.

We progressed from breastmilk and formula, respectively, to sweet potato mash to peas and bananas and avocados and applesauce with spinach blended into it. We graduated to cow’s milk and peanut butter and processed foods I swore I’d never allow. We learned the importance of snacks. In Ziplock bags and in colorful reusable containers, in the diaper bag and in my pockets and in every compartment in my car, we never, ever, left home without snacks.

My kids developed their palates and their personalities. The younger one will eat almost anything, but will take it as a personal offense if it’s too hot. The older one is a pickier eater but a savvier negotiator, always bargaining for the best bites-to-dessert ratio. I can occasionally convince them to try new things, but they are mostly their own little people now, flexing their opinions about what I feed them with with conviction and flair.

And we work it all out at the table. Over breakfast and lunch and dinner and the countless snacks that seem to punctuate the events of the day, I prepare and offer while they inspect and decide. We negotiate and reason while I try to teach them that too much sugar will make them sick and a variety of vegetables will make them strong. I tell them it hurts my feelings when they dramatically eschew what I’ve prepared for them, and for a moment I think they understand. There are a painful number of reminders about table manners, about hygiene, about how fortunate we are to have this food and this family to eat it with. We are all learning a lot when we come to this table together.

***

I once met a professional spear fisherwoman who, in telling the story of how she came to love spearfishing, recounted the satisfaction of being able to catch “just enough fish”. Just enough to feed herself. Just enough to feed some friends if there was going to be a backyard barbecue somewhere that evening. Nothing extravagant, no fish to waste, but just enough.

Her story brought to mind the Gospel story of Jesus feeding 5,000 men with only two fish and five loaves of bread, miraculously multiplied so no one went hungry. Aside from the resurrection, this is the only miracle recorded in all four gospels of the Bible. Jesus didn’t turn the bread into cake or the fish into steak, he didn’t summon fruits from the heavens or wine from the ground. The miracle, the thing he did when his people were hungry, was simply that he made it enough.

I think about this sometimes when I feed my children, both their stomachs and their minds. I catch myself occasionally putting so much pressure on myself to feed them meals and lessons that are beautiful and diverse and organic and crafted with love from my very own hands and heart. And there is a place for that—for the feast. There are moments when it’s appropriate to go a little overboard, planning for days or weeks in advance, dissecting the recipes or the parenting books, getting second opinions about side dishes or bedtime rituals. There is a time to indulge.

But most days, “just enough” is just right. Just enough vegetables. Just enough of a plan. Just enough talk about manners and gratitude and sugar. Just enough certainty about any of it.

***

I know now that feeding children isn’t a checkbox task en route to the real work of motherhood. What I first started to understand when I brought my son to my breast in that hospital bed all those years ago I know for sure now. We don’t just feed them, we nurture them; sustain them. And in receiving what we feed them, what we attempt to teach them, they teach us. They teach us about dependence and provision, about selfishness and selflessness, about developing your own taste, one meal at a time.

I understand that so much of motherhood is about feeding children, but it’s also about more than that. It’s about learning what is enough. It’s about recognizing that not every meal can be a feast, nor should it be. It’s about knowing how to take two fish and five simple loaves of bread and somehow make it work, with faith and prayer and magic. Because this is what mothers do—we feed our children.

The Other Fathers

Father’s Day has always been fraught for me.

My dad died four years ago, and we were estranged for about ten years before that. The 30 years before the estrangement were ... confusing. My parents split up for a brief time when I was in junior high. When my dad left he named me “the man of the house.” When he came back, he asked me for permission. I was fourteen.

I’m not sure I ever learned what a father should be.

My dad was a pretty good cheerleader; he was always the loudest parent on the sidelines of my soccer games. I suppose he was also a decent model for the pursuit of intellectual excellence. He used to say, “I don’t want anyone to say I raised stupid kids.” In that regard, the bar was pretty low, but I still learned to read and reflect and reason because of him.

Overall, however, we just never clicked. It seems clear—to me, at least—that he never learned what a father should be either. I’m done blaming or grieving him for that, but Father’s Day makes me wonder: what does it really mean to be a dad?

I’ve been a dad myself for fourteen and a half years. My daughters are two of the coolest people I know. Abi is 14 and lights up whatever room she walks into; she’s a performer, always singing and dancing. Mari is 10 and as fierce as they come; she plays hard and loves hard. She’s funny, smart, and a great apologizer.

I love being their dad. I’m constantly astounded by the questions they ask and the adventures they undertake. They’re hard sometimes, but that’s to be expected. My long-term goal is to be friends with my kids as adults, maybe because I didn’t have that opportunity with my own father. He never really got to know either of them.

That’s his loss. I won’t make it my own.

I’m certainly tempted to wallow in the grief of being a fatherless father, but fortunately, I have been surrounded by other men who refused to let that happen.

Like Ray. I have fond memories of our drives to wrestling matches accompanied by mostly silence but also Gordon Lightfoot. I remember punting a basketball through his garage door window. I don’t remember being shamed for it (or having to pay for it). He taught me the power of quiet strength and the sheer joy of being proud of your kid. Without trying, he made me feel like a third son. I was family.

Or like Ed. He was the first coach to really trust me. And his was the first great team I ever played for. If I ever let him down, he  only used my failure to motivate me. I loved playing for him. He gave me the freedom to make mistakes and to learn from them. He also taught me that sometimes it’s better to be smart than strong.  

Or George. One of my favorite compliments is to be his “newest old friend.” He is my “oldest new friend.” Every minute with him is rich. He’s taught me the power of curiosity, always ready with a penetrating question and a patient ear. He’s modeled a kind of discernment which I have tried to pass down to my children by patiently understanding their hearts before responding with my own hurried thoughts.

Or like three different Steves and three different Davids (wild, right?) who are all incredibly gifted men. Professionally, they are masters of their fields. Personally, so wise and so humble. I’ve had moments with each of them that are tattooed on my soul. I’m done having children, and I’m grateful I have two daughters. But if I’d been given a son, he would have born their names.

I’m a lucky man to have had so many incredible fathers take an active role in my life. Despite my own story with my dad, which is mostly full of shame and disappointment, I also feel incredibly blessed to be able to celebrate the other fathers in my life on Father’s Day. And every day.

If Father’s Day is hard or complicated for you ... can you, will you, look around and see the many men who have impacted you and your children? Who are the Rays and Eds and Georges and Steves and Davids who have shaped you? Who are the men who have mentored your partners and children? I’m not suggesting at all that you dismiss your own fathers. I’m not suggesting that you celebrate in spite of your dad. I’m suggesting that you celebrate in light of your dad.

Again, this day is fraught for me. But Father’s Day is not just about me and my dad anymore. It’s about me and my girls now, too. They’re smart, creative, compassionate, wild and beautiful. They dance, swim, play and dream with reckless abandon. They’re teaching me what a father should be just as much as the many men who stepped into my life when I needed it.

May I forever be the type of dad to show quiet strength, to give my children the freedom to make mistakes, to listen patiently, to love my girls with everything I have, in the hopes that Father’s Day will never be fraught for them.


Guest post written by Zach Brittle. Zach is a licensed mental health counselor in Seattle, Wa. He is the founder of forBetter which offers online courses for couples. He is the best-selling author of The Relationship Alphabet and his writings and insights have also been featured in Verily Magazine, Real Simple Central, Men’s Health Magazine, the Huffington Post and the Washington Post. He has been happily married to Rebecca for 19 of 20 years – year #8 was pretty rough. Together, they have two daughters (10 & 14), a minivan, and most of the silverware they got as wedding presents. You can also listen to Zach on the Coffee + Crumbs podcast this week!