My daughter pauses on her way to return the jar of honey to the cabinet, angles her body toward the counter, and reaches for her buzzing phone. Absentmindedly, one hand still holding the honey while the other wraps itself around the phone, her gaze travels down to the messages that have come in while we were eating dinner. I wait to see what happens next.
As I suspected, the honey drifts toward the counter, set down as the connection between my eleven-year-old and her new friends from middle school crackles back into existence again. She is absorbed, and I turn back to the sink to finish the dishes. Ten minutes later, I dry the last pot and announce, “Bedtime, kiddo. Up you go.”
“BUT!” she says, loudly, “I was gonna have DESSERT!”
“No time left,” I answer, squeezing her shoulders. “You chose to look at your phone for the last ten minutes. Put the honey away and let’s go upstairs.”
“BUT!” she repeats. “I’m HUNGRY!”
I look at the time and mentally inventory the fridge and pantry for the quickest thing. “There’s no time for regular dessert. You can eat one yogurt squeeze or a handful of blueberries. You have five minutes.”
And then, as she opens the fridge quickly and sighs, I take in her long legs, strong shoulders, and thick hair, and I am grateful for the three hundredth time that five minutes is plenty of time for whichever she chooses. Not so long ago, there would have been neither phone time, nor the choice of fruit, nor the option to begin eating anything with so little time to spare before bedtime.
Not so long ago, my daughter Sammi could barely eat anything in five minutes.
In the summer of 2014, Sammi began to visit a feeding therapist weekly. She had spent the previous eight-and-a-half years with her eating restricted either by a variety of elimination diets or by, as it turned out in the end, the very anatomy of her esophagus. The previous winter, we had discovered that it was shaped roughly like a lightning bolt instead of being the straw-shaped tube the rest of us use to get food from our mouths to our stomachs. After major surgery to correct the problem — and a post-surgical diet while she healed from a complication — we thought she should be able to eat normally for the first time in her life.
Unfortunately, she did not. I fought my frustration at every meal. I wanted Sammi to regain lost ground, catch up on her growth, and, most of all, I just wanted to stop thinking about how much she had eaten in a given day. My head was constantly full of numbers — how much she had eaten at breakfast; how many hours from the time school let out until dinner; how many hours from the beginning of dinner until bedtime; how many pieces of fruit she had eaten versus how much fattier, heartier food; how much she weighed; how many inches she had grown.
How many, how much, how long until she’s a normal kid?
I am certain that my husband thought about this as well. What I can’t know is the extent to which he blamed himself for whatever failings the day brought. I definitely had my own nagging voice telling me I wasn’t doing enough, and a greek chorus of voices in my family reinforcing it.
“Oh, no, don’t get her started eating avocado every day,” a family member told me once. “It’s too much fat. She might be fine now, but some day she’s not going to have this metabolism and she’ll be used to eating like this!”
Another time, after I hassled Sammi for two hours to finish her dinner, she ran off to play. When I called her back later for bedtime, she cried that she was still hungry. I sent her to bed, unable to spend another forty minutes at the table nagging her through another serving. A family member who was visiting pulled me aside and said, “Do you really think it’s right to restrict her food, given everything she’s gone through?”
The worst, though, was the family member who, before her final surgery, argued with me about doctor’s orders. Though we had been vegetarians since before Sammi was born, I’d offered her meat several times during the years just to see if she’d eat it. For better or worse, she didn’t care much for it. In the months before her final surgery, her surgeon told us not to feed her any meat, since it was the food most often responsible for esophageal impaction, when food literally gets stuck in a malfunctioning esophagus. We let our family know not to feed her any meat when they were together.
“But what if it’s cut up very small? Like, ground beef?” one person said.
No, we said. The doctor said no meat at all.
“But that doesn’t make sense,” this family member said. “It wouldn’t be any worse than tofu or something like that.”
She doesn’t even like meat, we answered. We want you to follow the surgeon’s instructions.
In answer, I got an eye roll, a sigh, and a sense that this family member thought I was being ridiculous.
So, for years, I felt constantly unsure of whether I was making the right decisions for Sammi. Feeding therapy took the questions out of my hands entirely. It was my white flag, waved in the air, with me too weary to go on.
And it worked.
Two-and-a-half years later, Sammi’s relationship with food — and my relationship with Sammi — is largely uncomplicated. She now makes her own lunch, that same tortilla with beans and cheese that I made for years, plus cookies and fruit and cheese crackers. I don’t check her lunchbox at the end of the day to see what’s left. Instead, we sit next to each other and talk about her friends, her teachers, her school work. Sometimes, dinner is eaten in front of the TV while we watch something all four of us enjoy, and I seldom look at Sammi’s plate to see how much she’s eaten.
Best of all, at bedtime, she is ready. Her belly is as full as she wants it to be, and there is plenty of time to chat with each other in the dark of her bedroom, where I rest my forehead on hers and think of nothing but how much I loved her today.