Grilled Cheese And Grief – Cooking Helped Me In The Depths Of Postpartum Depression

"I looked in the mirror and hated myself. Not the way I looked, but something deeper."
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My husband, Tony, and I had a plan for my first meal after our baby was born: a raw seafood tower and a strong margarita with a salted rim. These were two things I craved furiously during pregnancy and waited longingly to enjoy.

Instead, the Covid-19 pandemic came sweeping through the world, and everything shut down. We weren’t allowed to leave the hospital room after Simone, our baby girl, was born in April 2020.

I remember negotiating with the nurse – I was ravenous after 15 hours of labour and an emergency C-section. I wanted the grilled chicken sandwich from the hospital dinner menu. She said I could have another apple juice and some Jell-O.

Eighteen months later, we had a baby boy. We named him Julius. There were vaccines by then, and Tony was allowed to leave the hospital room. (Still no visitors.)

He came back with bagel sandwiches and a bag full of snacks and drinks from Wawa. We ate them while we sang Julius silly songs. Julius nursed and we both fell asleep with his little head on my chest, his soft body rising and falling with my breath.

I thought I’d escaped postpartum depression. I had nearly a decade in eating disorder recovery under my belt, a supportive partner, a great therapist, and loving family and friends.

I thought, the second time around, I was prepared for the postpartum rollercoaster of hormones and tears. When I woke up with my sheets soaked with sweat, I wasn’t alarmed.

But things felt different. I longed for the cosy, lazy days of snuggles with infant Simone – but now I had a toddler who wanted “mommy, mommy, mommy” always, who had big feelings and full-bodied meltdowns, and a new baby who kept us perpetually bleary and bone-tired.

Post-surgery, I couldn’t pick up Simone, and she wailed in protest of this injustice. I got Covid during the omicron wave and had to isolate with Julius, who was breastfeeding. It was a dark, cold winter.

I couldn’t catch a break or a breath. I felt I was letting down my precious, tiny humans.

Even with so much eating disorder recovery, I was shocked that I didn’t hate my postpartum body. I was proud of my tender — sometimes annoyingly itchy — C-section scar and my soft belly.

But something else was going on in my brain; I looked in the mirror and hated myself. Not the way I looked, but something deeper. The loathing was visceral and enormous. I didn’t feel worthy of my beautiful kids.

Julius’ sweet cries filled me with dread. And each day felt interminable. Nights felt scary, too. My exhaustion was so profound it was painful, and I knew it was only a matter of hours (minutes?) before Julius’ cries would wake me. They joined with my own crying, which I couldn’t seem to stop.

My body wanted fuel, but my brain didn’t have the capacity to think about food.

Sometimes, my mum would bring lasagne or soup. Sometimes, Tony would make a steak. Sometimes, I’d eat a lot of popcorn and call it lunch.

The thing that helped me the most was starting antidepressants. The thing that helped me the second most was cooking ridiculously simple things: sheet pan dinners. Grilled cheese sandwiches with a generous amount of butter. Scrambled eggs.

“It’s hard to meal-plan when you’re depressed,” a friend told me on the phone.

I didn’t have the mental capacity to meal-plan, per se, but I practiced asking for help. My parents live nearby, and I’d send my mum a grocery list full of my favourite foods.

“Even ragged and in my comfiest sweatpants, I could grate Parmesan on pasta or fry an egg.”

Tony and I had spent most of our adult lives in New York City, and we were used to ordering whatever our hearts desired – fragrant, steamy pho; crispy Korean-fried chicken; thin-crust pizzas; diner omelettes. I loved to cook, too, but life was busy, and we lived in the culinary capital of the universe.

During the pandemic, we moved to a small town in rural New Jersey. Now, there were only a handful of restaurants nearby, and zero that delivered. With Julius on my boob, I’d scroll recipes for the quickest, simplest, most comforting ideas I could find.

I made a lot of grilled cheese sandwiches. I’d use sourdough from the local bakery if we had any, or grocery store bread if not, whatever cheese we had in the fridge.

With plenty of butter, I perfected a golden crust. Sometimes I’d smear on Colman’s mustard, or add some slices of deli turkey, or eat the sandwich beside a pile of arugula, dressed only with good olive oil and crunchy sea salt.

Simone and Tony liked my grilled cheese, too, and I could eat it while nursing. I remember plucking buttery crumbs from Julius’ downy head.

I’d make hodgepodge salads with whatever veggies we had in the fridge, adding olives and chunks of chorizo and my favourite cheeses. Tossing it with my kitchen tongs, I noticed something. I felt, if not great, like myself. I felt alive.

When one day I miraculously felt up to making dinner, I put a lot of things on a sheet pan: feta cheese, chicken thighs, root veggies. It was alchemy.

Even ragged and in my comfiest sweatpants, I could grate Parmesan on pasta or fry an egg.

I had made these amazing babies, and I could also make dinner. Sometimes, anyway. It was delicious and satisfying.

I credit Zoloft for making it through a whole day without tears. I credit Julius sleeping better for feeling, slowly but surely, human again.

I credit food for reminding me about joy. I credit garlic sizzling in butter for perfuming the house and soothing my tired new-mum nerves, reminding me about possibility and playfulness and pleasure.