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growing up

Battling My Daughter’s Anxiety, One Baking Project at a Time

Like so many others, I begin baking bread in March. I start with a three-pack of yeast I happen to find shoved in the back of an empty grocery store shelf, and I use up the last of the all-purpose flour in my pantry. The first loaf is perfect, the second a brick, the third somewhere in between.

Encouraged, I order a pound of yeast online and a huge bag of bread flour. My 10-year-old walks into the kitchen and finds me binge-watching old bread episodes of The Great British Baking Show.

“Can I watch with you?” she asks, turning off YouTube on her laptop. She pulls up a stool. “What are you making?”

“I’m going to make sandwich bread today,” I say, gathering the ingredients as the contestants measure and knead.

“I didn’t even know you could make that,” she says. “I just thought you bought it at the store.”

I measure the yeast into the warm water and honey. She asks questions and I look up the answers online. We examine the varying kneading techniques of the people on the show — a beautiful young woman slams her dough down, while an old man delicately turns and squishes, turns and squishes.

My daughter watches me as I knead, then proof, gently deflate, then shape and proof again before baking. The two loaves turn out beautiful, fluffy, and light. The whole family exclaims over my baking prowess.

“I want to bake, too!” she begs.

My daughter is an artist, getting her talent from her father’s side of the family. I have fine-motor issues that make even holding a pencil painful after five minutes. I draw like a 6-year-old and my handwriting is illegible. My daughter, however, draws endlessly, her aptitude both a blessing and a curse.

Even at a very young age, 3 and 4 years old, she would crumple her drawings in rage.

“This doesn’t look like a princess!” she would shriek. “This unicorn is disgusting! I’m never drawing again!”

Her perfectionism, her fear of failure, took, and still takes, much of the pleasure out of her art.

Now, at 10, my daughter’s anxiety consumes her. It permeates every area of her life, from drawing to school to friendships — and it’s even worse now that we’re staying home, not seeing friends or family except from a distance, behind masks. She tunnel visions, and small difficulties can escalate into tantrums in mere moments. Her schoolwork panics her.

“What if I get every problem wrong?” she screams, throwing her math packet to the floor. “My teacher will hate me!”

Nothing can stop her meltdowns, save exhaustion. Nothing I do helps; no cognitive behavioral therapy or soothing words or punishment makes a dent in the tornado of her distress. When her panic runs its course, she quietly comes down from her room, slips next to me and wraps her arms around my waist. We start her math again. She quickly realizes her small error and finishes the assignment within minutes. The issue is never the math — or a drawing, or a friend being upset with her — it’s something inside her, an immediate fight-or-flight response that consumes and escalates.

“I’d like to decorate cakes like that,” my daughter says as I make bread the next day, again with the Great British Baking Show on in the background. She points to a woman on the show who is piping exquisitely-detailed roses on a three-tier chocolate cake.

“I’ll stick with bread,” I say. “You know I can’t draw.”

“What if you make the cake and I decorate?” she asks, and a rush of joy floods me. Maybe this is how we survive this pandemic, I think. Maybe this will alleviate some of my parental guilt and some of her anxiety. We’ll be a team and she’ll be OK. That’s all I want, truly — for her to be OK.

I order her a pastry cookbook, piping bags, and tips, as well as different types of fondant and molds. She excitedly rips open the package when it arrives, immediately begins softening butter for buttercream.

Two hours later, she shouts and throws the bag full of icing to the floor.

“I can’t do this! I’m terrible at everything!”

My daughter’s therapist, who is well aware of her anxiety, offers techniques and behavioral strategies to her father and me. So I implement small baking projects with some success. We practice basic cupcakes first, with minimal decoration. Just a smidge of icing that she makes herself. Then she practices on brownies, a little more icing, some sprinkles. We try to build up our baking resilience through mother-daughter team-bakes that slowly grow in scope and detail.

Soon, she asks to make cupcakes on her own, without my help.

And so begins a roller coaster of new baking experiences. Every other day brings hours of meltdowns, to the point where I want to throw everything in our kitchen away. I find myself yelling and crying as well, threatening consequences in my own panicked response to her hours of distress.

The next day, however, she shows me her dozen cupcakes, perfectly baked and decorated. Her face displays the pride of someone who has done this herself, who doesn’t need help, who can accomplish hard things. I take it all back. I apologize for my threats.

“You can do anything,” I tell her. “When you don’t panic, there is nothing you can’t do.”

“But I mess up so much!”

“Yes, but then the next time you fix that and it comes out perfectly! Just like math,” I say.

But these are just words to her. I have to find a way to show her that it’s OK to fail, to make mistakes and learn from them. To change her inner monologue to I can’t do this yet, but that doesn’t mean I can’t figure it out.

I think about bread.

I’ve been making just a couple of types of bread, the ones I know will work. The brick from before, the stodgy loaf that my family ate to be nice — I realize those have kept me from branching out, from trying new recipes.

One morning, I decide to make flatbreads for the first time. They’re awful, greasy and doughy. I’m mad about them, about the time they took that I could have spent making sandwich loaves instead.

“I like them!” my daughter says, showing kindness to me in a way she never shows to herself. This is a moment I grab hold of.

“Let’s figure out what I did wrong,” I say and open my laptop. We look through recipes and articles. We find tricks and blunders from bakers’ blogs. I talk out loud, an exterior monologue I hope she’ll absorb, about what I’ll do differently next time, about trying again and again.

I bake other new loaves. Some work, some don’t. Every time, I show her the results. I laugh at the awful ones, slice off the ends, the only parts that aren’t raw. I throw her the heavy, hard loaf that I didn’t knead enough before baking.

“Catch!” I shout and she giggles and runs for a touchdown.

We celebrate the perfect breads, mourn the disasters, compare ourselves to the contestants on all the baking shows we now watch together. When our favorite contestant fails, when her cake falls or her bread erupts like a volcano from under-proofing, we clap for her. We offer celebratory condolences and understanding.

My daughter practices her piping on her own in the kitchen. She mixes up her icing, measures her ingredients, melts down and recovers, and proudly displays her successes.

She’s still working on this. She still thinks she’s terrible at everything. But sometimes she pushes through unexpectedly. Sometimes she comes in to see me and whispers, “The cupcakes collapsed in the middle, but I filled them with icing and nobody will know, mom.”

Sometimes she brings in her math. “Look! I figured out where I messed up!”

Modeling perseverance and resilience, surviving failure, celebrating the process. Teaching myself as I teach her, one recipe at a time.

Header Image by stolenpencil/Getty Images

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