Sunday, April 13, 2008


When Connor was born I began to understand my parents' anxiety over my appetite and eating. There was such pleasure in having a child who nursed so avidly, and then when he later started solids had such a flexible appetite, such gusto.

I took full credit for this, me and my superior parenting.

Then at about 18 months the tables turned and his impressive list of loved foods began to shrink. Soon we were down to 'acceptable' foods, and that list shrank too. Before long we were down to what could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

My dear friend Estelle and I were talking just the other day about the heavy layer of judgment that surrounds eating, particularly the food intake of one's offspring. Estelle told a story of a friend who'd just discovered that her stepson had fathered a child before he tragically died. They found the child and her mother. Estelle said, "The first thing Trudy said about her granddaughter was, 'her mother feeds her too much sugar!' "

Now I no longer basked in the pleasure of my baby's voracious appetite, and in addition I had to deal with the anxiety of the extended family. My MIL knew better than to say this to me but that didn't stop her from reminding Gary that he and his brother had been huge eaters and liked everything. Fortunately by then we were living in St. Louis, 2400 miles away and I could easily ignore her. Gary was more difficult to manage because as he was stabbed by anxiety he passed the jabs onto me.

The trouble is, the jabs were telling me, in urgent terms, to DO something. And my problem was, there wasn't really anything I could do. There are many things I can make my son, or anyone else do. But, it's kind of a futile endeavor to try to make somebody like something.

So it was annoying to keep getting pressed to do something that is not possible to do. I tried a few tricks that I learned from the good mothers at the La Leche League: I tried hiding fiber in muffins by blending in zucchini, or spinach to batters; I tried sneaking in cheeses, tofus. For a while I pressed the 'one taste' rule, which mandates that a child has to taste something, and if he doesn't like it doesn't have to eat any more. Still the bad will that developed around that particular power struggle (they ALL became power struggles) did not set a favorable stage for liking whatever was proffered and seemed self defeating so I abandoned that too. Finally, I fell back on some sympathetic friends' words of wisdom--it's not likely he's going to starve himself. I listened to some parenting mentors (they had older children) kindly tell me that for a year their child had eaten only cheerios. I broadened my view to include nutrients taken in over a week instead of in a day (since then I've broadened it further to a month). And most of all, I looked at him. He was active, energetic, happy (for the most part). He did not look emaciated. I concluded that maybe he was pulling nutrients out of the air, a miracle, but his small appetite did not seem to be hurting him any.

Lastly, I remembered my own experience. I'd been a picky eater, in a time when parents measured their success as parents on their ability to control their children. So I was doomed to sitting at the dinner table for hours after the others had left. I came up with tricks to get food down. I'd cut it up into tiny pieces and swallow it whole in gulps of milk, or other foods that were more palatable to me. Alternately I'd try to give the appearance of having eaten by cutting food up into tiny pieces and spreading it around my plate and dropping a napkin over the whole mess. I was further doomed because my mother was not a good cook. I didn't realize this til I was a lot older. So there were a lot of years where the whole tone of my day at school was influenced by what I knew was going to be served at dinner that night.

The point is, I am a very adventurous and flexible eater today. And this had nothing to do with being forced as a child. I remember clearly a period where all at once my tastes and taste buds changed. Food that had repelled me before began to seem and taste good. It was a matter of development and had nothing to do with any kind of morality.

Armed with this information I withstood the forces that put such irrational importance on what a child puts in its mouth. I'm ever mindful though of the laughing-last-laughing-best aphorism, so I'm not too triumphalist about this. Especially since last summer at his semi-annual ped appointment Connor had dropped from longstanding 50th percentiles in height and weight to 20th. He's among the shortest in his class (though he's young in his class--with a Sept age cut-off in Oregon schools his June birthday puts him among the youngest), and the lightest. He's still quite active, athletic, agile, and prides himself on this. The ped acknowledged that a fall-off from an established curve is cause for attention, but not necessarily alarm. Still, she wasn't alarmed enough to have me bring him in before his next well-child appointment, two years hence.

So, I guess there's still a chance that my laissez-faire pick-your-battles philosophy may come back yet to bite me in the butt and put me at the receiving end of the Old Guards' "I-told-you-so's". Though the Old Guard never did give me any constructive suggestions on how to get someone to like something if they didn't like it already. The Old Guard prefers to force the issue.


Douglas W said...

Oh the joys of feeding young children!

But wait until they are teenagers and want to eat all the junk food that can be found... or when they live with university friends and eat when they feel like it... The main thing is to set a good example... they may ignore it and rebel against it and refuse to follow your advice for periods of time... but in the end they will remember.

My son moved into an apartment with his girlfriend last year... they are both at university... and the first thing he asked for as a Christmas gift was "a really good cook book that explains all the nutitional basics of good cooking".

I think it has been years since he even wanted to go near a Macdonalds.

Thank you Debora for including the link to my Pages from Lost Notebooks on your web site!!

excavator said...

My apologies, Doug, for getting the name of your web site wrong! Geez, how's that for journalistic integrity--note to self: "*check facts*!"

And, you're welcome.

The kid eating thing has perplexed me as accruing to itself far more importance than it's merited. There have been a number of those areas that I've noted since becoming a parent--a lot of heat and debate generated but toward negligible ends. I've also noted that a lot of things swing, independently of anything I've done, so they make choices I'd have wanted them to anyway, so it makes sense to save my energy for the Big Stuff. Your son's example is helpful; I really do appreciate the experience of parents who've already been through the stages I'm at.

Do your children read your blog?

Douglas W said...

Hi. "Pictures" is just as good as "Pages" - they both get lost and forgotten at times.

I did tell my children I was starting a blog when I first started but I don't think they have looked at it since it became so extensive as it is now. I must remind them that it's there. A good way to communicate as ben is soon moving toa country city about 100km from here, his next older sister is in Brisbane 2000km from here, and the eldest sister is in Hamilton about 300km west of Melbourne.