The first meal I fed my child was breakfast. It was six days before my due date, but I woke up on a Saturday morning in mid-October knowing that this was the day I would become a mother. Riding the intensifying waves of pressure in my lower back, walking around my apartment in the yellow-gray morning light, I decided that, rather than wake up my husband, I would make myself something to eat. This, I thought, would be the last time for some time that I would be eating alone in the morning. This would be my last meal just for myself. So even though I wasn’t that hungry, I walked softly to the kitchen, pausing twice on my way, gripping a door frame here, bracing myself against the flat white wall there. When I got to the kitchen, I paused in its quiet, held my stomach and surprised myself by thinking not “what do I want to eat?” but “what do you want to eat?”
The meal I assembled was haphazard—we’d been planning on going to a barbecue that afternoon; I hadn’t shopped in days—but it was for my child as much as it was for me, and so its lack of deliberation felt ok. This is what mothers do, after all. They make something out of nothing. Breakfast is, I would soon come to learn, the most forgiving meal of the day. Making breakfast after having kids means that the rules of nutrition are allowed to go out the window. It is about the ritual, the breaking of the fast, not about a perfectly balanced plate. And so on that long ago morning, my baby and I ate a couple handfuls of popcorn, a tall glass of ginger ale, two bites of vanilla ice cream, and some blueberries. The next time either he or I would eat was the following morning; I nibbled on some dry toast and gulped down water, he put his mouth to my body and drank.
There had been lots of things I’d looked forward to about being a mother, but making breakfast after having kids hadn’t really been one of them. The fact is, for a while, the idea of making food for my children scared me. Prior to having them, dinner for me was frequently a pot of quinoa into which I would mix directly hunks of havarti cheese and swirls of hummus and sriracha. I rarely bothered with a bowl. My husband traveled frequently for work; he was often gone for three week stretches. So I ate at my leisure. Breakfast didn’t exist.
But this all changed after having my first son, who was followed a few years later by another. I soon found that while cooking for myself had alternately felt like a chore or the kind of adventure in which the journey rather than the destination is the point, I loved cooking for my children. This is not to say that I was any kind of domestic goddess, flitting about a pristine white kitchen in, say, white jeans, before presenting beautifully balanced meals to my children three times a day. Rather, I relished the messiness of it all, how the inherent frustrations of most mealtimes (carefully cooked carrots go uneaten; food ends up in the ears, up the nose, on the floor, anywhere but in the mouth) were a microcosm of the many struggles of parenting, and the eventual surrender to a kind of beautiful imperfection. At no meal is this more apparent than breakfast.
Unburdened with the family dinner’s tinge of tyranny (Skipping it consigns your child to a life of poverty, both actual and spiritual! Constant lively conversation is a must! Elbows off the table!) morning meals manage to retain some of that long-ago hazy quality that I remember from right before I first gave birth. Breakfast doesn’t even try to be perfect, and that’s what makes it so special. The meals I made for my children were often mishmashes of whatever was on hand; pancakes, I found, were surprisingly easy to whip up, banana bread too. Not long after we got past the stage of finger-smushed strawberries and avocado pieces, empty-out-the-refrigerator frittatas and breakfast fried rice became a standby. I was able to do breakfast right for my children because it felt impossible to do breakfast wrong.
The lack of adherence to any sort of mealtime rules is the only mandate; this, I soon realized, is as much of a boon for parents as it is for children. There’s a real joy to the fact that manners are momentarily forgotten, and still-sleepy eyes can be rubbed with abandon, while hair sticks up and out every which way. Conversations frequently invoke dreams had just hours before, and tend to flow more easily at the fresh start of the day than they do at its exhausting end. It’s almost impossible not to linger at the table. After all, there’s no dessert to rush toward, only school, and so children stay seated, in no hurry at all.
My children are old enough now—and far earlier risers than I’ve ever been—that they frequently make their own breakfasts. I often wake up to the sounds of them rattling around the kitchen, sometimes bickering with each other as brothers do, sometimes talking and laughing as friends do. There are days when they are out the door before I’m even out of bed; they kiss me goodbye with orange juice-breath, crumbs clinging to their cheeks. But there are also days when we are all up together, days when I’ve remembered to make overnight oatmeal and I spoon it out into bowls, toss in a handful of blueberries, a scoop of lemon curd, a sprinkle of hemp seeds and coconut flakes, a squiggle of maple syrup. Those are the yellow-gray mornings where we all sit down together, still blinking the night out of our eyes; they stretch their arms up high, and talk to me about their dreams before getting ready to begin their days, start their lives.