Welcome to Comfort Me With This, where a writer tells a story of finding comfort and connection through one dish.
In 2016, two important things happened in my life, though those events are not weighted equally for me. First, I gave birth to my daughter, a plump-cheeked, rosy-red child whose infant moods shifted with the wind. One nurse called her “spicy.” I called her my wonder, which encompassed the joy and abject fear I felt in the face of motherhood. The second thing: a week after Wonder Girl’s birth, the popular Netflix show Stranger Things premiered. The series is about a group of kids who realize their best friend is trapped in an alternate horror reality called the Upside Down. They must find a way to save him, even without the help of the adults, most of whom don’t believe in such a place.
These two events seem unrelated, I know. But when Wonder Girl began bawling plaintively at 3 a.m.—she had colic, an affliction that other parents would later talk to me about in dread-filled tones—I shuffled us onto a gigantic yoga ball, bouncing endlessly, the way our doula told me to. Sometimes, if I stopped, Wonder Girl would begin yelping, angry that the lulling motion had ceased. During these witching hour bounces, I turned on Stranger Things and donned my headphones, binge-watching as much as I could before I switched bouncing shifts with my husband. I began seeing shadows where there were none. Lights seemed to flicker in our hallways. Once, I swore I saw a rip in the wall in front of me, leading to a dark corridor with tangled black vines. What I mean to say is that I somehow found myself in the Upside Down, psychically, if not physically. Like the Stranger Things kids, I wanted to scream, “Where are all the grown-ups here?”
For a few weeks, I wasn’t able to diagnose my postpartum depression. I’d never suffered from intense anxiety or depression before; just a low-grade dissatisfaction that I couldn’t identify. Perhaps I had internalized some of the societal shame, shoving the diagnosis away from me, as if it belonged to other people. I felt equal parts desperate to be the best mother I could be to Wonder Girl and equal parts terrified that I could not last through another night of bouncing. We didn’t have family or many friends nearby to deliver food or check in, so as a result, I often forgot to eat, dropping weight more rapidly than I should have, even in the aftermath of birth. We ordered delivery nearly every single night, and it was weeks before any fresh produce passed my lips.
Though I had my husband, an equal partner in every way through those early months of parenthood, I was lonely. I was in the Upside Down, but my friends were moving on, going to work and happy hour outings and swims down by the lake (as they should have!). But one friend, N., was there every single night, though they lived hundreds of miles away in California, and though they had a toddler of their own to tend to. When I sent my first, “I don’t know if I can do this” text, N. answered, even though it was past midnight their time.
I wrote, “I’ve never been so tired in my life. Also, I’m starving.”
N. texted back, “I’m booking a flight and I’m bringing burritos.”
We were living in Austin, so burritos were plentiful, but N. insisted their version of freezer burritos were especially tasty. We would not go hungry on their watch.
Weeks later, they appeared on our doorstep with a toddler strapped to their back. As promised, they brought the supplies for making burritos, including packages of tortillas lovingly bought from the Mission District in San Francisco. So many things touched me about N.’s visit, which itself felt like a rescue mission from beyond the Upside Down. Seeing those tortillas sparked my first prickle of tears.
During the handful of days N. was able to stay, I slept while they rocked the baby, finally emerging with clear vision and no hint of vine-filled hallucinations. One day, they got on a ladder to tape black trash bags to the windows, convinced that a fully darkened nursery would help Wonder Girl sleep. We talked about motherhood and reminisced about middle school, where we first met, googling that science teacher we all had a crush on. In the evenings, when the kids were finally resting, we cracked open a beer—my first since realizing I was pregnant, the morning before a brewery tour in Portland—ate crackers, and laughed by the waning light of a Texas evening sprinkled with fireflies. Eating was normalcy and, more than that, it was hope. If I could eat, I could live. And if I could live, I could mother my Wonder Girl, even through my own fog of despair.
One rainy afternoon, amid a baffling ant infestation, N. and I settled down to make the freezer burritos together. N. was in charge of the mashed beans and rice. I cut tomatoes and sautéed bell peppers. Together, we dug in while blaring Simon and Garfunkel, as we used to during our college days. We wrapped 29 burritos in all, making a race out of it. On the last burrito—the 30th, I noticed something crawling near the rice. An ant. N. plucked it out and resumed rolling the burrito, but when they caught sight of my face—a little horrified yet unable to say anything, for fear of seeming ungrateful—they announced, “I’ll eat this one.” That’s the thing about being around someone who’s known you for decades. They can sense your needs without words.
I didn’t ask N. to fly across the country with a toddler and a suitcase full of burrito supplies. I didn’t have to. So 29 burritos went in our freezer, all tightly wrapped in aluminum foil. N. and I addressed the ants with a witchy mixture of chalk and cinnamon, sprinkled over all the openings of our home. It sort of worked.
To my great sorrow, N. left for California eventually, but they weren’t really gone. Over an endless string of text messages, we continued to brainstorm ideas for addressing colic and ant infestations. And in Texas, my husband and I continued to eat burritos, unwrapping each with a profound and primal gratitude. Those burritos became time markers for my husband and me; each one we ate was a reminder that we were getting through parenthood, no matter how clumsily. We told ourselves that if we could make it to 29 burritos, we’d be okay. And, with the help of my doctor’s prescriptions for both me and my Wonder Girl, who was suffering from a gastrointestinal issue, our family emerged from the Upside Down together, miraculously intact and blinking in the sunshine of normalcy. The burritos became a memory that would always remind me of friendship and chaos and all the small, surprising things we’ll do to save ourselves and each other.