When I picture my family’s morning routine from my early years, I see a blur. It’s a flurry of the four of us hurrying to get ready for school and work. I see my mom putting on her makeup with one hand while blow-drying my brother William’s hair with the other. I see my dad calming me down because of some crisis or another about my hair while picking out a tie. My dad would kiss us all goodbye before heading out the door, and then my brother and I would pile into my mom’s car so she could take us to school, a bit frazzled but always glad (okay, usually glad) to do it. My brother and I would eat the remainders of our breakfast on napkins in the car—napkins that did nothing to contain the crumbs, something that stressed my mother out, but William and I weren’t very considerate about her stressors back then. Breakfast was often an Eggo waffle, or maybe some toast. She’d eat some toast, too, or a few handfuls of dry cereal.
I remember wondering why she always fed herself last, or why she only ate the same breakfast we did if ours had gotten burnt (even just a little) and she needed to make it over again so we would eat something. She didn’t eat our leftovers, or the burnt first tries of our before-school breakfasts out of financial obligation, either, or to save on waste. We had plenty to go around, and if she had wanted her own perfectly made waffles or cinnamon-sugar toast to munch on in the car, she could’ve had it—it was just a part of her parenting philosophy, and one that I didn’t realize she had a name for: She called it Burnt Toast Motherhood.
Burnt Toast Motherhood is a selfless kind of parenting. It’s putting the oxygen mask on yourself last, contrary to the advice in airplane pamphlets. While she didn’t do this all the time, she certainly did it in matters of breakfast breads, and many other tiny, trivial-seeming things, like sitting apart from the rest of the family at the movies if there weren’t enough seats together, or going without dessert if there were only enough popsicles for the rest of us. These things add up. Doing these things day in and day out is tiresome, and motherhood is already tiresome, even at its best. While I didn’t yet have the words for this kind of parenting, it impressed upon me the belief that she was there for me, and that my needs were superior to hers. Like many children, I thought of her less as a person and more as a customer service representative, one who should be taking all of my requests very seriously.
She’d been raised by a long line of Burnt Toast Mothers—as well as Burnt Toast Grandmothers. She loves to tell the story about how, when she was small, she asked her mother (my Rho-Rho) for cinnamon-raisin toast, which also happened to have walnuts in it. When the toast came out of the toaster, she made Rho-Rho pick out all the nuts and raisins—she only wanted the essence of the nuts and raisins, but not the actual texture. And you know what? Rho-Rho did it, and my mom probably would’ve done the same thing for me, had I ever asked.
As I grew older, I inadvertently started to model many of my relationships after this paradigm. I left my phone ringer on all night, just in case my friends needed to hash out any of the details of their romantic entanglements with me. If I loaned someone money for drinks or food, I never really followed up to get it back. I let friends crash at my apartment for way too long, without ever asking for help with groceries or bills. I stayed friends with people who constantly told me about their problems and wanted advice, but never once asked me how I was doing. And all the while, I let these things affect me negatively and seep into my good relationships, while never really addressing the problem—I was eating too much burnt toast.
Why so much burnt toast? I liked feeling needed. I equated people needing me with my worth, and along the way, equated that need for love. The more people took from me, the more I assumed they loved me—I also assumed that if I created boundaries, or started to say no to things I didn’t have the capacity for, it would mean something bad or rotten about me. Finally, in the middle of a near-breakdown because I had no energy left for myself, I realized I’d seen my mom go through it, too. Over the years, I’d started to ask for more from my mom than was reasonable, and so did other people in her life outside of our family. She had realized that she was growing exhausted from all these years of ridiculous requests, and started creating better boundaries—both with our family, as well as in her work and social life.
This kind of emotional labor, this performative selflessness, is ingrained in the relationships of many people I know. It’s the Puritan, stoic way, to sacrifice yourself for the people you love. And it can be good to bring yourself back, to let other people have the first pick. But always choosing last isn’t healthy, either. It comes back to haunt you. During my near-breakdown, I ended up being the one who spilled all my problems on an unsuspecting friend. I ended up snapping at my partner without meaning to. I ended up needing to take a few days off from work. I ended up with crying-headaches and no appetite. Like my mother, I learned to scale back my expectations of myself, to make those kind of healthy boundaries that allow you to have your own damn piece of perfectly cooked, buttered toast. Burnt toast is fine in moderation. But too much of it is a bitter thing to stomach.