When I was first pregnant with Melby, awash in the worry that I would definitely infect my future child with all of my unresolved issues (and trying frantically to solve them in a flurry of therapy appointments), a friend recommended the book, "Parenting from the Inside Out." It hinges around the idea that our childhood/ past directly shapes our own parenting, and while we might coast along through certain stages, once our child reaches a point at which we personally experienced some sort of trauma (or even just have a negative association with that time) that we can be unknowingly triggered and take that out on our own children.
Honestly, I couldn't read it. My brain was too thick with worry already and this seeming insistence that I might unwittingly sabotage my child at some point unless I dealt with my own issues was too overwhelming to me.
But the idea stuck. And it makes sense, clearly.
How do we guide our children through stages or experiences with which we have our own unresolved issues?
I don't think this means to raise a healthy child we have to have it all figured out, but it does mean we need to pay attention, be aware of our triggers so we can head them off with intentionality. And one such arena I knew would be difficult for me, even before Melby was born, was: food.
I have been through the gamut with food. I've restricted, dabbled in bulimia, binged, ate truly atrociously and drank even more, found some moderation, saw a nutritionist, counted calories, been strictly paleo, panicked when I breathed near a refined carb, learned to cook after an ungodly number of years almost exclusively eating out, and now am somewhere in the middle of all of those things. My hard, fast rules are that I do not count anything, ever, ever, and I try to listen to my body. Currently my biggest challenge is that I eat way more treats than I know is good for my mental or physical health. But I'm pretty okay, all things considered. I make a good majority of my food from scratch; I eat tons of vegetables, healthy fats, protein, and fruit; and most importantly, I don't obsess one way or the other. I've said many, many times, that while I was once much more physically "fit," the emotional turmoil that accompanied that: the fixation, the worry, the self-flagellation, the panic was not worth it. Replacing dietary gluttony with the gluttony of obsessive self-control was not any healthier for me.
And while I feel pretty okay now, not necessarily my most shining or balanced or filled with clarity, but pretty okay, I still carry with me that lifetime of food chaos. And decidedly did not want to put that on my daughter. Of that, I was sure.
How to go about it was another issue altogether.
Early on, Nic and I had agreed we wanted to feed Melby only veggies, fruits, fats, and protein. We skipped any and all refined sugar, dairy, and grains. Like many babies, she was in love with food. She'd sit down and devour sautéed mushrooms and zucchini, blueberries, avocado, and an entire scrambled egg for breakfast.
The early eater is such an easy invitation to congratulate oneself on their (premature) successes as a parent. While I know not all babies like or are even remotely interested in food, if they're going to be into it at all, it is easiest when they don't know enough to ask for something else, see the crackers on another kid's plate, succumb to the allure of crappy packaging in stores, know the significance of the crinkle of cellophane, or throw a tantrum/ hold out for some preferred flavor.
As I remind myself often, I don't have anything figured out as a mom. Whatever I think I have conquered, checked off, or succeeded in could just as easily be undone entirely at some unexpected future juncture so I am learning to keep my goddamn mouth shut.
Because, yes, our food journey has devolved in certain ways. Or expanded, or however you choose to look at it. What's important is: Melby tasted ice cream for the first time last week. She eats all the grains now. She enjoys a weirdly stinky cheese now and again. Pretty much everything is on the proverbial and literal table these days, and, while I feel okay about that, I still feel worried about her personal relationship with food. Because she's a kid! And she has taste buds. And she will still eat cucumbers and peppers and all the other veggies I sneak into eggs, but she has a clear preference for refined carbs and cheese and, dear me, that ice cream, and, while I can control myself, I have some deep fear of not being able to control her.
And here's my big moment...
I cannot control my daughter. I could fiercely insist she not eat anything that somehow landed on my "no" list until the end of time. It could "work" for every second that I'm with her. But at some point, I won't be with her. Snacks will be served at school, friends will trade lunch box items, one day she'll have her own money, make her own choices and... what then? Surely, it seems, if I could manage it that long for her, delay the onslaught of culinary horrors that are everywhere, it would be that much better for her?
But also no. Because, as I realize for myself, again and again, the more restricted a person is, the more they crave whatever is restricted. It's an attitude, a language. No one likes being told no. NO increases the allure, cultivates an obsession.
If I spent 7 years telling my kid sugar is "bad," and then one day she had sugar and it was the most delicious thing she'd ever tasted, what would she think of all the things I told her? My guess is, she'll think, "My mom is full of shit" and go ham on all the sugar she can get her hands on.
This is a very long way to say, while up until this point we have still really focused on nutrient dense food, I've also conceded that including a full array of options is probably healthiest for my girl. And, honestly, easiest, because I am eating those things myself.
And I felt okay about that, and still... Melby was obsessed with food. I cannot tell you how many moms' groups I posted in, how many mom moms I talked to, how many friends I complained to: this kid will literally not stop asking for food. She was predominantly obsessed with "bars." Bars, for the most part, are Larabars or knock-off versions of them. Whole 30 approved? Sure. But she'd eat one, and then immediately ask for another. The bar dragon was never tamed.
And it became a thing. Every time we'd leave the gym, from the moment she saw me, she'd start screaming for snacks. For bars. Sometimes, if she asked in a reasonable way from the get go, or if I had something I really, really needed to get done and just didn't want to fight the battle, I'd give her a bar or a snack container full of chopped apples, and it would buy me some time. But most of the time, as soon as she was done, she'd demand more. And I would feel like I was losing my fucking mind. Most days, she just screamed at me, and I held out, unwilling to allow her angry tyranny to be the avenue through which she got what she wanted.
But none of it felt easy or clear for me. I rationalized why she would or wouldn't be so hungry, why she did or didn't need yet another bar. I felt, honestly, as out of control as I do when I tackle my own food issues. Like there were just too many factors at play, too many emotional and physical elements I couldn't possibly suss out, like the "right" decision was impossible.
I didn't ever want her to feel deprived or ignored. I wanted to respect her growing use of language, her desire to communicate, so much of which hinges around asking for something and being understood, illicing a desired response. I also want her to eat well, to get enough nutrients, to thrive. Mostly, I just didn't want her to be obsessed with food.
And she was obsessed. We were both obsessed. I felt totally unhinged.
Then one day, I had a revelation. It came from bits and pieces of many things I'd read, many things people had told me, many things I'd experienced personally with Melby, many things I actually already knew, but it was just that particular day that it all came together for me to make sense.
Melby was asking less for food and more for clarity on what to expect. Sometimes I'd hand her a bar in the car, sometimes I wouldn't. Sometimes I was tired and would conceded to letting her munch on veggie straws all day, and sometimes I'd lay down the law about snacking. How was she to know the difference?
Also (this came mostly from my reading), kids, just like adults, can often be eating literally all day but still not actually be satiated or full. Our bodies require a balance of carbs, protein, and fat to survive and just grazing on salty bits of compacted air all day would not sustain her. I was getting emotional about it all; Melby felt that and was getting emotional about it in return.
Basically, I was doing everything wrong and I was creating my own problem.
So I took the advice of most experts and landed on a 3 meal, 2 snack a day plan, which, most importantly, took place at a table and included an array of elements (instead of maybe just a bar or just crackers), including those big time desired ones. Bars included, cheese and crackers included, blueberry crumble bars included. That doesn't mean that each sitting involved one of those things; I think the most salient point in all of this that I unearthed is, I'm still the boss. I choose what's served. But giving Melby some say in it lessens the drama between us. And the sitting, I think, clarified that this is the time we eat food and not every single second in between.
And what more so eliminated the drama? Talking about it. Or not talking about it, rather. Not talking about any aspect of it whatsoever. Food is food. It is not a value judgment, a reward, or an evil villain. If she wanted more berries, I said sure. If she didn't touch a single vegetable, I said nothing. If she didn't eat anything at all, I said nothing. I didn't chastise her, warn her, coax her into eating bites, offer some special alternate food if she ate the bites I wanted her to eat, none of it. The food was on the plate; we talked, we ate, we cleared our plates.
And I will be damned if, two weeks later, she doesn't scream for bars when we get in the car. She DOESN'T SCREAM FOR BARS, PEOPLE.
I will not pretend this has solved all of our issues. She gets frantic for food sometimes or some particular thing she wants, though that's pretty consistent with where she is developmentally in other ways. She does ask for bars sometimes. Some days she only eats the bread, crackers, and then rice off her plate. But the drama has lessened considerably. And I am beyond relieved.
I didn't go too much into my revelation, but I think, in essence, it is this: we can't control our kids. We certainly select elements of their environment and experience, but the shit that exists, exists. The less focus we put on creating a scale of value surrounding that, the better. The less attention we give to each exact moment of our child's relationship with food (or toothbrushing or sleep or wearing clothes that are not just capes and socks or whatever), the better. Because they're struggling for autonomy and the more they feel us struggling against them, the more they retaliate.
I am not saying let them go hog wild and do whatever they want. I am saying find a consistent routine that allows them to know what to expect and then minimize the drama and conversation within that. Melby wanted some control over her food experience. So ultimately I took actually more control but then loosened the reins within that paradigm.
I am 100% positive this journey is not over, that I still know basically nothing, that new challenges are just around the corner. But for this small moment in time, I actually feel really good about where we are. Like both of us are a little less obsessed, a little happier with a predictable plan, a little more in control because no one's actually trying too hard to control anything at all.
I cannot wait to meet this new baby, because I feel assured she will challenge me in some totally different, likely even more challenging, way. Because that's what parenting turns out to be. An opportunity to face our own unresolved issues, to maybe begin to solve them, to breathe through it. It is not easy. It's not natural for me. It doesn't really feel effortless, ever. But at the end of the day, I'm so grateful for it, for the insistence that I grow, learn, change. This time I can't just put down the book. I've got to face it. So here I go, one step or bar at a time.