For years I made my living as a personal chef, cooking instructor and owner of a prepared dinner business. Taught cooking classes on a variety of subjects, yet for desserts, it was only “Ramekins – Creme Brulee, Flan and Panna Cotta. Birthday cakes were my only foray into scratch baking. Luckily my children never dreamed up anything too crazy, my most ambitious cake was a cookies and cream cake for my middle son. Through prayer and luck the cakes always turned out okay. My epic failure was a Baby Jesus cake I made one year for Christmas when my children were small. Seeking new ways to share the miracle of Christ’s birth with them, a Jesus cake, with every layer a different color and symbolism throughout, seemed like a great idea. It wasn’t. The cake listed to one side, slowly collapsing on itself. My first husband took one look and told me it was a good thing my paying clients couldn’t see the baking disaster.
Except for birthday cakes, I confined myself to cupcakes and brownies, buying mixes and following directions. Years passed and my baking skills never evolved. Cooking was my passion and I continued to make a living with my prepared dinner business. Loved hearing from my clients when they told me their kids would always eat one of my dinners. And for my own family, surprising them with their favorite meals was such a pure expression of caring. My family expanded in 2016 when my husband and I became engaged, moved in together and began blending our families with eight children between us. Suddenly, family dinner meant cooking for ten! I always teased my husband, who I met while catering my twin stepsons’ high school graduation party, that he fell in love with me when he saw I could cook for everyone and not freak out.
Sadly, that first summer together was also the time my heavy drinking spiraled into full blown alcoholism. The traumas I had never dealt with – my father’s suicide, my mother’s abandonment through her drinking, my abusive first marriage, my constant worry for my children when they were in their father’s home – suddenly all that pain and baggage caught up with me. Fall 2016 to Spring 2017 was spent trying and failing to get sober, losing my children in November 2016 and slowly wrecking my relationship with my now-husband. Over that nine month period I even lost my love of cooking. Through every hard time in my life, cooking had always sustained me, brought happiness, but as I became sicker, I couldn’t even find joy in food. Finally, in June 2017, I entered inpatient treatment, desperately seeking sobriety and trauma healing.
Everyone’s story is their own, mine is very much informed by the years of domestic abuse I suffered. Learning how to feel that trauma, sit with uncomfortable feelings, find coping strategies – all those skills took time to develop. Cooking was there for me as I discovered my new self, on hard days I could disappear into a new recipe. Throughout the summer of 2017, wowing my husband and stepsons with fabulous meals gave me such pleasure and served as a bridge between the old me and the new me I was putting together piece by piece. I eagerly counted the days – each day sober was a step forward towards bringing my children home. Daily I dreamed about all the wonderful times we would have as soon as they were home with me, so many of those daydreams involved fixing all their favorite foods.
Those dreams were shattered in December 2017. Sitting in a family law courtroom, six months sober, a judge awarded custody of my three children to their father, giving me visitation in public places only and decreeing that my children were only allowed to visit their home for four hours, once a year, on Christmas Day. Suddenly all my plans, my desperate wish for my children to be home, all of it – gone. And with no date, no hearing to look towards. This was a permanent order.
My whole concept of mothering changed. Putting on a happy face for my kids, my only goal to make the most of our two 2 hour visits during the week and our longer 4 hour visit on the weekend. Eight hours a week to be a mom. Inside my feelings veered wildly from disbelief to heartbreak to anger, a near constant emotional struggle. Over time I developed our new routines. One weeknight visit at Panera, time for a quick dinner and one on one walks around the retail center with each child. A second weeknight visit at the library, space for us to spread out with books and laptops, sitting on the floor, so I could wrap my arms around them, or they could lay reading a book with their head in my lap. And finally, our special weekend visit, carefully planned by around the weather and perusal of multiple monthly calendars of happenings in our city.
The common thread through all our visits? Homemade treats and veggie plates. Each week I would ask the kids for requests and surprise them with a sweet treat each time we got together. I started with brownies, cupcakes and rice krispy treats, perfecting my own spin on those favorites, before slowly getting more ambitious. Bundt cakes became an obsession. I loved reading recipes for inspiration and then creating a new cake for the kids to try. They rated each effort as we developed a list of our favorites. Watching their faces light up, finding a tangible way to show love and care, desserts created that connection.
I carefully smuggled treats into Panera, making sure I spent plenty on dinner so I didn’t feel badly about not buying dessert there. Easy to do when you’re feeding three hungry kids. Since we were there every week, for over 3 years, I’m sure they knew, but no one every said a word, instead kindly greeting us every week. And the library, making sure the dessert was easy to eat, not too crumbly, and arriving with plenty of little plates, forks and napkins. Setting up our little corner of space, trying to use our many bags of books to shield our food and keep it low key. I’ll always remember the security guard who would smile and say hello week after week, year after year.
Finally in July 2020, when I had been sober for 3 years and 1 month, the children came home. Joy! Snuggling on the couch, hanging out in their rooms, watching movies, swimming in our pool, kissing them goodnight, my list is endless. Cooking dinner again, eating as a family, I could never have imagined being so grateful. Such a normal everyday activity that means the world to me. Do I still make desserts? I’m a baker now, loving the alchemy of flour, butter and eggs. A house smells like a home with delicious aromas wafting from the oven. I need to bake, it’s one more way I show love to my family. Every time my kids arrive back home there’s a yummy treat waiting for them. They’ve told me that the only good thing about public visitation is that I became a baker.