After my third consecutive miscarriage I began baking bread.
This was 2019, a year and change before quarantine boredom ignited a sourdough craze that lit up everyone’s lockdown Instagram feeds with images of fresh and hot loaves.
Back then, my bread was simply a secret habit born from a desire – as so often occurs when one has been brought to one’s knees by despair – to do something with my hands.
I didn’t know where to put them, or myself, because my grief was an uncharted landscape, each notch of loss having further bulldozed my sense of safety in my body. I had thought about making bread, back in what seemed like the halcyon days of blissful ignorance, the years in which I had believed that my always-desired future babies were coming, would surely grow fat and strong, automatic like loaves from a commercial kitchen, because that’s how it works, right? So when I decided to “try” for a baby, and it happened right away, I didn’t think much of it.
Ten weeks later, the first was gone. Three months later, a second pregnancy ended. A month after that, two lines on a test gave way to the familiar rush of blood.
The maddening grief I experienced that year placed a slick sheen of dread on the surface of everything I felt and thought and knew. I stopped seeing friends, ignored emails, and tried, in vain, to heal myself.
I deleted Instagram, with its stream of baby and pregnancy announcements pegged to every season (a special bundle coming this New Year! Can’t wait to meet our little pumpkin! Introducing our beautiful Christmas gift!); visited an acupuncturist who tutted after I stuck out my tongue (too much salad, apparently); stopped touching paper receipts (something about hormones); half-heartedly eliminated dairy (why?) and spent hours lying in savasana at mercifully dark yoga studios, where I would weep quietly in the strangely comforting company of strangers.
Muffling the perpetual pall of longing, confusion and unknowing was impossible. My agony was tidal, and a brief moment of light on the shore – be it a funny joke, a friend in town, or a delicious croissant that the fertility diet books would frown upon – would herald only the swell to come, yet another pregnancy announcement from a friend or relative spiking a kind of feral envy that shamed me to my core, and phone calls where I cried like a wounded animal to those who loved me, who were, in turn, rendered mute and terrified by the weight of my anguish.
Five months in, I dream of smashing up the waiting room
Still, in spite of it all, the axis upon which the tragedy/comedy line sits had figured out the coordinates of my New York City kitchen. I knew, in my heart, that it was a sad, bad joke of an impulse. No buns in my oven, at least not for long anyway. But I had to do something. So I banged out sourdough loaves by the dozen. Though many failed for no reason whatsoever, as petulant and unpredictable as my capricious embryos, I couldn’t stop. Even with forearms creased green at the elbow from the daily blood lets at the fertility clinic, where I had turned to try and see if lovely dependable science could figure out why my longed-for babies never stuck around.
The battery of testing takes months, with unseen curve balls at every turn. Five months in, I dream of smashing up the waiting room, with its too chic mid-century furniture, un-thumbed Us Weekly magazines and devastated, dead-eyed denizens waiting in their work shoes for the daily blood lets. I wish the nurses would stop asking that shrugging, eye-contact-less “How are you” as they peel on their gloves on the way to the blood room, like we’re just going to grab a cappuccino rather than harvest yet more faulty, baby-less blood for the lab. But they always do.
It’s on the 34th consecutive day of bloodwork, as I dutifully roll up my sleeve and try to ignore the sound of a woman weeping across the flimsy plastic partition that something snaps in me. That’s how I find myself telling a blood technician named Dulcia, whose beautiful face is powdered with butterscotch colored freckles like blown pollen from a lily, that how I am is that “I’d quite like to die, actually”.
To my great surprise, and immediate regret, she solemnly puts down the tourniquet and her eyes flood with visible wet gobs. Then she asks if I believe in God. I am mortified, but I still say no, because I don’t. “Oh,” she says, not unkindly. “I was going to tell you to pray.”
Which is why, days later, at home, watching the thick lines of my scoring puff sensuous tendrils into the lid of my loaf, I am surprised to realize, with a start, that I am doing just that. I am kneeling next to the oven, head bent, like a pilgrim at a shrine, talking to the humanist god (or goddess, or both, or nothing). That I am saying, out loud, over and over again, ‘God, please let me have my baby. I will do anything, I will be whatever you need, whatever you want, just please, let my baby stay.” I’m not sure how long I’ve been on the ground. All I know is that when I push my hands to my sticky cheeks, they are white hot, as if the oven’s flames had licked them a long time.
In this new world I live in, in which, via the snap of the brand-new condom on to the dreaded ultrasound wand, I stare into the black and white abyss of unknowing on a weekly basis, my sourdough habit allows me a perfectly baked round full stop to any and all medical mysteries, pregnancy announcements or unsolicited advice.
“You appear to not have ovulated at all” Bread.
“We’re due in October!” Bread.
“Have you thought about adoption?” Bread.
Each one takes 18 hours, start to finish, and every single loaf blows my mind, carved individually, as they are, by the particular way the rain fell that day, the dust in the air, the breeze filtered from a cracked window. Bread baking is a useful coping tactic for the depressed, I learn, a habit that coaxes productivity in spite of despair, inexplicably attached, as it is, to essential rest between dusk and dawn, and requiring nothing more than the holy trinity that is hours, hands and that most fair weather of friends, hope. Once they are out, and their personalities have been ascertained via color, oven spring, density, height, I give them names. Not like babies, I tell my husband. Like hurricanes.
I see myself fully: the sad proprietress of New York City’s loneliest bakery
Hercules, a true brute of a bread, was my first real triumph – a round, high wholemeal loaf with perfect cornmeal-hewn indentation from the banneton. Penelope emerged after a successful attempt at scoring, the leaves I slashed into her trembling moon belly revealing flirty little hints of bread flesh gazing outward. Nigel was a disaster, black-bottomed and oddly dense. I learn that a well-baked bread whistles on the rack with its own mystical swan song, a low-level exhale that is part firework pops, part seashell placed to one’s ear. It is the sound of something bursting into life.
Along with scouring the miscarriage message boards, I start to spend time on hand-wringing bread baking threads with lots of men living in Wisconsin named Dave and Mike. It’s one of the Mikes who points out that in the UK, where I am from, they call bread starter “the Mother”. This makes me cry. I see myself fully, then: the sad proprietress of New York City’s loneliest bakery. I think about the Lord’s Prayer, the only prayer I have ever known by heart, said en masse in austere English school assemblies from age four to 18, with its simple plea of “Give us this day our daily bread”, and the rushing to get to the end, into the hushed, mumbling crescendo of foreverandeveramen.
I carry on baking, I carry on praying.
I bake my bread to mark the days. I don’t know how many I make, in the end. But one day, right after I fire the fertility doctor, I get pregnant again. I do not dare to hope or dream. Every time I go to the office bathroom I reflexively put my hand over my mouth before pulling down my underwear, anticipating the need to muffle a scream. I continue to feel guilty about my lattes. I still say no to the receipts. Before every doctor’s appointment, I replace kneeling by the oven with kneeling on hospital bathroom floors, which beats the waiting room. On my knees in the dirt finally feels right. Without fail, behind the locked door, one ear cocked in case my name is called, I place my forehead on the uncaring regulation tiles, and utter the good Christian prayer my desperation has alchemized to incantation. Our Father who art in heaven … Give us this day our daily bread. Every week, miraculously, I emerge on to city streets clutching a contact sheet, which, unspooled, reveals images of a glowing gummy bear who is not dead.
The slow molasses days pass, dull as proving. My belly stays flat but the worst does not happen. Slowly, slowly, skin tautens and rises, surrenders to ancient chemistry. I learn that the baby (baby!) is a girl. She cares not for my terror. She insists on growing.
On a full moon in March, she is born, red as a raspberry, absolutely furious, smelling sweet and soft and yeasty, not unlike the bread that I will one day teach her how to bake. The same bread, I’ll tell her, that she may one day find herself staring at, on her knees, convinced all hope is lost. But it won’t be. I will tell her that the next moment, you can be dancing barefoot to the Graceland album with a daughter in your arms, while the scent from your oven announces to five city blocks that someone is most certainly home. That – like babies – bread is delicious. But fickle, and mystical, and hard-won. That we are all just salt and water and time. So unsung, so arduous, so sacred.