Motherhood and meals: A personal essay

Photo of baguettes
Allison Fong/File

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very time I take online quizzes, they repeatedly confirm that, amid the five love languages, mine is either physical touch or quality time (more the latter since the last I’ve checked). Very low on my love language preferences, however, has always been receiving gifts. I love heartfelt gifts as much as the next person, but they don’t seem to be central to any relationships in my life. Except for one — my relationship with my mother.

I had an epiphany upon returning home from Berkeley one break last year — my mother seems to show her love for me in food. I live rather close to school, so when classes were online, I would sometimes go back and forth to do my laundry or see my little brother, but in all honesty (I love you Erik), it was mostly to get food. I love bread, and after each visit, I would be sent back to Berkeley with a loaf of my favorite bread. When she knew I was coming home, my mom would somehow secure a loaf to be waiting upon my arrival. Along with the bread, she would send me back to school with avocados, vegan butter, snacks and whatever else she thought I might like to take. This may seem procedural for some — a normal thing for a mother to want to feed her child — but to me, I felt it as a way she was trying to reach me. 

For context, I would say I didn’t have a very good relationship with my mom in high school. Not that we had a necessarily bad relationship, but we barely spoke. I hid a lot of things from her and felt uncomfortable or judged trying to tell her anything personal about my life. I always strongly envied my friends who were so close with their mothers, who told their mom every little detail about their life the same way they would tell a friend. I’m sure countless teenage girls feel this way about their moms. In a time when things are changing and confusing, where do you go when the one person you think you should be able to go to feels emotionally out of reach? In a time when things are changing and confusing, where do you go when the one person you think you should be able to go to feels emotionally out of reach? My mom always told me it’s her job to be a parent, not a friend, and although I understood, I still vied for a closeness with her — the kind I had when I was a baby or toddler and never left her side. But it couldn’t be like that. 

For months in quarantine, I never spoke to my mom, leaving the house without saying a word and filling any time I was home locked away in my room. And then, weeks before leaving for college, my worst fear materialized: She made me talk about it. I expressed to her how I felt I could never speak to her when it came to topics that might rupture the surface of our usual conversation; the rift between us was already too vast to mend. She simply said we are more similar than I like to think. I didn’t believe her at the time, but it’s one of the only things I remember from that conversation because it is true — I am quite literally her namesake. 

We are both painfully shy. While years of therapy have significantly improved my social anxiety, and my friends might not ever describe me as introverted, I still dread meeting anyone new. I have a hard time talking to people until they talk to me first; I don’t hesitate to acknowledge I am not the friendliest or most approachable person. It’s not because I feel superior to anyone but because my throat closes or my words come out strangely and I don’t remember how to speak. I blamed my mom a lot growing up for this trait of mine — why didn’t she teach me how to speak to adults? How to engage in small talk when meeting people? This, among other things, fueled my internal contempt against my mother. I refused to believe we could be similar. In fact, it was on this inability to express emotions that I blamed our unsuccessful attempts at friendship. Not on my part, but hers. She’s an adult, after all: Why doesn’t she talk to me first or make the effort to be closer? 

My mom sent me to therapy the minute she realized something was wrong with me because she knew she wouldn’t be able to talk to me correctly, and she admitted that, at least. In therapy, I had a hard time talking to my therapist at first. We spent the first year of sessions basically doing art projects together as a way to express my feelings to her; I simply had no idea how to talk to someone about my anxieties and emotions because I never had. When I did finally grow comfortable enough to talk to my therapist more, she helped me realize that my inability to be vulnerable is partly because my parents never taught me to.

But that’s unfair. I blamed my mom so much for our relationship, or lack thereof, when it wasn’t really her fault. I know she was trying, really trying to talk to me all throughout high school, but she was never saying the right things in my mind. Looking back, who am I to blame her? I have the exact same issue. A relationship is a two-way street; my refusal to open up or talk to her didn’t help. She raised five children perfectly, and I only focused on her shortcomings. It’s unrealistic to expect someone to be a teacher, nurturer, protector and perfect communicator all in one, as moms are expected to be. I guess it never occurred to me until I grew up and moved out that my mom is a person, not just a mom. I had to take her off of the unrealistic pedestal mothers are placed on to see it. She has her own set of emotions to deal with, her own communication barriers, as do I. My social anxiety didn’t come from nowhere. It didn’t occur to me until I took a step back, was away from her and missing her, that she had been expressing her love to me all along. She cooked for my entire family all of my life — and amazingly too. She only made us whole foods and hearty meals, literally hearty, because it’s how she was showing she cares and only wants the best for her children. I think we all took that for granted, not realizing how lucky we were. I didn’t realize until I had no mom feeding me every night. During my freshman year, I got really into cooking because I was hungry, but also because I genuinely loved cooking for and eating with my friends and roommates. My family has always eaten together, every night, something I realize now is rare. 

When I went home, I never asked her to make me the food I love; she just did. There’s no explanation needed for cooking something nice or buying someone their favorite food. I realize that now, as someone who strays away from expressing any verbal sentiment of love. It’s “Lady Bird”-esque in that you don’t appreciate your mother until you leave the nest. And maybe when you leave she misses feeding you, too. My mom is truly the most caring person I know, and I regret not seeing how she cared so much for me sooner. 

It’s “Lady Bird”-esque in that you don’t appreciate your mother until you leave the nest. And maybe when you leave she misses feeding you, too.

A single loaf of bread can speak volumes. She even bought me snacks one day over summer after I had mentioned liking once. At that moment, it especially clicked —the attentiveness with which she listens to me, even if I can’t tell at the moment. Her love for me transcends words, as does mine, as we both have a hard time speaking them — I know she could express her love for me in writing better, as can I. 

It must be scary being a mother, especially to multiple kids. How can you possibly meet the needs of them all? As I’ve become older, the thought of having children is especially frightening. I can only imagine trying to talk to my hormonal daughter about her feelings when I can’t even express my own. Sure, it’s something my mom and I should probably both work on, and maybe one day we’ll be able to express our feelings eloquently (though it makes me uncomfortable even imagining it). But she’s managed to get through life, in an extremely accomplished way may I add, despite maybe not being the best at embracing vulnerability. It gives me hope. I cherish our times spent together — reflecting now on how many of them revolved around food. Since I was little, I loved going to the grocery store with her. I loved watching her cook and cooking with her, and I especially loved eating her food. When we spend time together, it mostly, if not always, involves a meal. We’ll go to lunch or go to Half Moon Bay, where we’ll go on a hike or the beach — but not without getting coffee or food first. 

I realize now how much it means to me when anyone gets me food — it’s one of the purest forms of love. While of course I enjoy other gifts, food holds an especially important part of my heart, thanks to my mom. I don’t blame her anymore for our failed friendship in the past; I’d say I’m closer to her now than I’ve ever been, maybe even equivalent to when I was an infant. Being away from her, only getting to see her occasionally, has somehow made me more able to open up to her about things, and I can tell she appreciates it. We both may never be able to fully express our love for each other with words, but I’ve come to realize that words aren’t necessary. Words are fleeting, forgettable, but the joy of a delicious meal stays with you — it gets digested and absorbed in your body. I don’t know if we’ll ever have that tell-all super open dialogue, but at least for now, I think I’d prefer a loaf of bread.

Contact Khristina Holterman at [email protected]