By Randi Olin
I haven’t had much confidence in the kitchen over the years, but my mother’s banana bread recipe is something I’ve learned to perfect. Baking, it seems, is all about step-by-step directions and I’m not really much of an improviser. One mismeasurement can lead to recipe failure. It’s these known amounts all mixed together that yield the certainty of a delicious loaf. Every. Single. Time.
My banana bread has been a regular request from my kids and their friends, one I’ve been happy to oblige whenever they ask for it—even if by the time I go to get a piece there’s only a pinch of crumbs left. But now my son is graduating from high school, and my daughter is about to be a senior in college. I wonder what it will be like when both kids are out of the house, when among so many other changes, there won’t be this kind of impromptu baking anymore.
The butter once melted looks a golden yellow, the sugar crystals are mixed in giving air and lightness to the batter.
It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, I admitted to my therapist recently. Motherhood. I was only half-surprised when she said nobody’s ever told her that before. But perhaps it is only now that I am able to muster these words with such clarity because I’m almost done with the front-loaded business of everyday hands-on parenting. Then again, she’s also aware of how challenging it is for me particularly. My need for control when it comes to raising my kids.
I wasn’t always somebody who sought a “perfect” outcome. But parenting my younger child, especially during these teen years, has brought out an almost primal need for it. I haven’t been able to make sense of why this is.
Things went smoothly with my first child, we followed the recipe to the letter. But when I tried to stick to that recipe the second time around, the flavor wasn’t coming out the same. Parenting isn’t like baking. The ingredients you mix together aren’t the same with each kid and so you can’t expect to yield the loaf you had last time, no matter how delicious it was.
I crack the egg on the side of the bowl. A second egg, and then baking soda, the fine white powder like tiny granules of a cumulus cloud. Next, the sour cream, also pure and white, the anchor of the recipe, and its secret ingredient.
My husband and I thought we were doing the right thing by holding on tight, of course we did, but our well-intentioned safety net had somehow morphed into a hammock, a gentle cradle we kept tightly suspended between our two trunks—with no room for our son to grow in his own direction.
Every teenager needs his own space to figure out the world, by trial and error, along with the freedom to fall. As Jessica Lahey, in her highly-acclaimed book The Gift of Failure asserts, “it’s those setbacks, mistakes, miscalculations, and failures we have shoved out of our children’s way that are the very experiences that teach them how to be resourceful, persistent, innovative and resilient.”
In a separate, larger bowl, I mash three overripe bananas with a fork, using the prongs against the side, making lumpy pieces from the long-curving fruit before adding flour the color of snow.
It’s been hard for me as a parent to keep my hands out of the mixing bowl, where I should know better that they don’t belong. And yet, I’m managing.
I combine both bowls with all of the ingredients, and I mix them together, with a force and emotion that surprises me. With the type of strength and energy I didn’t realize I had, and it feels good, to stir everything together, to mix, to wonder how it will take form.
People ask me all the time, what are you going to do when your youngest leaves for college in the fall. As if everything I have been doing for the last twenty years is somehow related to my kids’ needs. And then I realize, for better or for worse, it kind of has been that way. The truth is that’s how I’ve parented for much of these past two decades. Now the focus is abruptly shifting back to me and I have no idea what that will look like, or better yet, how it will feel.
I grease the loaf pan and go to put the banana bread into the preheated oven. But before I do, I add two handfuls of semi-sweet chips on top, something I’ve never done before. Maybe it will throw off the whole recipe, I don’t know for sure, but I want it be a little different, a little sweeter.
I’ll miss those days when both of my kids were at home and I would make a loaf, just because. That act of love represented everything I wanted to be as a mother. Now that my nest will be empty this fall, I don’t know how much, if at all, I will be baking my banana bread anymore; I can’t see making it only for myself. Will I still bake? Will I find another recipe to follow? Will I replace that part of my life with something else? I simply don’t know.
But for the next few months, in this time of transition, I’ll be sure to add a few extra chocolate chips to the mix, a symbol of the change to come—and I will make sure to relish the savory remnants that are left melted on my hands.
Randi Olin is co-founder and executive editor of Motherwell. She loves the smell of freshly baked banana bread, especially when it comes straight from her oven. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.