When my first daughter was brought to me, pink and hot and smelling like something elemental and metallic, I could hardly believe how thrilled I was to see that she was a girl. It turned out that I’d wanted a girl more than I’d been willing to say. I loved everything about it: choosing her name, buying her cute clothes, and saying the word “daughter.” I assume I would have felt the same way about a boy, once I saw him, but I never got that chance. I have two daughters, defying my pregnant instincts and imagination both times.
The truth was that I was afraid of one monumental thing when it came to parenting daughters: screwing up their relationship with food.
Like many western women, I grew up with a complicated relationship to food. I had diet-obsessed parents, constantly vilifying one food after another until I had a list in my head of good foods and bad foods that I could recite for you at the drop of a hat. There was danger lurking in every cabinet of my home. Fat was bad in the 1980s, and carbs were bad in the 1990s. Salad was good without dressing, until we learned about vitamins being fat-soluble, and then a little bit of oil and vinegar was pronounced safe. Baked potatoes were good, but french fries were not only bad for one’s weight but also for one’s skin. Dessert was always bad, except for the occasional Weight-Watchers frozen single-serving cake. Fruit was good, but mostly grapes and apples; oranges had too much sugar. Cherries were somehow fattening, a statement which, when I mentioned it decades later to my in-laws, caused them to stare at me with their eyes squinted and their heads cocked to the side.
At my bridal shower, one my mother’s friends even said that everyone knew my mother’s motto was that “less is more” when it came to food, so they only served salads.
I had rules upon rules upon rules in my head about food, something which we all have to eat every day. Making a decision about what to eat was always hard. When I had two — TWO! — daughters, I refused to do this to them. Somehow, I had to stop this cascade of crazy around food.
For my older daughter, I started her on fruits and cereals, then vegetables. She was thrilled about every single thing I gave her, including olives, pears, refried beans, and pickles. One day when she was just over a year old, we were at a restaurant eating lunch, and I’d picked the raw onion off my sandwich and set it on the side of my plate. Before I could register what was happening, she’d snaked her hand out and snatched the long strings of white onion and was putting them in her mouth. She grinned at me, and ate them all while my husband and I laughed. I vowed to continue following her lead on food, and it was rewarding and healing to see her follow her instincts. Breastfeeding her on demand for almost two years also gave me the beautiful gift of seeing how food and emotions can be a good combination; eating and love merged as she lay in my lap and stared at me while she nursed.
And then my second daughter was born, and if you’ve read my blog, you know that it was the perfect illustration of the old Yiddish saying der mentsh trakht un Got lakht — “men try and G-d laughs.”
My little one went through one problem after another with food, from being unable to swallow solid food as a baby, to being tortured with terrible reflux; to being misdiagnosed with a disorder that required treatment with a dairy, egg, soy, nut, and wheat-free diet; to having a chyle duct nicked during cardiac surgery and being forced to eat a fat-free diet while she recovered. All in all, she’s spent some portion of her life unable to eat some combination of acidic foods, dairy, soy, egg, nuts, wheat, and fat, and we have always been vegetarians.
And I was hoping to simplify my children’s relationship to food?!
In the end, I’ll never know if I’ve been successful. The only thing I knew how to do was to be honest with them about everything. “These foods aren’t bad,” I kept saying. “This diet is just something we need to try for now, to see if it makes your esophagus better.” I made sure that my older daughter never felt guilty for eating the foods her sister couldn’t, even if we tried to make things easier by not eating them in front of her. We talked about all foods that we loved with equal fervor: how wonderful fresh, warm peaches tasted; how matzo ball soup is the best thing for a cold; how chocolate chip cookies are my favorite food; how our friend Amy’s grilled tofu is the best summer dinner; how a big hearty salad was just the thing to go with our fresh challah on Friday nights; how carrots are amazing because they taste great raw and cooked. I tried not to demonize foods or declare anything to be perfect.
I fail at this project sometimes, and I do distinguish between junk and healthier choices, but none of my “healthier choices” are healthier because they are low in calories. They may be low in chemicals; they may be higher in fiber for my simple-carb loving kid, or higher in protein density for my more athletic kid. They may be bright colors for my kid who prefers beige food, or they might just be something already ready-to-go for our busier days, but I try very hard not to declare anything to be an outright poison. Everything in my kitchen is safe in moderation.
This morning, they both ate sugary cereal for breakfast. In their lunches, one of them took a bagel and cream cheese, an apple, a package of seasoned and roasted seaweed, and a tiny container of chocolate chips. The other one took a yogurt, some cheese crackers, two clementines, and two miniature candy bars left over from Halloween. Most nights, dinner is something I make myself, from whole ingredients and without much thought to carbohydrate or fat content; last night, it was takeout pizza.
I’m still terrified that someday, one of them will wage war on their bodies using food as a weapon. I’m more careful than, perhaps, I should be about that, but I refuse to watch anyone I love as fiercely as I love these girls see their parents’ deprivation as an example to set for themselves. If they learn it somewhere, it won’t be from me.