‘Unhappy soup at an unhappy table’

Her friends had different homes. And different mothers, who cooked different dinners. Her friends had cheery foods, all yellow in family: golden chicken nuggets, giant corn cobs, chunky chips and eggs with sunny, hope-filled yolks. At their tables there was chitter-chatter and cheekily stealing morsels from each other’s plates and squeezing as much ketchup over everything as you wanted. If you made a smiley on your plate, the ketchup would even be your magic mirror. My client called these ‘happy tables’.

Her own mother often cooked foods that could just be left. Dishes that required distance, where she could be divorced from the physicality of food and its process. Stews that murmured on the hob. Slow-cooked meats that slept on their own in the oven. Casseroles that had no other need than for the slow-cooker’s ‘on’ button to be pressed at breakfast time. Hands-off. At the kitchen table, it was hearts off too; it was not a place for real engagement or appetite. Her mother would sit there hunched in the afternoon, mostly reading the television guide and circling what might be worth watching that week. In the evening, the table became a place for the quiet ingestion of food. The table was an immovable obstacle my client had to encounter every day. There was nothing to really feast on but the absence of pleasure. One of their most eaten foods was lentil soup. It was more than undelicious; it was the kind of food you send your condolences to. The soup was school uniform, bottle-green in colour, but it had blues to rival her mother’s.

‘Have you ever seen that Will Smith film? It was like my mum was in pursuit of unhappiness. I would ask her if she was happy. And then she would smile and say, “As long as your happy!”’. As I listened to my client, I was reminded of the idea that children are often anti-depressants for their parents. But now, as we worked together in therapy, it felt like we were in the withdrawal stage; new and uncomfortable feelings were coming up in the absence of the original drug, because she was no longer that child who was there to witness her mother’s unhappiness. Or attempt to fix it. Research has shown a significant link between maternal depression and child attachment insecurity. My client had been that insecure child, but now as a woman in her thirties, she had earned, or perhaps learned, attachment security; she had a supportive partner and a young daughter. Our sessions provided the space to talk about what she didn’t get from her mother, at the table and beyond. And what she could not give to her mother, because she could not truly be her mother’s sole happiness provider; it wasn’t her job. Along the way it had felt like burden to carry. A cross to bear. A bowl of dysthymic lentils to drudge through.

In our sessions, my client and I didn’t set out to explicitly pursue her happiness. We had conversations about it, which involved counting her burdens; she expressed how she felt and we talked about what those experiences were like for her. It wasn’t unhappy work, it was meaning-making work. So along the way we found some blessings, and possibilities and pleasures, especially for her as a mother. These sometimes came in the unlikeliest of places: ‘We go to McDonald’s every week. It’s her Saturday evening treat! I make sure she has a happy meal. Lockdown means we have to eat in the car, but it’s cosy.’ Sometimes you can be over the moon under the stars in a drive-thru McDonald’s.

My recipe for happy yellow split pea soup was inspired by this story.

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