I am what you might generously call “a skilled home cook.” I can follow recipes, copy pictures, execute a modest range of techniques and improvise a little with decent results. But I am no virtuoso; I have no particular talent for inventing dishes or harmonizing flavors, and even less for creating food that, arriving on the plate, looks appetizing. But it’s all edible, and for a good stretch of years it was my most reliably relaxing hobby.
Then my eldest daughter, now nearly 4 years old, grew inquisitive and persuasive enough to assert herself not only as an assistant — for a while there, she was an excellent holder of wooden spoons and fetcher of dish towels — but as a full-fledged sous chef. Had I any hopes of putting her off this, they dissolved when preschool abruptly ended with the stay-at-home orders, and my chance to cook dinner before dismissal vanished. Under her full-time observation, it’s no longer possible to get away with cooking without her. I am now the recipient of live-in culinary help, whether I like it or not.
And I do like it — mostly. The trouble is this: I am a perfectionist. I mean that not in its casual and laudatory sense, in which it refers to people who are devoted to excellence in their chosen crafts. I mean it in a harder and darker way: I find it very difficult to do something the wrong way. I understand that mistakes are a part of life and are moreover key to learning, but I still hate making them. In school, minor errors left me completely demoralized, convinced I would never grasp whatever it was I was trying to master. As an adult, things have only somewhat improved. Most of the time I can take a misstep all right, but I still occasionally find myself looking over my mistakes and rehearsing the same old questions: What’s the matter with me? Why can’t I do anything right?
The help of a curious toddler is bracing, vigorous: They are people as yet unburdened with neuroses. I may try to spoon flour carefully into a measuring cup held over a wide mixing bowl, and then invite her to overturn it gently — only to be dusted in a burst of powder, rising cloudlike from the spot where she eagerly flung the whole lot of it. I have witnessed softening sticks of butter crushed in tiny fists, whole plum tomatoes skewered on searching fingers. I find myself faced with conflicting anxieties: If I’m too adamant that everything be done just so, she’ll develop some kind of complex — God forbid, the same kind I have. If I let her rip, whatever dish I embarked upon with such high hopes will come out wrong.
I train my face in a vague Renaissance smile as she takes an egg in hand. This could go any number of places, hardly any of them good. If I’m fortunate, I’ll just be picking shell fragments out of a prep dish with tweezers. Does she know, I begin to panic, that I disapprove? Can she see that every spilled bowl of measured stock is like a bomb detonating to me? Does she sense that my heart rate spikes when rice skitters across the floor as though artillery shells were raining down on this track-lit galley kitchen?
In the end, I let her get on with things. There are carrot fragments welded onto the range and rolled oats crammed into the gaps between the floorboards, never to be pried loose. Here and there, I insist on one or two things I simply must do myself, but with each meal there’s also plenty of devastation, which I take to be the price of her continued interest in learning.
When she looks back on this strange interlude in our history, with the four of us locked up in our small apartment together for weeks on end, I want her to remember it fondly — or at least to see, with advancing age, that I tried to make it fun for her, in spite of everything, even myself. Quarantine parenting is ordinary parenting at maximum intensity, with quadrupled stress; but it doesn’t have to be perfect, I think, only loving, only kind.
Earlier this week, we hovered together over a sheet of rolled cookie dough, cutters in hand. I was almost sweating just at the thought of it. “We want to put the shapes as close together as we can,” I recommended, seeing, in my mind’s eye, a perfect expanse of tessellation, nary an overlap or gap. “OK!” she sang, and stamped a shape directly in the center of the dough, then another, half atop the first. “Like that?” Usually, we don’t want them to crisscross, I explained, but her shapes still looked pretty to me.
“That’s OK,” she said cheerfully, as she carried on punching out cookies. “We can fix it, no problem.” I smiled on, in awe. There are things she can do that I’ll never be able to.
Elizabeth Bruenig (@ebruenig) is an Opinion writer.
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