I knew, when I gave birth to my daughter last summer, that parenthood would mean some sacrifices: the muscle tone of my abdomen, for starters. Nights out at L.A.’s finer restaurants and cocktail establishments. Spontaneous travel beyond emergency diaper runs to my local Babies R Us. Sleep in more than two-hour intervals. What I never expected to sacrifice, however, was the cream in my coffee.
I thought I had given birth to the world’s gassiest newborn. She cried all night long and screamed every time I nursed her. She seemed to be miserable most of the time, and so was I. My husband, traumatized by the sound of his wife and child sobbing in unison, was ready to hire a live-in baby nurse to help us; my mother suggested colic and said there wasn’t anything we could do. Finally, our pediatrician eyed a rash on the baby’s chest and made his own diagnosis. “She’s probably sensitive to something in your breast milk,” he said. “Try cutting the dairy, soy, and nuts out of your diet.”
By some estimates, 2 to 7 percent of nursing babies have a sensitivity to dairy, and my doctor told me that many of those babies also react adversely to nuts and soy. Changing my diet sounded like it could be a miraculously easy solution to our problem. Except that it wasn’t easy for me at all. For I was—I am—a devout type A foodie. In the summer, I make ice cream with peaches from the farmers’ market; in the winter, I spread homemade lemon curd on freshly baked bread. My dinner parties are legendary—I swear my white chocolate soufflé with a raspberry center caused my previously infertile friend’s surprise pregnancy. Some people believe in God; I believe in artisanal butter.
The nine months of pregnancy had already felt like an endless exercise in self-abnegation. No sushi! No oysters! No triple-cream Brie or Caesar salad or double espresso! I’d looked forward to the birth of my child as carte blanche to once again indulge in the delicacies I’d missed. Instead, here I was, only five weeks as a free woman, and I was already being put back in food jail.
Still, this was my child we were talking about; her health and comfort trumped any longing for croque monsieur. So I went home and tossed the gelato, the Greek yogurt, the nutty granola, and the salted edamame. The next morning, for the first time in 20 years, I drank my coffee black. And it worked. Within a week, my daughter’s breastfeeding hysterics had stopped. She was sleeping as peacefully as a six-week-old infant can sleep. Her rash had vanished. My fussy baby was suddenly a content baby, and I felt as though I’d achieved some pinnacle of parental piety. Here I was, sacrificing the foods I loved most, for my baby!
My first postbaby dinner party was Thanksgiving dinner for 10. There would be no creamy mashed potatoes, no nuts in the stuffing, no butter on my rolls, and definitely no chocolate cream pie for dessert. I spent hours poring over and rejecting recipes—”Make it simple,” my mother implored, futilely. “Give yourself a break”—before whipping up roasted potatoes with shallots, wild-rice stuffing with dried apricots, and poached pears with chocolate sauce. It was a triumph, and I barely missed the mash.
But by month three, I was starting to dream about macaroni and cheese. The sight of my husband eating pizza could make me whimper. And I was plagued by food anxiety: Restaurants were minefields, the dishes larded with forbidden ingredients that often weren’t even listed. Packaged foods were generally a no-no: A quick perusal of labels almost always revealed soybean oil. And for someone with a serious sweet tooth, dessert was the biggest bummer of all: With a ban on nuts, cream, and butter, my options seemed impossibly limited.
I did have some successes. I found a recipe for an Italian loaf cake made with olive oil, to which I added a handful of chopped rosemary from my garden. The cake was fragrant and earthy, and it satisfied my dessert cravings. And when friends came for dinner, I baked crisp olive oil crackers sprinkled with paprika and coarse sea salt, and served them with eggplant “caviar.” But with a baby taking up all of my time, I didn’t have much time to cook or bake, let alone think outside the box about ingredients. My diet shrank to a fraction of its former variety and relied heavily on snacks: I smeared hummus on everything from pita chips to baby carrots. I ate tubs of dried apricots and raisins from the farmers’ market.
Breakfast was oatmeal or dry toast, day after day after day. Every time I unearthed a new permissible treat at the supermarket—dark chocolate-covered pretzels, or coconut milk ice cream—I would be sick of it within a few weeks.
Worst of all, my self-control was beginning to erode. A bigger person, I began to suspect, would be having some sort of epiphany—discovering that this more austere diet was superior in some way to the gourmet extravaganzas of yore. I was not that person. Sure, life without cream helped me drop the baby weight almost instantly, and I did come to appreciate the flavor of unpolluted coffee, but those were the only upsides I could see in my new regimen. As the time passed, I found my virtuousness waning and, in its place, the slow and steady creep of compromise: If I scraped the frosting off the cupcake, perhaps the cake itself wasn’t so bad?
Soon, I was slipping up on a semiregular basis. But the guilt I felt when I “cheated” was different from the kind I used to feel when I went off a diet: Then, the only person I was hurting was myself. Now, the affected person was a helpless infant. Usually, the “compromises” were so minor they had no effect on her. But the few times I went too far—a few spoonfuls of gelato, a fresh mozzarella skewer—the rash that prickled up on her chest made me feel like the worst mother in the world. Even though the gassiness, the sleeplessness, and the nursing problems were gone, and the rash itself didn’t seem to bother her, those little red bumps were still a physical manifestation of my negligence and selfishness. As if I were somehow valuing ice cream over my daughter.
But the truth, I began to realize, was that I couldn’t be faultless. And when I wasn’t perfect, my stress and anxiety about food were unhealthy—for me, and for my baby. “Stop beating yourself up,” a friend finally told me, when I cried about having eaten a croissant. “You have a happy, healthy baby. An occasional slip-up isn’t going to make a difference long term.” I came to accept that perfection—in food, in parenting, in all things in life—is a constantly moving line, one that is impossible to reach. I would try my best but wouldn’t flagellate myself if I fell somewhat short. I’d find the place that lies between self-indulgence and self-denial and make it my home. I might not be a perfect parent, but I’d be a good enough parent. In fact, I think I deserve a cookie for that.
Janelle Brown is a journalist and the author of the novel This Is Where We Live.
Extra! Enjoy this recipe for Olive Oil Rosemary Cake (pictured above).