Food, Labor, and Healing
By Dr. Amanda Himes, Department of English
by Christina Bunker
When I consider food in my past, the meals that others have cooked for me just after I gave birth are my favorites, a tangible reminder of friendship. In its most basic sense, food is life-affirming: not to eat leads to starvation and death. Carolyn Walker Bynum's Holy Feast and Holy Fast describes medieval women's approach to fasting as a way of bringing the miraculous into their daily lives. For me, though, eating meals prepared by others enabled me to survive post-partum depression and eased my transition into motherhood.
In the past two years I have birthed two children, first Logan, and then, 15 and ½ half months later, Audrey. Both pregnancies were relatively easy, happy times of planning out the nursery and gathering baby essentials. However, about two weeks before Logan's due date, my blood pressure unexpectedly surged and I entered a dangerous phase of preeclampsia. Left untreated, preeclampsia leads to eclampsia, which can result in a coma and death for the mother and child. To avoid further complications my doctor induced Logan on his due date, which began my 30 hour ordeal of labor. During this entire process I ate nothing except hospital jello and broth, and one amazing pina colada snow cone my husband snuck in. My labor culminated in 3 and ½ excruciating hours of pushing and the use of forceps to bring my baby boy into the world.
I returned home a fundamentally different person from who I was when I checked into the hospital. Despite reading a dozen books on parenthood, I was secretly terrified of the responsibility of taking care of a newborn and physically broken by my nightmarish labor experience. With hormones and pain pills surging through me, I felt extremely emotional and even naptimes became fraught. Any time I lay down, all I could picture was Jonathan, or Logan, or my mom dying suddenly, a vision that never failed to reduce me to tears and made going to sleep very difficult. Pain and sleep deprivation became my twin companions in those initial months of motherhood.
It was at this point, the lowest of my entire life, that a few kind friends began bringing over home-cooked meals. Julie Ericson brought the first one to us: chicken in cream sauce with zucchini and sweet potato rounds and a blueberry crumble for dessert. Her husband Ed told us that she cooked for over two hours that afternoon. While eating the meal Julie had painstakingly fixed, I remember thinking that life was still good, in spite of my exhaustion and pain. Anne Jones made spaghetti with meat sauce and salad with raspberry dressing. I remember shamefacedly answering the door, still in my pajamas at 5 pm. As she left, Anne commented on the difficulty of knowing how to help. In actuality, her cooking had begun the restorative process. Carla and Brent Swearingen fixed a breakfast casserole, all the more remarkable because Carla had given birth herself only three weeks before. Lori Johnson made chicken and rice casserole with mixed veggies and cinnamon applesauce; Susan Vila brought over her delectable chicken enchiladas. Somehow, with each morsel, my life gradually became more manageable and less nightmarish.
Fast forward 15 months: I was in labor only 2 and ½ hours with Audrey, and the post-partum pain was far less than it was after Logan's birth. Still, I returned home to double the mothering responsibilities, and while I did not panic as I had the first time, I still felt emotionally and physically wasted, not unlike the mother in Stella Gibbons' novel Cold Comfort Farm who brings some dark humor to the text by referring to herself periodically as a "Used Gourd and a rind" before being sent to a psycho-analyst for treatment. Judith Starkadder's depression was assuredly not helped by the vats of burnt porridge served on a daily basis from the Starkadder farm kitchen. If instead she had been offered tasty, substantial fare made by people who cared about her, her recovery likely could have been affected without a six months' stay in a nursing home and then several years abroad.
That is the power of comfort food, then: to restore what has been taken by force. A baby enters the world precariously, in a process that drains the very life-blood out of its mother, even in the best deliveries. On a simple mathematical level, when something is subtracted, something else must be added to again achieve stasis, balance, harmony. For me, the births of my children were monumental events requiring substantial amounts of time to process and to recover from. The most vital thing, besides prayer, that anyone did for me was the creation of a meal, an act of caring that also began the repair work necessary to bring me back to life. After Audrey's birth, five English majors cooked an elaborate dinner at our house to welcome us home from the hospital. Kathryn Bruce later brought Mexican lasagna over, and the Swearingens made sausages and grapes served over mashed potatoes. Holly and Leonard Allen brought chocolate to the hospital and were the first to invite all four of us to their house for supper in those early weeks. Such meaningful gestures are as memorable for me as the incredible blessing of having a new life to care for and to love. Birth involves severe trauma to a mother's body, and a made-from-scratch meal afterward says, "You are cared for. You will recover. Life is good."