How Affirmations Ground Me in Baking and Parenting
My affirmations teach me the things I still need to learn.
I am loved and seen. I am doing my best. Every day is a new day.There are many ways to be a good mom.
After a few months of practice, it felt like I knew what I was doing, and I began a comfortable routine of baking bread once or twice a week after my daughter went to sleep. I’d mix the dough, kneading, and giving it time to rest. Then I’d let the dough rise overnight in the refrigerator. Sometimes, though, my daughter would suddenly wake in the middle of this ritual, and I’d completely forget the affirmations I’d repeated to myself only moments before. Instead, our bedtime checklist became its own kind of strange mantra in my head: pacifier, milk, nightlight, music, pacifier, milk, nightlight, music, pacifier, milk . . .
There’s a natural alchemy involved in making bread. People who’ve been baking bread for a while will tell you they’ve learned how to troubleshoot issues with the dough as they emerge, something I couldn’t quite grasp in my baking or even my parenting at first. But I’ve learned this alchemy stems from something quite simple: the dough itself.
That’s why I never use the bread hook in my KitchenAid mixer—not because it’s “cheating,” but because I want the dough to teach me what I need to know. If my dough feels too sticky, I know now to add more flour. If the dough becomes too difficult to work with, I handle it with a softer touch. If we’re listening, bread dough has a way of telling us what it needs from us, when it needs it.
When I was six weeks postpartum, my daughter’s pediatrician told me to just listen for her “hungry cry.” When I told her I didn’t know what that sounded like, she was incredulous. “You can’t tell the difference between her cries?” I heard: You don’t know your own baby?
Most of the time during those long postpartum days, it did feel like my baby was a stranger to me. I’d spent thirty-four weeks with this tiny spark of life in my belly; I hadn’t needed to listen to her then because she was still part of me. I felt every movement, every kick and hiccup, my blood pumping through our shared umbilical cord, giving her everything she needed without a thought.
But from the moment the doctor tugged her out of my belly, my daughter let me know she was her own person—and no longer part of me. It was the first time I couldn’t give her everything she needed, the first time my body didn’t intuitively know how to take care of her or who she would be. My daughter was approximately the size and weight of a bag of flour, but I didn’t have a recipe to follow for successful parenting. And no number of affirmations whispered between laps around the maternity floor would have made me feel this strange loss any less.
From early on, it became clear to me not only that I would have trouble intuitively parenting my daughter but also that she would go her own way. She preferred tutus to worms, baby dolls to books, and, instead of playing with the kitchen set we got her one Christmas, she used it to store her baby dolls and stuffed animals. At age three, she learned how to slam her bedroom door with abandon when she was mad at me. Over and over again, I asked myself: What am I doing wrong?
Like many new mothers, I read and reread different parenting philosophies, hoping for new insight: Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner, the emails from Free Forest School and articles about permissive parenting and the benefits of babywearing. Still, nothing seemed to fit.
Nothing showed me how to help a child grow more fully into herself without wondering what part of her was me.
I don’t always follow directions well, either with bread or in life. A few weeks ago, I skipped an entire step while making a sandwich loaf and ended up gifting my neighbor bread that was completely raw in the center. I only realized my mistake after I cut into my own loaf and saw how gummy it was inside. Completely mortified, I wrote my neighbor a quick message: “I’m so sorry the center was undercooked,”I told her. “I’ll bring you a new loaf to make up for it.” The neighbor thanked me anyway, insisting that the bread was delicious. I know it wasn’t.
Even when I consult the best cookbooks, and sometimes even when I follow the recipe exactly, I still make mistakes, partially because making bread requires special considerations depending on things like temperature, humidity, and whether an oven runs hot or cold. In the winter, I proof my dough in the microwave rather than on my countertop. I always set my kitchen timer to ring ten minutes earlier than the recipes call for. I’ve learned how to make these adjustments as a baker, so why has it been so hard for me to be more flexible in my parenting?
Until recently, I hadn’t been careful about listening to my daughter or looking to her to teach me what I needed to know—not about raising children, but about raising her. Instead, I’d focused on learning from a slew of parenting resources like Facebook mom groups and Dr. Sears’s “baby bible.” The research hadn’t been fruitless. I gained a lot of general parenting advice that has served me well over the past few years. Still, nothing helped me understand my daughter more than learning how to listen to the tension in her small body, like I had learned to with my bread dough, and asking a simple question at the beginning of every tantrum: What is it you need?
In the weeks before I gave birth to my daughter, my husband and I attended a birthing class at the hospital. We learned different visualization exercises, breathing techniques, and how to tell if my labor was starting. Most of the class seemed obvious to me, even as a first-time mom, but I thought the visualization practices were helpful.
As the instructor began the first exercise, I sat in the plastic hardback chair in the hospital’s basement and thought about my favorite peaceful place. It took some time to focus on her guided meditation, but eventually I closed my eyes and saw water as smooth as a marble, a rocky coast, tall grass, and wisps of smoke curling from a chimney. I heard the sound of loons echoing through the wind-whispered trees. I saw myself in the kitchen, my hands deep into dough for Pan Gallego and my new daughter nearby, sleeping swaddled in her Moses basket. My shoulders relaxed. I can do this, I thought. I am strong enough to do this.
It was one of the first times I’d been exposed to this kind of meditative practice, a practice similar to the affirmations I began to use later on in my baking and parenting. Affirmations have helped me be present, while also giving me the room I need to evolve as a parent. I repeat them to myself more often now than before, more than just when I’m kneading dough, because I’ve realized the power they’ve had in changing my parenting outlook. They help me to pause and consider what’s most important in the moment—like when to talk to my daughter with a softer touch and when she needs firm guidance.
Affirmations have helped me be present, while also giving me the room I need to evolve as a parent.
My current affirmations are simpler than ever: I will be patient.I will show her grace. I will be understanding and kind. I will listen for what she needs. Each is a reminder of what I’m capable of, even when I don’t feel it. My affirmations teach me the things I still need to learn. I watch her now and tune in to her words and actions like I monitor the rise on my sourdough boules.
Some nights, my daughter screams out in her sleep—a panicked, wild sound. I’ve learned to listen for her voice at night, to measure her sleepy murmurs and cries against the other sounds in my home: ceiling fans and hushed faucets, the ding of my kitchen timer. I know the difference between my daughter’s cries now.
One night when I get to her bedroom, I can see her face is flushed. When she looks at me, her eyes are glassy and confused.
“Take a deep breath,”I tell her, sitting down in the rocking chair with her. “You are OK.”
“I OK, Mama,” she says.
My daughter’s sleepy eyes meet mine. We both inhale.
We are doing our best, I think.
I gather her into my arms, and she settles immediately. Her arms unfurl over my torso, and our legs twist together like braided sweet bread. I begin to rock her back and forth in the chair.
We exhale. We are ok.
Soon, her breathing grows steady, and I notice it’s matched the rhythm of mine: in and out, in and out, in and out, and we’re breathing as one just like we used to.
Stefanie Norlin is a writer based near Detroit, Michigan. Her work has appeared in Under the Gum Tree, Brevity, Kenyon Review Online and more. She’s also received the Tompkins Award in both 2013 and 2016 for her creative nonfiction. You can learn more about her writing at stefanienorlin.com or find her on twitter at @stefanienorlin.