THE QUEEN OF PROMISES
Pulling the thread on kitchen/dinner systems, letting go, and grace for a new year
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How are you? No, really–how are you in this third week of September? How is your almost fall? Back to school? And darker evenings?
Around here, everyone has feelings. BIG EMOTIONS, a pink neon sign reads, in front of a new building we pass daily in and out of town. Yes, that.
Our neighbors put their mums and pumpkins out on the porch yesterday. Some of us need to take things more slowly. Except no one does slow in September, certainly not my brain. It’s a pinball of inspiration and ideas. In September, everything’s urgent.
For many years, early September meant a mad dash through ramshackle back-to-school aisles at Target two days before school starts, with sleepy kids, jet-lagged fresh from our days overseas. I accepted controlled chaos—thrived on it even. It kept me from thinking too hard about how boring it might feel come November.
This year was different. We approached fall with ninja-like mastery. We unearthed a decade of living from the basement. Old folders got chucked, and toys and scuffed sneakers were donated. New pencils for everyone! A fresh backpack, white binders, and crayons. There’s so much hope in that fresh yellow box, with the sharp corners and the cheerful CRAYOLA across the front.
And don’t get me started on new socks. New socks in September are a wonder drug. Sorting them into slim stacks in children’s drawers (no holes or mismatched sets!) feels like a tiny miracle—permission to let go of old wounds.
It’s not only me who craves a clean slate—order.
In the bath the night before school (the first in months— we’d swam and showered all summer), Mátyás scrubbed his hair, his elbows–even between his toes.
“First shampoo, then conditioner, then a mix of shampoo and conditioner,” he called to me from the tub, chronicling his new three-step hair-cleaning method. Pools of suds streamed from his scalp. He emerged, one eye crimson, then sprinted downstairs to grab the new sneakers we’d bought in a summer sale and then forgotten about, unworn until now.
My clean slate came in the form of a new 2” white binder, unwrapped from its cello packing the minute my kids returned to school, filled with clear plastic sleeves and dividers with P-touched labels: school, ballet, soccer, drama, karate. On the front, I wrote: Mom Life, 2.0.
Rapidly, I started systemizing every corner of our world. I pulled out the catch-all kitchen file of loose recipes collected over the last year (magazine articles, newspaper clippings, and favorites printed from this newsletter). I parted with laborious wishlists (bye, for now, homemade dumplings!) and filed anything doable and delicious into order: Baked shells with Gremolata Breadcrumbs, my Quick Ragu with Lemon and Ricotta, and a dozen others from authors like Melissa Clark and.
“This will henceforth be referred to as my white binder era,” I said to my husband, clutching five more folders from the momscape I’d made at the dining room table, a post I’ve barely left in 10 days. A giant calendar splayed out before me, color-coded, with highlighters.
“You donated dozens of these last year!” He called from the next room.
His shoulders slumped.
Later that week, I cleaned and P-Touch labeled the pantry and fridge, then presented it to the family like an offering. Introducing the new snack drawer! (Dried mango! Chocolate Granola! Salted Pistachios!) Here’s where you can find your grab-and-go breakfast! (Instant oatmeal, fruit bars, and yogurt parfaits in neat rows). They nodded, unimpressed.
In the shakingly poignant On Our Best Behavior,—who is also the host of the podcast Pulling the Thread (a phrase I borrowed above)—equates this kind of manic mothering with a search for worth.
“People like my mother measured her slothless existence by a pristine home and high-achieving children…My fellow moms who also work outside of the home feel compelled to deliver excellence in both spheres, to prove we can do it all, without shirking any of it.”
She examines sloth as one of the Seven Deadly Sins. She pokes holes in the conditioning that “Good women are tireless and hardworking with no professed interest in or requirements for rest, either at work or at home.”
“I want to be seen as professionally successful, and I want to be seen as someone who cares for and nurtures her family longingly and effortlessly; to get it all done, I wake up early, go to bed late, and am constantly busy,” she writes.
Then, she takes a hard look at what that kind of cultural programming means for all of us (kids and partners included), and overwhelmingly, it’s not good.
“This invisible labor kept my mother toiling, and it’s what all my friends contend with when they slip out of their work clothes and into their sweats. For women, not only is sloth not an option–our work and overwhelm are compounded by the belief from ourselves, each other, and society that we should always be doing more. “
If the Barbie monologue of summer 2023 didn’t convince you we’re off our rockers in our expectation of women, especially mothers—scroll through Instagram. Any influencer can tell you that if ten jars of overnight oats aren’t enough, twenty should do the trick! If we have DIY ramen bowls stacked and ready at all times, we win. We are worthy. #blessed.
I know this, yet I continue.
I left the most abhorrent task for last: cleaning out the basement fridge and wading through a stack of Snapware shoved in before our late August trip. Among them are homemade meatballs and chicken soup. There’s the live culture from my yogurt-making frenzy. The giant jars of rhubarb jam from late summer. The grimy, forgotten sourdough starter that didn’t work out. It’s all wholesome and well-intended. We will conquer homesteading! Until we don’t.
In her moving memoir, Tender at the Bone,says this about her mother, the Queen of Mold (her words, not mine):
“It was just the way she was. Which was taste-blind and unafraid of rot. ‘Oh, it's just a little mold,’ I can remember her saying on the many occasions she scraped the fuzzy blue stuff off some concoction before serving what was left for dinner. She had an iron stomach and was incapable of understanding that other people did not.”
I understand her a little. Only I am the Queen of Promises, Dashed. Upstairs, the fridge is bleach-wiped to the nth degree—the moldy specimens (with no plans for service), tucked in the nethers, out of sight—awaiting my strength to determine their fate.
We’re all doing our best.
That’s the danger of a basement fridge—and basements in general: we tend to keep things we don’t need. Preserved lemons. The bottle of champagne we’ll open when our book hits a best-seller list. The beloved baby sling, tucked away for the third maybe baby. And eight pairs of skates (in every size!) for the hot chocolate party by the frozen pond you’ll host this winter — or next.
There’s a restless striving in the moreness of our lives, the way we’ve tampered down the mundane, squashed the stillness in our need for everything to be and feel extra, all the time.
Here’s the reality: the only constant is change. Even the best systems sometimes fail us. And Maybe extra is code for too much.
Sure, you can live smarter (or better, faster, bigger!)—but you can’t outsmart living.
“We all live like this, without assurances, without formulas, desperate for the secret to carrying on. We try to outsmart our limitations, but here we are, shouting the truth into the abyss. There is no cure for being human.”
In other words, Reader, a week of ramen bowls might save dinner, but they can’t save our souls. (Neither will chocolate-peanut-butter-date bark, but—yum!)
There’s a tendency—in America at least—to believe the right system will help us rise. We need that one fool-proof, easy weeknight recipe, a new style of calendars, the best vitamins, a better app, the perfect pill. I didn’t experience these other places I’ve lived as an adult: Hungary, Ireland, France. But it’s rampant here. In our face on every front page, headline, and mindless scroll. (Oh, and don’t worry if your kid hasn’t started reading yet. There’s a system for that, too!)
We have to shine a light on this programming. Come clean with ourselves. The living is now, here in the mundane. In the quiet moment with our 8-year-old between breakfast and school, when they write, I LOVE YOU in the condensation collected on the back door.
Each of my kids is in two sports and multiple clubs this year. We’ll need more on-the-go foods. More shifting dinner times. More DIY kid/husband empowerment. I will not be the coiffed matron in high heels (or Lululemon, pick your cliche) making meatloaf–if I ever was.
They’ll eat lunch at school some days (our district provides universal free lunch—a good thing; if everyone’s kids were eating it, then every parent would fight harder to make it universally more healthful for all kids, not just ours. Read this). And despite having a fridge full of food, we’ve eaten three take-out meals this week. Forget what I said about restaurant food in peak summer; I lied.
Here’s our new no-system system: Dad does soccer, mom does ballet, except when Dad’s out of town for work (which is a lot). We will Taco Tuesday (correction: Take-out Tuesday—a double sports night) except when we want pizza. Friday is family night, except the first and second Friday of the month. We have 4,239 essential items on subscription at Thrive Market, a go-to repeat grocery order on file that delivers and take-out menus in the new white binder…just in case.
No matter how Marie Kondo Tidy Pantry I get, there will still be containers of uneaten food needing cleaning because, well, life. The kids will tire of the overnight oats—and the sooner we come to terms with that, the more at peace we’ll all have when they do.
But humans are doers, so what can we do? Hold your systems with an open fist—and while you’re at it, let a few things slip right through your fingers. (Imagine hearing them fall on the floor—Splat!—feels good, doesn’t it?)
And lean into the little perks. Here are ours: ballet is a five-block walk from our favorite pizza place, which serves a housemade Cacio e Pepe my kids adore. Our friend just dropped off two quarts of raw milk and a dozen eggs after her shift at a local farm–which will keep us in omelets and cappuccinos for a week. Greta can now walk home from karate and heat leftovers for dinner while I race Matyas to soccer. And it’s nearly Saturday–our one night a week with nothing—and nowhere— to be.
For now, it works.
So we missed the bus this morning. Frustrating. But that extra 20 minutes with my 12-year-old this morning was golden.
IN FALL 2023, WE’RE LETTING GO OF:
Making my own bread
Pancakes on Saturday mornings (which is now soccer and karate mornings)--that will shift to Sunday.
Believing that every morsel that goes into my kid’s body needs to be perfectly nutritious/delicious. Sometimes, it’s just lunch.
Running my kids’ school garden (after eight years!)
Believing I know best
FALL 2023, WE’RE ADOPTING (eating + buying + making)
Listening more, talking less (i.e. learning more from others)
All things rice/rice-based (in the rice cooker), includingMushroom Rice, My Herby Rice and Eggs from the New York Times, and take-out: Beef and Broccoli, Cashew Chicken and Sushi.
Overnight oats and yogurt parfaits in jars (for now!)
Air fryer everything (Mushrooms! Zucchini! Eggplant!)
Store-bought rotisserie chicken = one night of easy hot dinner, one day of chicken salad sandwiches for lunch (bonus: leftovers > broth/soup when there’s time)
These quick pumpkin muffins in double batches (serve 12, freeze 12 for easy snacks).
This cornbread; takes 20 minutes and can serve as dinner with warm black beans and shredded cheese, when needed.
This Instant Pot Dal / Lentil Soup: fast and filling and never fails me.
What are your new systems? What used to work and doesn’t now? What new recipes have you adopted, or thinking about trying for your new year? And what are you letting go of, downshifting, or releasing entirely to make more space for play and grace? Let’s make this a running list to use as a jumping-off point for all of us.
*Photo of my quiet kitchen table— late morning, now that the kids are back in school.