Previous installments of Jessica Valenti’s “Eat Me” column can be found here.
I call it Sunday sauce, my grandmother called it “gravy.” The anything-but-plain tomato sauce–the cooking of which dominated the afternoon–is the food I probably associate most with my childhood. My mother would let my sister Vanessa and I dip pieces of bread in it as it thickened, the bread melting under the sauce’s weight. It seemed as if it simmered for hours, but I’m betting it was no more than one. But the anticipation of the sauce–and, oh my god what kind of pasta would it go on, please let it be ravioli–was everything good about my weekend.
We ate dinner at the table together every night, but Sunday was different. My parents weren’t Catholic anymore – my mom hated the nuns who beat her in school and my father stopped going after a priest asked him during confession, breathing hard, for the details of his masturbation routine. He literally left the church running. But still, Sunday was sacred. No television allowed. Only music: classical in the morning and Buddy Holly in the afternoons because Vanessa and I were inexplicably obsessed with him. We sang along, jumping on the couch, holding hands.
I started cooking Sunday’s sauce after I had my daughter, Layla. I wanted to start our own family traditions and pass on old ones – anything that that would give her the kind of joyous, sensory-laden memories I had. I taught her how to dip a heel of bread in the pot, soaking as much sauce as possible without getting too messy. She rolls out the dough for pasta with me; I crank the machine and she catches the flattened sheets, carefully laying them on the counter.
Passing down family traditions took on more gravity as I slowly accepted I couldn’t have more children. My pregnancy with Layla had nearly killed us both, and the chances of the same thing happening again were too high. Besides, Andrew and I knew that what Layla endured–a 2-pound barely-there baby with tubes to breathe, feed, and monitor–could be a best case scenario. Our real nightmare is a baby who does not end up as lucky as our now-vibrant, smart, hilarious 3-year-old. So I made sauce. And baked. And started Friday “pizza parties” where Layla and I made pizzas from scratch–her spooning on the sauce with one hand, stuffing shredded mozzarella into her mouth with the other.
Then I got pregnant. Sometimes plans and being responsible don’t work out the way you thought they would. I always thought women collapsing at bad news seemed a bit overwrought, but there I was on the bathroom floor. I cried because I was terrified–I still get the occasional post-traumatic symptom–but mostly I cried because I want so badly for Layla to be able to dance with someone to Buddy Holly on Sundays.
I did the logical things you’re supposed to do: made appointments with specialists, talked to family and trusted friends. The funny thing about pregnancy is that with any other health risk a doctor has no problem telling you what the best course of action is. But no doctor wants to tell a pregnant lady what to do.
You could do it, they say. But yes, the HELLP could come on within 24 hours, and your liver could fail.
We would watch you, they say. But we can’t stop you from getting sick.
We don’t know what will happen to the baby.
And so the hopes I had tucked away–of Layla helping me feed a baby, of sisters holding hands or pulling each other’s hair–came back to torment me, whispering: maybe. But the maybe my brain has on repeat does not change the reality that existed before the pregnancy and that will exist after it: My body cannot take it.
I used to want to be the mother who dies for her pregnancy. In my 28th week, woozy and barely able to lift my arms, I tried to convince doctors not to deliver Layla–even though with every minute they delayed I got sicker. Keep her in, I said. I don’t matter. But my attempt at self-sacrifice did her no favors; a body as ill as mine was is not a hospitable place for a baby.
Today, with a toddler who puts on ballet shows for her dolls and scoops ricotta onto layers of dough, I know that I don’t hate myself enough to die. And I love her enough not to. But it’s not enough to just accept this reality.
Jessica Valenti has written four books on feminism, politics and culture and is a founder of Feministing.com. She just moved back to her native New York after a two-year stint in Boston, which she is very pleased about. If she had to live solely off of one food group, it would be dairy.