They say that when you’re anxious, repetitive movements such as walking, or swimming will help. For mother and author Elizabeth Hewson, relief came in the repetitive motion of kneading pasta.
This ritual started way before she became a mother, and now, she finds even more solace in pasta making, and has written a book called Saturday Night Pasta about her passion for pasta making (which, as you can probably tell, began on Saturday nights) and how she learnt about self-care through the humble act of making pasta. She teaches us that just like the practice of meditation, making pasta by hand is a way of achieving self-discovery and mindfulness. The book features delicious recipes and also self-care rituals “for the home cook”.
Here, we catch up with Elizbeth to talk about her new book, her motherhood journey and what living with anxiety looks like.
When did you first start experiencing anxiety and how did you deal with it?
I’ve always experienced anxiety, which is most often brought on when I’m stressed – and I stress about a lot of things! I’ll run through situations in my head and even though they could be so unrealistic, I’ll spend time going over and over every possible scenario. That’s what anxious people do – they think too much in the past or in the future, not in the present.
When I started working, I really started to feel the effects of anxiety. For a long time, my sense of self was based on my productivity, my performance and, probably most damaging, how others perceived me. It wasn’t until I went through a particularly stressful situation a few years ago that I realised I needed to find something to help me manage it.
A period of anxiety that I will always remember led me to the mother of all meltdowns. I had a terrible day – one of those days where everything goes wrong. My anxiety levels were high, I had been riding the wave now for a few months. I decided that I needed comfort and wanted to roast a chook for dinner – not for the chicken itself but for the roasting juices that I would toss through some eggy pasta, a dish that’s inspired by the famed bolito misto and agnolotti del plin, two dishes tied to Piedmont, my Italian home for a year. By the time I left work, the butcher was closed, so I drove past the supermarket to pick up a chicken. I wanted to cut the chicken up to speed up the cooking process, as I knew it wasn’t ideal to start roasting a chook at 7:30 pm. I cut down the backbone of the chook easily enough, flipped the bird over and pressed down hard until I heard the rib cage crack. I then reached for my blunt kitchen scissors and disaster struck. I hit bone and spent the next five minutes hacking at the poor bird, stamping my feet and huffing and puffing. Sweat started to form and I could feel a wave of emotion come over me. A tear ran down my face. My husband Tom peered into the kitchen to see what all the commotion was about and that was it. It was over. I hit the floor and cried, like an emotionally disturbed child. Poor Tom had no idea what was going on and tried, lovingly, to reassure me that it was just a chicken. Naturally, through my tears and short breaths, I blamed the supermarket chook and the blunt scissors for being so tough and stupid. He nodded away and agreed with me, like only someone that really loves you can do. He picked me up off the floor and packed up the chicken to cook another night. That night we got takeaway and ate on the couch. It was the moment that I realised I needed to start searching for a coping mechanism. It was a few weeks later – when I was home alone – that I reached for the flour and eggs and made pasta for the first time, and found that release.
You’ve spoken about how anxiety can mean analysing every comment – when you’re doing this, how do you calm down?
I think when you suffer from anxiety the most important thing to do is acknowledge it. I don’t think my anxiety will ever go away, it’s part of me, but it’s about learning how to manage it. Identifying it when it starts to creep in. The ironic thing about my book is that I started making pasta as a way to cope with my anxiety and now I’m so nervous and anxious about having my book/self-care ritual out in the big wide world. The difference is that I can recognise it’s my anxiety. I’m a visual person, so I visualise those thoughts coming at me and then I bat them away (in my mind it’s with a cricket bat). And of course, there is always lots of pasta-making to knead away those stresses.
You lived and studied in Italy – tell me about your Italian adventure?
I’ve always felt a strong connection to Italy – its soul, warmth and traditions – and it was a culture I wanted to immerse myself in. I discovered a master’s degree in Food Culture & Communication in Piedmont. It was just the thing I was looking for – to deepen my knowledge and to experience Italian life. I saved up and moved there for a year, living in a small town called Bra in northwest Italy.
The course was comprehensive, exploring and studying food through multiple lenses. We shared ideas, recipes, food – cooking meals for each other from our own cultures. We went to aperitivo every night. We embraced seasonality and simplicity in food. And then there was the pasta. I discovered the magic of pasta from scenes of nonne hand-making piles of agnolotti, the range of fresh pastas available at every supermarket and the endless bowls I devoured at the local osterie. There was a pasta for every occasion, every moment, every feeling. It was an incredible experience.
Tell me how you learnt to knead pasta? And tell me why it’s therapeutic?
I learnt by watching people and reading recipes. To be honest I don’t think you can be bad at kneading either – it’s really just pushing, squishing, squeezing and maybe a little rolling, all with a firm hand. I can’t really emphasise enough the benefits of challenging a crappy week, a bad break-up, a broken heart or a frustrating conversation into the kneading of dough. I think it’s rather like punching a boxing bag.
Can you share your birth story?
All throughout my pregnancy, and actually before I was even pregnant, I was terrified of labour as I do not have a good pain threshold. But then in the months leading up to Louis’ birth I had mentally psyched myself up to be ready to (attempt) to take on childbirth. At 36 weeks I was told he was footling breech (the rarest type of breech – feet down) so I would need to have a C-section. In the position he was in, there was no way he would turn. It was strange to shift mental gears. I was given my surgery date one week before his birth – they took me right up to 39 weeks. It was very surreal. I didn’t sleep the night before as I was so anxious. It wasn’t the surgery, it was knowing that my life was going to change at 10 am the next day. I don’t think I had really given myself time to think about it up until then. As they wheeled me in, they said, ‘It won’t hurt, it just feels like someone is rummaging through a handbag.’ It took 10 minutes and there he was on my chest. I watched the whole thing as the light above me was so reflective. And then, just like that, the doctors were stitching me up, discussing panic buying and how they couldn’t buy dry pasta at their local supermarket.
You’ve said that you weren’t prepared for the adjustment of motherhood – tell me more about your experience with motherhood?
It’s true what they say about becoming a mother for the first time; having Louis completely turned my world upside down. You are instantly changed, in a process that happens almost against your will. Louis was born three days before lockdown. There were no visitors allowed in the hospital except for my husband, Tom. All the classes and at-home midwife visits were cancelled. There were no mothers’ groups, nor could friends visit and impart their wisdom. And not having my parents or Tom’s parents around to help was tough. I had no idea what I was doing and, to be honest, I think I had been in denial about the whole thing. I wasn’t prepared for the adjustment – the rollercoaster that lay ahead. Going from a busy, productive and exciting life where I could do what I wanted, whenever I wanted, to the newborn bubble was challenging. Those newborn weeks are relentless and lonely, a kind of loneliness that I had never experienced before. It felt like I was stuck in this tunnel and I couldn’t see any light ahead. I didn’t feel like myself.
I don’t want to say it gets easier; I just think you get more confident. It took me a while to accept my new life, my new role, but now I couldn’t love it more.
How have you managed your anxiety since Louis was born?
Tom was a wonderful support and we got through it together. He took the morning shift and that allowed me a few hours of solid sleep before I started the day. I’m not a day napper so those hours between 5–7 am became really important for my mental health. I’m a list writer, so I would write a list of things I wanted to achieve that day – even ‘to shower’ featured. It felt good to be able to cross things off, no matter how small the task. If you’re a list writer, you’ll know the satisfaction that comes with drawing a big black line through a task.
I also turned to cooking and my SNP ritual. People would say, ‘Ohhh, I can’t believe you’re making pasta with a newborn, you’re amazing!’. It wasn’t that at all – it was the complete opposite – but it was one of the things that made me feel more like myself so I made time for it, even if it was broken up into stages.
How are the nights going - any tips for dealing with sleep deprivation?
Last week we had our first full week of sleeping through (7 pm– 5:30/6 am) and I feel like a new woman. Louis is 7 months – prior to that it was tough, especially because it felt like every new mum I met on the street had their baby ‘sleeping through’.
I found it very difficult to deal with sleep deprivation and I don’t think you can really prepare yourself – it’s emotionally and physically demanding. And definitely not a good mix for someone experiencing anxiety. I’m not good at napping during the day, especially as I was working on the book. I wanted to be productive with every spare minute I had, which only created more anxiety. I also found falling back to sleep after a night feed or settle tough as I had so many thoughts swimming around, trying to analyse why Louis had woken (FYI, you’ll go insane trying to figure it out).
The best tip I can give is that everything is a phase. Babies move through life at lightning speed, and just when you start to get a handle on things, they change (let’s hope his night sleeping sticks though). During those late-night settles I would repeat the words ‘this too shall pass, this too shall pass’ and it did bring a sense of comfort.
What are your new mum essentials?
Those towel ‘nappies’ from Target or Kmart that I use as spew rags. The most comfortable clothes you can find – for me, I lived in Lorna Jane tights and an oversized linen shirt (and still do). A face spray for a late night or early morning spritz to remind you that you are, in fact, awake and this is reality. And organising some time just for yourself – whether that’s your partner or a friend taking the baby so you can do something you love, like a walk around the block, cooking, bathing, going for a coffee alone in a cafe, or even driving around your neighbourhood with the music blasting.
What are your time management tips – how do you get everything done?
I don’t – but I’ve learnt to accept that I can’t be as productive as I use to be. My expectations of myself and my days have shifted. When Louis sleeps, I’ll work, and then when he’s awake I’ll try and be as focused on him as I can be – there’s no use trying to do two things at once with a baby. It doesn’t work, believe me. A friend told me early on to plan one thing a day and no more. So, I’ve adopted that philosophy for our outings, be that a coffee with a friend or going to the shops.
Tell me about the process of writing your new book?
It took a lot of discipline. I wrote it when I was pregnant and working full-time, but I loved the whole process so it never felt arduous. And because Saturday Night Pasta was something I was living, it poured out of me. We shot the book when I was 33 weeks pregnant in the height of summer – and then shot the cover and lifestyle shots 6 weeks after having Louis. I’m not comfortable having my photo taken at the best of times, and paired with having a newborn baby and not feeling great, there was a lot of anxiety leading up to it. Nikki To, the book photographer, also happens to be a great friend so we took our time and she made it all feel very relaxed. Tom took the day off to look after Louis (I would stop for breastfeeding breaks) so I could focus on making pasta.
The book came back from the editor after I had Louis, and while it could be tough finding the time to get to it, I also found it an enjoyable distraction and creative outlet. The publishers gave me a nice long timeline for this stage – they understood as they are mother’s themselves! It was nice to have something else to think about.
What do you hope people will take away from your book?
I’d like for it to empower people to have a go at making pasta, which doesn’t have the same pressures of, say, bread-making or baking desserts. This is joyful cooking that’s really about the process. Sure it might not be perfect pasta, but it means something because you’ve made it with your own two hands. That in itself makes it the best pasta in the world. I also want to encourage people to establish their own self-care ritual. It doesn’t need to be yoga or meditation, you can find mindfulness from a lot of different things. It’s about finding something that you enjoy and that you can absorb yourself in, carve out a little time for yourself. Pasta is good for that because you do focus in the moment. And it just so happens that there is a delicious reward – a soul-restoring bowl of pasta.