When I make bread, I focus on the feel of the dough, the windowpane test for gluten elasticity, the delicate question of adding a pinch of flour. Will it turn the mass crumbly? Will it tame the sticky webbing between my fingers?
It’s a conscious decision to meditate on my baking instead of my parenting, though I sometimes look up, listening to conversations in the adjoining rooms. Is there danger? Is there crisis?
No, but my seven-year-old is perpetually angry, at her siblings or me or herself. She shouts “Ugh!” over and over, because she shaved her Barbie’s head, or she hates her sister, or I’ve turned off the internet. “Ugh!”
Her anger is a series of short-lived spurts, fleeting explosions that diminish quickly, then spiral back up every minute, every hour, every day. I pull her to me and beg, “Please just stop saying ugh?”
“I know! Ugh!” she shouts in my face, then buries her whole head in my armpit.
I turn back to my bread, awkwardly kneading with one hand. I refuse to use the hook attachment on my mixer after yesterday’s leaden loaf. I don’t want to damage the gluten strands with the machine’s lack of finesse. Or that’s what I tell myself, when in reality it’s the feel of the dough, a compelling squashing and flattening that simultaneously squashes and flattens the anxiety that rises in me every minute, every hour, every day. There are a thousand reasons to panic in this house, and it takes a thousand individual attempts to mask them, to not let loose on my kids or my husband or my parents, who also live here and need me.
I successfully achieve this squashing and flattening approximately 75% of the time, both with my agitation and with my kneading.
This time, I speak quietly and lovingly and my daughter, soothed, runs into the other room and immediately starts arguing with her older sister.
25% of the time I yell back when they fight, their hourly arguments like papercuts that slice over and over into skin that never seems to heal. I was an only child, adopted, and all I ever wanted was a sister. I try to remind myself of this, but I end up screaming 5% of the time, and then they silently begin their chores or run upstairs. The quiet I needed, and yet not like this.
The same happens with my bread. 25% of the time the texture is thick and hard, 5% of the time completely inedible. I blame the mixer with its unyielding hook that batters at the delicate yeast and gluten. But it’s me, out-of-touch with the dough.
This time it’s perfect, smooth and soft, barely pushing back as I turn and fold. I breathe out and look up to see my middle child standing in front of me. Her hands flutter and flap, a subconscious imitation of her autistic older brother’s stimming. She began to do this just this past year, and I don’t know if I should ignore it or gently ask her about it, or maybe just squash and flatten her hands with mine and whisper, “Shh, you’re enough. I see you.”
I’m afraid she’ll whisper back, “No, I’m never enough. You only see him.”
“Mom, mom, mom,” she says instead.
“Just one second,” I say and kiss her forehead. I shape the dough, not quite ready but close, into a ball and drop it in an oiled glass bowl. I cover it with plastic wrap and place it in the cool oven with the light on to proof.
This time, she is upset about something she won’t tell me. She needs an hour of parental repair that I guess at, whack-a-mole style.
“You’re okay. We’re okay,” I whisper.
She calms, mysteriously, right when I need to check my dough. It’s doubled in size.
“Want to go outside?” she calls to her sister, and they’re gone.
Earlier I listened to them rage-play, a release valve opening after months stuck at home. Their barbies flew, naked and wild-haired, across the dining room. They ran around the table as fast as they could, hurling their dolls back and forth and shouting at each other about toilets, body parts—anything gross or forbidden. The luxury of screaming about anuses and vaginas, collapsing, rolling around, laughing deep-belly laughs, their naked barbies attacking each other with kicks and punches.
I ignored them at the time, tried not to yell something equally inappropriate back, despite the words weighing my tongue down. Their older brother, taking a virtual class in the other room, called out, “This is ridiculous! Are you going to do something about this, mom?”
And I ignored him, too. Continued to measure out the flour gram by gram. Continued to want to shout, not to stop their play but to join it. The impulsive, almost painful need to blurt out improper words to my young children alarming, but not surprising. I don’t think I have Tourette Syndrome. I don’t think I have Bipolar Disorder. I clearly have anxiety. I might have other things. My children have these and other things, too. Where do they end and I begin? Where does creativity and intelligence end, and mental illness begin? What is drive vs mania? What is existential grief vs clinical depression?
“Shut the fuck up,” I whisper to my bowl of dough, before turning it out on the kitchen counter.
“Why am I such an asshole?” I’ve forgotten to flour the surface first. I run to the pantry, grab a handful, spill half of it on the floor, where the dog begins to lick it up. I return to the counter and realize I’ve grabbed confectioner’s sugar instead.
“Your children all exhibit signs of Attention Deficit Disorder, as do you,” the psychiatrist once said.
But where is the line between being distracted by three children who never settle into their skin and my own brain, always running, circling back on itself until I’ve forgotten what it means to love another person? Until life feels like a schedule I follow and nothing more?
I swap confectioner’s sugar for flour. I flatten the dough, cut it in half, and reshape it into two loaves. Place them in their tins. Cover them for another proof, this time on the back counter by the coffee maker. It’s warm there, draft-free.
I pour a cup of coffee from the morning carafe, room temperature now. Two hours ago, when I made this pot, my son was melting down about going to school. He hates virtual school and I don’t blame him, struggle to force him to attend. But once he’s logged in, he connects to others, something he didn’t do at all in the year before we began this lockdown. He didn’t attend school for almost six months as we tried new medications to help him want to live, as I took him out for breakfast, walked for miles trying to catch Pokémon, watched YouTube videos and pretended to laugh with him at the jokes the gamers made.
Now he panics and sobs, then logs in to school and learns about sedimentary geology, about glaciers carving out giant lakes. He discusses the history of Abrahamic religions and the relationship between religion and ancient literature. He takes notes on polynomials and non-integer exponents and asks me questions I can’t answer. His head swells, the bones expanding to hold a snowballing brain.
When my son wants to live, he breathes in information and breathes out a novel, intricate origami, a thousand facts about those yelling YouTube celebrities that symbolize the low points in my life. He doesn’t know that YouTube, to me, is about late nights where I hope that I can hold him tightly enough to keep him warm and breathing and mine.
I sit in the kitchen and listen to my son’s online algebra class in the next room, eventually checking the loaves, which have risen almost to the top of their tins. Maybe ten more minutes. If I wait too long, they’ll collapse when I score them and I’ll have to start all over again.
“Mom!” he yells suddenly. “Someone’s screaming!”
I rush out back, where my youngest has fallen from the swings. She clutches her arm and pushes past me.
“Ugh! I hate everybody!”
She locks herself in the bathroom.
“All my mom ever does is bake bread,” I hear her brother tell his math class as I knock on the door, plead with her to let me see. “My sister almost died and she didn’t even notice!”
“It wasn’t my fault,” my older daughter says for the millionth time.
“Yes, I know.”
I offer my youngest a dollar if she’ll come out of the bathroom. I offer her sister a dollar if she’ll go watch a show in the basement. I head back to the kitchen, where my loaves have deflated, over-proofed and wrinkly, and my little one, uninjured, sits on the stool across from me.
“Those look gross,” she says.
I dump both lumps of dough back onto the counter, which I forgot again to dust with flour. I squash them together, peel them up with a scraper, shape them into a ball and cut them in half again. I reshape them and place them in their tins by the coffee maker.
“Didn’t you already do that?” my daughter asks, playing with the little ball of dough I’ve given her.
“I did, but now I have to fix my mistake.”
“It’ll be perfect, like your bread always is,” she says, mimicking me, kneading and squeezing, bringing the dough to her nose and smelling it with a happy sigh.
And for just a moment, my brain slows and I recognize this feeling: love.
I put a metal pan in the oven before preheating, boil water to pour into it at the beginning of the bake. My kids like crust they can tear with their teeth.
“I want to bake bread like you,” my daughter says. “One day I’ll be just like you.”
Hannah Grieco is a writer in Arlington, VA. Her debut collection “So You Don’t Hear Me” will be available from Summer Camp Publishing in 2021. She is the cnf editor at JMWW, the fiction editor at Porcupine Literary, and the founder and organizer of the monthly reading series ‘Readings on the Pike’ in the DC area. Find her online at www.hgrieco.com and on Twitter @writesloud.