By Jordan E. Rosenfeld
When my child won’t eat, I feel like I’ve failed my most basic job as a mother.
I slid the pizza in front of my 6-year-old who eyed it suspiciously. It was softer than usual, not as cheesy—a gluten free version I’d had in the freezer for a while, but that doesn’t usually bother my pizza-obsessed child. He took one tiny bite then clutched his gut as though something were stabbing him from the inside.
“Oh, my stomach hurts so much.”
It was the fourth night in a row he’d complained of a mysterious and sudden stomach ache at precisely the moment he was expected to do something he didn’t want to do, including eat this dinner. He does not have a medical condition, or any food allergies; the stomach ache is his inarguable go-to for any difficult feeling.
The muscles in my jaw went rigid, my neck tightened with indignation. It’s not uncommon for me to make three meals in my three-person household—that big no-no in all the parenting books. If cooking for one, I’d probably live on steamed veggies and cheese. My husband and son, however, eat from the school of carbs and cheese. And here I’d made the thing my child professes to love more than anything else: Okay, it was lackluster, soggy pizza, but still: cheese, bread, sauce!
“My stomach just won’t let me,” my son insisted.
I couldn’t help it, I shot him the glare I usually reserve for public disobedience, and he shrunk beneath its withering weight.
The worst part is, I’ve read the parenting guides—I know that fighting with children over food is pointless, causes them to dig in their heels and creates tension and anxiety around meals that can affect their habits negatively into the future. I don’t want to fight, but something seizes up inside me at the same time, my own inner toddler righteously making a grab for power.
“Well, if your tummy hurts, you should go lie down,” I said curtly.
My son scuttled to the couch, where he prepared to turn on the show he’d been watching just before.
“No TV,” my husband intervened. He’d seen the set of my jaw, the stiffness of my shoulders. “You can read, play, or just lie there.”
I couldn’t even exhale properly. My whole body was livid with frustration. I was shot back to the days of my son’s infancy, when he’d cry me awake in the middle of the night only to refuse the breast, or fall asleep after minutes on one, leaving the other painfully engorged to the point of tears. When my child won’t eat, I feel like I’ve failed my most basic job as a mother.
Perhaps it also taps into a deeper issue, somatically clutched within my very cells from my own childhood: my mother, a drug and alcohol addict until I was 20, recalled in therapy days when, sweating and stuck to the bed with the illness of withdrawal, she could not tend to my most basic toddler needs: to eat. I’ve always been a person who will eat anything, perhaps because I didn’t always know when I would eat again.
My son’s refusal of food felt personal, a rejection of my ability to nourish him, and of the time I spent preparing that meal.
I took a deep breath. I couldn’t look at my son pouting on the couch without that frustration beating inside me. We’ve long had a flexible policy that after dinner if he’s still hungry he can help himself to snacks up to a certain time of night; we aren’t depriving, nor are we overly accommodating. But in truth, I know there’s a part of me as deeply punitive as my stern German grandfather, whose upbringing in a house of six brothers under the rule of a strict Rabbi father, set him up to give his own two sons little slack. Some of that rolled over to me from my own father, preoccupied with healthy eating that bordered on obsessive; he kept a bland, macrobiotic diet and strict mealtimes, ate all organic food long before it was popular or easy to find, and forbade me sugar.
There, staring at my son’s abandoned plate of soggy pizza, I felt my father, and grandfather too, who had lived at subsistence level in a Palestinian kibbutz, rise up inside me. Gripped by the urge to proclaim loudly, “You will not leave this table until you’ve eaten every bite. I would have killed to eat this at your age!”
But I’m not that parent. That’s the parent my husband described from his own torturous dinners. A father who raised his voice to threatening levels, terrorizing his sons into eating what they disliked.
I took as deep a breath as my tight lungs would allow and then released it. I could feel my son shooting me his baleful pout behind my back.
In a calm voice, my husband asked quietly, “What if we just let him get his own dinner? Pull a bunch of snacks onto a plate, so long as he sits with us?”
My inner dictator sneered and snapped its whip—that was too easy, this voice said, tantamount to teaching him that stubbornness wins. But my husband had shared the agony of being forced to eat what you don’t like, under the glare of an angry parent, and had grown up with an aversive relationship to food; I knew I needed to trust him.
What’s more, I have shared sympathy with my son over the way childhood is a time of constant powerlessness—of other people making decisions for you, telling you what to do, where to be and how to do things. And, of course, what to eat. I do remember the days of quivering, sauce-less vegetables my father insisted I eat, and my fixation with the candy at the 7-Eleven always denied to me that I snuck on the sly with stolen change, like a junkie.
“Okay,” I said at last, and forced my shoulders down an inch.
We broached the idea of making his own dinners with our son, whose stomach ache instantly went away. He leaped up from the couch, “Can I make myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?”
“Will you help me?” he asked.
“The idea is that you will make it yourself if you don’t want to eat what I’ve made.”
“You won’t ever help me again?” his eyes filled with sudden tears.
“Of course I’ll still help you sometimes,” I said, softening some. “But tonight, I think you can handle it.”
As he grappled with the recalcitrant peanut butter from the bottle, clumsily slopped globs of jelly on his bread, muttering about how hard it was, I felt my own frustration drain with the leftover jelly down the sink; it’s hard not to be proud of a child’s efforts at self-care.
If I thought this independence was just a phase, however, he has proved me wrong. Even when exhausted after gymnastics class this week, he insisted on making his plate: carrots, salami slices, crackers and strawberries. When he’d filled up, he patted his belly. “I like making my own dinners,” he said. “I like to do things for myself.”
Beneath that swell of motherly pride and relief, I also felt a tug of grief in my throat, a sensation like fabric tearing slightly away from the lining of a jacket; as the mother of an only child, I’m aware more keenly than ever of the preciousness of this transition between interdependence and individuation. I need as much help as he does to foster those skills that will carry him through many more meals, and the rest of his life, without me.
Jordan E. Rosenfeld is a California mother of one, and author of 6 books, most recently: A Writer’s Guide to Persistence. She has written for: AlterNet, DAME, Mom.me, the New York Times, Role/Reboot, and more. www.jordanrosenfeld.net or @JordanRosenfeld on twitter.
Photo Credit: Diana Poulos-Lutz