Welcome to “How I Stay Sane,” a weekly column where real dads talk about the things they do for themselves that help them keep grounded in all the other areas of their life — especially the parenting part. It’s easy to feel strung-out as a parent, but the dads we feature all recognize that, unless they regularly take care of themselves, the parenting part of their life will get a lot harder. The benefits of having that one “thing” are enormous. For Mark Nolan, a 30-year-old husband and father of one from Malden, Massachusetts, that thing is cooking. He loves cooking because the end result makes his family happy. But he also does it because it allows him a rare pocket of time to de-stress.
Cooking is, for sure, an act of love. I’ve been cooking seriously for a few years. For a while, when it was just me and my girlfriend, who became my fiance and then wife, it was more of an unplanned affair. I’d be like: “Okay, I’m making dinner tonight. What do we have? What can I make as quickly as possible?”
But now, just with everything that’s going on and having a son, it’s nice to set aside some time and actually plan our meals. By necessity, I have to be more purposeful with my grocery trips and with the time I can spend away. I cook probably three or four nights out of the work week — and every night, that’s 20 minutes to an hour to myself, to decompress from the day.
Cooking can be meditative. Part of why it’s so good for me is that I’m creating something, and there’s an element of creativity going on there. It’s also something that’s active and that I can do any season. Unlike the rest of my day, it’s also a rare time when I’m really not staring at a screen. My eyes can rest. It’s a combination of a few things that help my brain disconnect from the workday.
I don’t do any yoga or meditation or anything. Cooking is my mental break. Sometimes when I’m cooking, I’m ruminating on whatever’s on my mind. It’s the one point during the day where I’m able to just kind of stop and think back about my previous day, or think to the future, think about what I’m going to be doing tomorrow or that weekend. It’s one of the few things that allows me to just kind of react to my day at that point.
I think I prefer being alone in my prep space in the kitchen more than anything. I never feel the need for a sous chef. Everything I do is in my head, and I never follow any recipe to a T. I’m also admittedly not good at getting help or asking my wife to help me chop veggies. I like having my own corner in the kitchen. The kitchen isn’t a closed door space; sometimes, even, if I’m not deep-frying anything or cooking anything that splatters, I’ll strap my son onto me and he’ll watch me cook. But it is mostly my time. It’s the space where I just get to think and unwind.
I’m not kidding myself that I could go work in a restaurant tomorrow or anything. I just enjoy the sensory experience of cooking. The smells, the sounds, the sights. And I am very satisfied with my final product more often than not. I love sitting down with the food and my family. It’s like I said: cooking is for sure an act of love, but it’s also where I decompress. It’s my space, and my time, whatever little of it I have.