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Credit: Laura Hoerner
personal essay

My Postpartum Mug Cake Habit Reminds Me Today Isn’t Forever

published Jan 16, 2021
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Gluten-free flour dusts my fingertips, rendering my Touch ID useless. I tap in my passcode and check over my shoulder. The children should be asleep, but they have an uncanny ability to catch me in the act. I listen for the pitter patter of tiny feet, but Lord Huron whispering from my phone is the only sound in my kitchen. That, and the steady sighs of my newborn baby wrapped to my chest.

Melted butter? Check. Gluten-free flour? Check. Cocoa powder? No check. Cradling the baby’s soft head with my palm, I lift to my tippy toes and search the cabinet. Unable to locate cocoa powder, I check the pantry. My sighs begin to mimic the baby’s — but with a lot more force. I forgot another ingredient in the grocery order this week.

This will have to do, I think as my squishy belly hardens full of air and I try to control the exhale out. “Hot cocoa mix is probably the same as cocoa powder right, baby? Do you think so? Do you think they’re the same?” I’ve fallen back into so many patterns of new motherhood — my hips constantly in motion, the muscle memory of wrapping a carrier around my body, and my unexplained need to repeat everything I say to my babies twice.

A habit I was hoping wouldn’t return was my postpartum anxiety and depression. But when I saw blue lines on my pregnancy tests, and curated my perfect birthing scenarios, I hadn’t planned for a global pandemic. I had busied myself with worries of being able to drive my two preschoolers to school after being awoken several times a night. I had delighted myself with my list of juicy shows to binge when I had the house to myself with only a newborn to judge me. 

Then March 2020 happened, and all my plans evaporated. There were no visits with friends or stroller walk-and-talks to vent. My Netflix binges were replaced with the sounds of Frozen II on repeat. Each day I woke up to two small children and a baby trying to help them understand why they couldn’t go to school anymore and no, they would not be having any playdates this week. Interrupted sleep at night foamed over into nap-less days, and I escaped by pumping alone on the nursery rocking chair so much that I began overproducing. 

I spent weeks alone in bed holding my baby and calling it bonding instead of coping with my pandemic present — weeks of checking all the kids’ breathing in the middle of the night, rechecking locks on the doors, and rechecking symptoms online. It wasn’t until the third time I lied about the grocery pickup time to sit in the car alone in a parking lot sobbing in the shade that I began to consider I might be teetering towards my breaking point. 

I shove the tablespoon into the hot cocoa mix and tap the spoon on the inside of the package, leveling out the mix. I use my pinky finger to type in my passcode again. No matter how many times I repeat the ingredients in my head, or out loud, I find myself compulsively checking the recipe to make sure I have it right — even when I am using the wrong ingredients.

After splashing in the last of the liquid ingredients, I grab one of my kids’ plastic spoons and stir the mix. I can’t risk the clanking of a metal spoon rousing the baby. I stick the spoon in my mouth and place the mug into the microwave. I hit the 30-second button twice and turn to the side, facing away from the dinner dishes still unwashed in the sink.

I watch the mug slowly finish its orbit. It’s one of my favorite mugs — an impulse buy near the register at a TJ Maxx. It is simple: a freckled tan color on top with a dusty pink bottom half. It’s much too large to drink coffee out of. The circumference of the rim is awkward and I find myself easily spilling and the coffee cools too quickly in it.

It is, though, the perfect dessert mug.

Trying to catch the microwave before it beeps, I pull open the door with one second remaining. I grab my mug and press the spoon down into the center checking the consistency. Perfect. I try to close the microwave as quietly as I can before heading to the couch. The living room is the only room in my house that isn’t consistently cluttered. I can relax here, pretending the basement isn’t littered with toys and laundry isn’t scattered across my bedroom floor.

My husband reminds me it doesn’t matter since nobody will be seeing the inside of our house anytime soon. I remind him I have to see the inside of our house — and only our house — every day. In the beginning it wasn’t so bad. Friends and family would drop food on our porch and we’d stand on either side of a glass storm door trying to catch up. But babies get heavy and I could only see sadness in the eyes of our child’s grandparents once before our glass door visits lost their appeal. Postpartum quickly lost the special moments and I was left with the mundane repetition of diapers, feedings, and trying to get three kids to coordinate being quiet and preferably asleep at the same time. 

Tonight’s mug contains a basic brownie — well, basic except for the cocoa mix. I’ve made it (correctly) before, but it’s a classic when I need the comforting taste of chocolate. I’ve lost track of how many desserts in a mug I’ve made since giving birth. It started one night when the weight of having a newborn in lockdown became too much. When life becomes too much, I usually run. But I wasn’t allowed to run at two weeks postpartum so instead I went to bake.

I knew if I baked an entire pan of brownies, I would eat an entire pan of brownies. So, I made a mug full of brownies. It was the perfect dessert. As I watched my social media explode with banana breads and creative cooking projects, I became more entrenched in my dessert mugs. I couldn’t commit to the complexity of full-on baking, but I could commit to my coffee cup.

In the beginning, when it was hard to find groceries, it was difficult to mix together ingredients into something edible. At first I was annoyed, but then it became a challenge: What could I make with what I already had? What could be substituted? As things leveled out, I began spending time researching mug desserts beforehand, trying to find the best cinnamon roll in a mug or the healthiest blueberry muffin. I started adding peppermint extract and dates to my clicklist.

This wasn’t my first attempt at mug desserts. I had made a few cake mugs before. They were sweet and edible, but not enticing. They served as a quick fix for a late-night snack when there were no other options and I was too lazy to run to the store. Their convenience was lost on me. In the past, I had the time to wait it out while an entire pan of brownies baked in the oven. I saw people regularly and could leave treats in my work break room. My energy wasn’t confined to my freckled mug. 

What began as a need for chocolate became a simple nightly ritual that kept me from the brink of postpartum disaster. Each night I looked forward to my time alone with my mug. I couldn’t control the world I was living in or my changing hormones, but I could show up weary-eyed and baby-laden and organize my ingredients on the counter. I could ignore my sink full of dishes while I only utilized one oversized mug and one plastic kid’s spoon. My desserts were wholly for me and nobody else. The only person who partook in the ceremony with me couldn’t eat solids.

As the months have dragged on, my mugs desserts have become less and less: every single night becoming every few nights. The need has diminished; the allure of hunting down the perfect recipe and the corresponding ingredients hasn’t felt as tantalizing. I can mentally stack the mugs I’ve used to climb my way out of the gravity of having a baby in near isolation.

Mug by mug I have been leaning on this simple ritual to keep me grounded. Tonight is no different. As I burn the roof of my mouth with the first bite, I replay the frustrations of wanting to do better as a mom, but no longer having the bandwidth to do so: the exacerbation of my “what,” the guilt for not wanting to chase them around the house, the minutes spent lingering in the bathroom pressing my forehead into the wall.

Just like my cocoa mix brownie, I remind myself this isn’t forever as I soak my empty mug in water and add it to the stack of dishes spilling onto the counter.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline (SAMHSA) offers free, confidential treatment and referral information in both English and Spanish. Call 1-800-662-HELP (4357).