Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Picky Eater

Sophia has a thing for pomegranate seeds, which are tart and juicy and about $4.00/box at Trader Joes.  The other day she bit into a seed and looked like she had a epiphany, “MOMMY!  We should plant this and grow our own pomegranate tree!  Then we wouldn’t have to buy them anymore.  We could just pick them and eat them!” 

I love that this occurred to her:  that she knows where her food comes from, that she appreciates this whole food, that she has a desire to produce it herself.  It feels like a battle hard won. 

I am doing my best to teach Sophie to love good food. 

Sophie was a picky eater from day one.  My doctor had warned me that if I delayed solids this might happen.  I will never know if it was because I waited until she was eight months to give her a mushed-up banana, or if its simply in her genes (as new research suggests).  But she started rejecting food as soon as I began introducing it. 

The only thing she loved was carbs.  Carbs in any form:  crunchy crackers, cheerios, slabs of bread.  There is a good reason for this, as your saliva starts to digest carbohydrates they break down into yummy sugars in your mouth. 

I know, like many picky eaters, she could have gone the route of only eating beige test tube products made exclusively of corn, soy and multisyllabic chemicals, so I never let them be a choice.  It’s a slippery slope, I’ve watched many a child luge down.  Instead, I have always offered her the same thing we were eating, making sure there is something familiar and liked as part of the meal.  My rule is you must taste the novel food once, before getting the preferred food.  I don’t care if she spits it out.  I just want her to try.

This has been far from easy.  Dinners often take an hour or more.  Generally, there is a big reaction when Sophie first spies something alien on the table. “THAT’S DISGUSTING!  I’m not eating those!” she hurls in the direction of the brussel sprouts tossed with butter and almonds sitting in a glass bowl.  With great dramatic flair, she falls on the floor and bursts into tears.  I have learned that it is best to say nothing.  To simply proceed with dinner, commenting on how delicious it is.  If Sophia continues tantrum, I give her the option of going to her room or joining us at the table.  Typically she opts for the former. 

If Sophia tantrums in her room and nobody is there to hear it, she generally ceases to make a sound.

Eventually Sophia re-emerges, walking the razor’s edge between compliance and rebellion.  “I’ll sit at the table, but I am not eating those brussel sprouts.”

“All you have to do is try it.”  I remind her.  “One bite.”

She pouts.  I’m not giving in.  “Alright!” she says, reluctantly.  She tastes it, gives me a thumbs up, and refuses to have any more. 

So be it. 

Many times Sophia has put something in her mouth and said “Yummy!” and eaten it.  Many other times she has taken a bite and said “Yucky!”  and spat it out.  When she does it, I bring it back again.  And again.  And again.  Not in a Mommy Dearest—you will-get-nothing-else-until-you-eat-this-rancid-raw-meat kind of way, but in a, “Look who came to visit us again!  Brussel sprouts!” kind of way.   Eventually she does incorporate the new food into her repertoire.  Well, except spinach. 

But hey.  I figure everyone is allowed a hated food.  For me it is slimy old lima beans. 

They are just gross. 

I know there are many experts who would suggest that you don’t “force” a child to eat—that you present the food, but make no demands.  In fact, you display very little investment in the outcome at all.  If they don’t eat, they don’t eat.  They will eat when they are hungry.  I understand this philosophy, and I imagine there are many kids for whom this works. 

For me, this method feels almost, but not quite, right. This devil-may-care attitude just isn’t me.  I believe sometimes it is necessary to make a little push. To take a firm stance.   To have convictions: 

We are fortunate to have this good food.  We eat what is on our table.  We stop when we are full. 

Part of passing these convictions on to Sophie is to incorporate her in our food decisions.  She helps me decide what’s for dinner.  We shop together.  We talk about what’s healthy and what’s not.  If she shows interest in new food, I buy it and prepare it:  Star fruit, artichokes, pistachio nuts.  And now, joy of joys, she helps me prepare it, cutting with a butter knife, pouring and stirring, sprinkling and spreading, watching it transform from ingredient to meal.  She is so much more inclined to take that bite when she is invested in it. 

I feel like I am up against the very seductive forces of peers and the media, trying to lure her to the other side.  She needs to hear my less popular views. 

We are in the grocery store when she asks:

“Mommy, why can’t I have the kind of yogurt with oreo cookies on top for lunch, like Brady?  I like those.”   [She’s never had them.]

“Because, Sophie, that has a ton of sugar in it.  We eat organic yogurt with delicious fresh fruit.  It’s better for our bodies.”  

“So I can be healthy and run!” she tells me, taking off down the aisle.  I watch her beautiful form, muscles expanding and contracting, powered by all the good stuff she takes in, and feel gratified.  That is, until I see her on a crash course with a shopping card. 

I have but a brief window to make a lasting impression. To form life-long habits.  To deliver a clear message that rises above all others.   Who knows if I’ll succeed—maybe she’ll be the kid scarfing down as much junk food as she can the minute she’s out of my sight.  But just this week she had a piƱata party in her Spanish class, and collected a fistful of candy.  “I didn’t have any,” she told me proudly when I came to pick her up.  “For that,” I said, “You can have one piece—whatever you want.”  After all, I believe in a solid foundation, not complete deprivation.  Sophie smiled and picked out a box of nerds.  She didn’t ask about the candy again. 

Now about that pomegranate tree…I wonder if one could grow in this climate….

This post is inspired by the novel Julia's Child by Sarah Pinneo. Worried about what her kids eat, Julia Bailey starts a prepared organic toddler meals business. With names like Gentil Lentil, can Julia balance work and family and still save the world? Join From Left to Write on May 24 as we discuss Julia's Child. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Preventing Perfection

Sophia said something the other morning that freaked me out. 

Kevin had been out of town for a couple of days, and we were having a leisurely morning.  She woke me with a stack of books, asking if we could snuggle and read them together.


Gradually we had dragged ourselves out of bed and I was puttering around the room, putting laundry away that had been sitting in a basket for about a week.  Sophie was doing gymnastics on my mattress. 

“Watch this, Mommy!  Are you watching me?  Watch me!”  She was flat on her back.

“I’m watching, I’m watching.”  I say, turning from search in the closet for an empty hanger.

Sophie arches up into a bridge.  I am impressed.  I didn’t know she could do it.

“Isn’t it a perfect bridge?” 

Perfect.  I am fairly certain it is the first time I have heard her use this word.  And it jumps out of the sentence at me, as if she had just cursed. 

Perfect is a concept that tortures me.  I walk around with this theoretical, aspirational, physically impossible sense of how things should be, and beat myself up when I fall short of it.  The mantle of perfection makes it impossible to enjoy the pretty good.  It robs me of satisfaction. 

I love reading stories of people who were able to suddenly “let go” of their perfectionism, or at least some glossy image of who they think they should be.  People like Anna Quindalen, who in her 1999 commencement speech that became the book, Being Perfect, urged the young grads of Mount Holyoke to “Give up the nonsensical and punishing quest for perfection that dogs too many of us through too much of our lives. It is a quest that causes us to doubt and denigrate ourselves, our true selves, our quirks and foibles and great leaps into the unknown….” 

How I envy Anna.  Sure, I have moments, periods even, where I am happy with things-as-they-are.  But then I slip back into my perfectionistic ways, and the happiness evaporates.  I know there is a “better” way to be, I just can’t be it.  I’m hoping that it is a developmental leap one finally makes in the latter third of one’s life.  Just as the sudden the way I acquired object permanence in infancy, one day I’ll wake up and embraced my flawed self. 

Please let that be the case.

But even if it is too late for me, if I am already too far gone, perhaps I can prevent perfectionism in my daughter.  Maybe it is possible to teach her that the goal is not a flawless performance, but the pride and the joy in the doing. 

It is worth a try.

I smile at Sophia, who is thrilled with what she has discovered her body can do, and I tell her.  “Sophia, perfect is such a silly word.  There’s no such thing as perfect.  Let’s think of a better word to describe your bridge.  Something that says how proud you are of it.”

“How about awesome?”

Yes, I think, that’s perfect.  

Sunday, May 13, 2012

World's Greatest Dad

World’s Greatest Dad

This week, the cover of a news magazine (which I won’t refer to by name because I don’t want to reward it’s salacious photo with even more attention) made me wonder:

Do dads judge each other? 

We know that there is an oppressive motherculture of judgment, which most mothers I know have been on one end of (or the other…or both).   And I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t participated in it myself.  I think we do it—I do it—to feel better about the choices I’m making as a parent.  But really, it’s little more than a form of relational bullying:  be more like me so I can feel good about myself.   It’s mean girls grown up:

Mean Mommies. 

Moms-judging-moms appears to cut across cultures (when I was in Russia the babushki—grandmothers—would thinking nothing of chastising a perfect stranger for not putting a hat on her child), ethnicity, socioeconomic status. 

But does it cut across gender?

Not being an authority on the subject, I decided to interview a few dads.   Just two actually, of a very similar demographic, so what I learned by no means representative of the population at large (nor can I generalize it to all men).  But what they said was interesting nonetheless.

They gave me permission to use their names—Kevin (my husband) and Tim (my friend Nancy’s husband). 

Both men said, without hesitation, that they do not judge, nor do they feel the judgment of other dads.  So, of course I had to press them, “You mean you never think to yourself, ‘I would NEVER do that, or I can’t believe he just did THAT, or I wouldn’t do it that way.”  Tim was thoughtful.  He admitted that before he had kids, he occasionally looked at other parents and had those thoughts, but now that he was a parent himself, he realized he was in no position to judge other dads. 

I really admired this.  I was also a little bit jealous.

Kevin mused that such behavior would violate The Code of Men (male social norms).  “Men don’t compete that way,” he said, referring to the more subtle relational aggression that females engage in.  “They do it through sports or at work—they establish hierarchies.” 

Perhaps women are behind all those World’s Greatest Dad t-shirts and mugs.  Maybe men aren’t looking for that distinction. 

I have to talk to more men about this. 

Then I got to thinking about the changing role of dad’s in our society.  How, once upon a time, dads were pretty far removed from the task of parenting.  They provided.  They protected.  They punished.  But they didn’t necessarily bathe and feed and clothe and handle they myriad of tasks associated with raising a child.  But as equity between men and women grows, so have their roles in parenting.  As Tim put it, he is far more involved with his children than his father was with him.  Or his father’s father was with his dad.  Each successive generation has become more hands-on. 

Will then, men eventually evolve to judge one another?  That’s not quite right.  I don’t mean to imply that relational aggression is more evolved than more overt forms.  But will men, as they become more invested in the role, start to care more about what others think about their parenting choices?  Will our social gender norms change over time? 

Or is the act of dads-judging-dads too countercultural to ever happen?  Could there something about inter-parent relations mothers could stand to learn from their male counterparts? 

Well dads, if you, in fact, don’t judge each other (and the jury’s still out on that one)—what do you have to offer the moms of the world?  How do we extinguish the madness, stoked by the media and our insecurities?

I would really like to know. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

Finding My Religion

When I was a child, I wanted religion.  Everyone else it seemed had it.  At least, they went to CCD.  I didn’t. 

“What’s that?” I asked one kid in my class.

“The Central City Dump.”  He told me.  He said it with such great loathing, that I thought he might be telling me the truth. 

“Why don’t I go to CCD?” I asked my mother. 

“Because you’re Jewish,” she told me.  Being Jewish seemed to entail little more than going to my grandmother’s on Passover and speed reading through the Hagaddah as my father grumbled, “when are we going to have dinner?” 

I tried to absorb religion through my relationships with more pious friends.

I liked going to mass with Emily.  The service was so carefully choreographed.  Stand up, sit down.  May god be with you.  And also with you.  Everyone seemed to know their part.  I learned “Hail Mary” and “Our Father.”  But I didn’t actually say it out loud because it felt wrong. 

When my friend Alizabeth had a Bat Mitzvah, I took home the program, which had a little prayer in it.  I read it under the blankets at night with a flashlight.  I kept hoping it would make me feel closer to something.  Something bigger than me. 

I wanted God.   But God didn’t seem to know my address.  It made me feel lonely. 

Once I went to a church dance with Emily.  “What if somebody asks me what my religion is?”  I worried.

“No one is going to ask you that,” Emily reassured me.

At the dance, we were approached by a nun.  “Hello dear,” she said, “are you new to our parish.


“Oh.  You don’t belong to our parish?”

“No, I’m here with Emily.”

“What parish do you belong to?”

“I don’t belong to a parish.”  I said in a small voice.  “I’m Jewish,” I said in an even smaller voice.

“Oh!  Well then what synagogue do you belong to?” My face went hot.  I KNEW this was going to happen.  I stared at the gym floor.   

“I don’t belong to a synagogue.  My parents don’t believe in organized religion.”  She didn’t audibly gasp.  But she might as well have. 

I never did get religion.  It always seemed like a team sport to me—something people had played for most of their lives, I couldn’t possibly pick it up now.  I’d keep dropping the ball.  Or throw it to the opposing team.  I wouldn’t know which way to run. 

I sit on the sidelines of religion.  Every now and then peeking in.  Wishing I had that sense of solidarity with others.  Something less superficial then knowing a handful of words in Yiddish and how to make kugel. 

How is it that my grandmother was born to Orthodox Jews?  That my father went to Yeshiva?  My blood is diluted. 

What do I have to pass on?

When Kevin and I got pregnant we made a deal.  His last name, my religion.  Now that Sophia is here, I feel the weight of responsibility.  How do I begin to teach her something I know so little about? 

I don’t want her to be left with the spiritual void I wrestled with. 

At first, I fantasized that, perhaps, we could learn together.  It would be a shared journey.   We could be bat mitzvahed together, taking turns reading our Torah portions.  I could be a real Jew. 

But as I started looking into temples, I couldn’t find anything that felt close to what I’d envisioned—something that could accommodate decades of disbelief that had settled into a peaceful agnosticism.  Light on rules, heavy on stories.  And love so luminous it pours in like light through the windows.

So I sit in limbo, with Sophie beside me, teaching her the things I do know.  Empathy.  Gratitude.  Reverence.  Awe.  All the things I feel to be holy. 

This post is inspired by I AM FORBIDDEN by Anouk Markovits. Though not sisters by blood but through their Hasidic faith, Mila and Atara views the rules and structure of their culture differently. Mila seeks comfort in the Torah while Atara searches for answers in secular literature she is forbidden to read. Ultimately each must make an irrevocable decision that will change their lives forever. Join From Left to Write on May 8 as we discuss I AM FORBIDDEN. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.