It’s generally an accepted truth that raising human beings is a pretty complicated task. I mean, people understand that even if they’ve never had kids, and even if they’ve never wanted to have kids (maybe especially if they’ve never wanted to have kids). But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from becoming a mom, it’s that even when you go into parenthood thinking it’ll be hard, you’re still underestimating it. Because on top of all of the stuff you know about — the sleep deprivation and the tantrums and the fact that you have to hide in the bathroom to eat chocolate you don’t want to share — is the reality that all of your personal emotional baggage follows you into parenthood and promptly unloads itself when you least expect it. For me, that happens at the dinner table. Raising kids has forced me to confront my own issues about food — issues that, honestly, I didn’t even realize that I really had before I became a mom. But now that my 3-year-old twins are entering into picky eating territory, dealing with my own beliefs about food has been much harder than I ever expected.
One thing that toddler moms know that new moms don’t is that you actually have no idea whether your kid is a good eater until they’re 2 or 3 and decide that they don’t actually want to eat anything but toast and Goldfish crackers. The same children who were once eating kale and avocados and vegetarian sushi now refuse to even try anything that isn’t beige, and it is maddening. Even worse is that the little infants who you insisted would never have sugar or watch TV are now demanding to eat cookies while they watch Caillou. I mean, how did this happen?
I reward myself with food, and I berate myself with it too. Each time I eat to fill a void, I regret it, and I vow I’ll never do it again. Except I do. I always do.
Even though I know that it’s not at all a unique situation to have kids who have become picky eaters with a taste for junk food, I’m surprised at how horribly guilty I feel about it. I think I’m generally a loving mom who tries really hard to do right by her children, and I believe strongly in the importance of modeling good behavior — which, in theory, includes healthy eating. But now that my kids are pushing back, I feel completely clueless about what I should do. The truth is that now that my kids actually need a role model, I’m realizing that I don’t know the first thing about how to help my kids build healthy relationships with food, because my relationship with food is really messed up.
Most of the time, I don’t eat because I’m hungry or require nourishment — I eat because I’m sad, or happy, or bored, or because whatever's in front of me just looks really good. Maybe someone mentioned pie in a conversation and then I decided that sounds like a good idea. Maybe I’ve got a deadline I’ve been putting off, and taking a few trips to the kitchen seems like a good way to kill some time. I reward myself with food, and I berate myself with it too. Each time I eat to fill a void, I regret it, and I vow I’ll never do it again. Except I do. I always do.
I joke about it with my husband, and completely avoid ever discussing it with anyone else other than a few close friends, because what I’m really thinking — the part I never say out loud — is, “I really hope my kids don’t turn out like me.”
I look at my son and daughter, who are small for their age — in only the 25 and third percentiles for height and weight, respectively — and I secretly obsess about what their bodies look like. Are they going to be short because I didn’t feed them properly for optimal growth? They’re skinny now, but what if they get fat because I didn’t teach them about moderation? What if I’m not being strict enough about treats or dessert, or insisting that they “take one more bite” or finish their dinner?
I look at my son and daughter, who are small for their age — in only the 25 and third percentiles for height and weight, respectively — and I secretly obsess about what their bodies look like. Are they going to be short because I didn’t feed them properly for optimal growth? They’re skinny now, but what if they get fat because I didn’t teach them about moderation? What if I’m not being strict enough about treats or dessert, or insisting that they “take one more bite” or finish their dinner? But if I’m strict, will they refuse to eat well on principle, wanting even more the things they think they “shouldn’t” have?
Most nights, I try to make us all a reasonably healthy meal that will fall somewhere in between what I want them to eat and what they want to eat. I try to give them some options on their plates for autonomy, but not too many options, because apparently that’s bad, according to some article I read one time on the Internet. I encourage them to be involved in grocery shopping and cooking, and I also attempt to be totally nonchalant about eating when we’re actually at the table (you know, to avoid the power struggles the parenting books tell you to avoid). But most nights I sit and stealthily glance over at my tiny, twig-like daughter, who seems to subsist on cereal and air, and see that, once again, she’s decided she’s not into trying anything on her plate.
As she pushes her food away, my mind goes blank. What did that parenting expert say? Am I supposed to tell her she has to try something? Or am I supposed to let her decide so that she learns to listen to her hunger cues? I think back to my own mother, who cared so much about what we ate, who always went out of her way to make healthy food sound like the world’s most delicious, amazing delicacy that we would reflexively groan and grumble and turn up our noses. And then she pushes her chair away from the table and announces she’s done.
“OK,” I tell her, in my best NBD voice. “If you get hungry later, your dinner will be here.” But she rarely actually comes back to it.
The irony about parenting is that, if someone had asked pre-baby me about how to handle this situation, I would have totally scoffed. It’s just food, I’d have said. She’s not going to starve. But it doesn’t actually feel like just food now, and it’s not about starving or not starving. It’s about realizing the parts of myself that are secret and shameful — the part of me that knows it’s my own fault if my jeans are tight because I allowed myself to binge on leftover birthday cheesecake after reasoning that I’d had a hard day — and hoping that my children will never have to experience how it feels to have the kind of body you learn you’re supposed to be embarrassed of.
I try to remind myself though that, even with all this blown-way-out-of-proportion inner turmoil happening in my own head at meal times, my kids probably have zero clue about any of it. They probably don’t think there’s anything wrong with mom, and they are probably going through the same, totally common, picky-eating stuff that pretty much every child ever has also gone through. And I also know that who they are — and how they feel about themselves — matters so much more than what they might end up looking like one day. Short or tall or fat or skinny, it won’t be a reflection of their own character, just as it isn’t a reflection of anyone else’s.
But I still hope they figure it out. And if they do, it probably won’t be because of me.