“Yes,” I said, even though I knew it would spoil her dinner. “You can have as many as you want.”
I didn’t take her to day camp the next day. I let her hang out on the couch in her nightgown while snacking on her favorite foods and streaming Netflix. I called it a mental health day. I let her stay home the next day too, even though I work from home and was already behind. In the past few weeks, I’d buried myself in work and writing and getting published, but when I felt sad, I watched movies and ate pizza. Why couldn’t she do the same?
A couple of years ago, I read an article asking why we didn’t give our kids the same respect that we give our partners. On one particularly short-tempered day—the kind when you’ve completely “had it up to here,” the “don’t give me that look, or you’ll go straight to bed” kind—I pictured what I must look like saying those things. I’d never speak that way to a friend, or boyfriend, or another adult. Why did I talk that way to my daughter?
This wasn’t a decision to treat her like a little adult; this was giving her the same respect that I give to other living beings. It wasn’t treating her like I wanted to be treated, though I guess it is a little. When it came down to it, I wanted to be a nicer person to live with.
My kid’s a picky eater. She eats very specific types, brands, sizes and textures of foods. This, over the last couple of years, has caused head-pounding frustration on my part—embarrassment, too, whenever we go to someone’s house for dinner. I’ve gone through all of the stages in parenting a picky eater, from desperation to bargaining and then bribing. I’ve forced her to take bites, try things that made her throw up, and even tried to get her thumb to turn green like mine out in a vegetable garden. She watches me (and now her baby sister) munch on several green things a day, so it’s not environmental. The kid just loves sugar, will do anything for sugar, and yes, I limit it as much as I possibly can.
In the last few weeks when she was gone, I experienced the regular regression in my diet. No longer needing to make meals and make sure she ate at least a few bites of something, I’d eat my morning bowl of oatmeal by, oh, noon or so and have a few cups of coffee. By 5 or 6, I’d feel dizzy with hunger and scrounge up something or put a frozen thing in the oven. Nothing ever sounded good to eat except a few things, usually ones I didn’t have to prepare myself. When it came time to make a meal, I ate whatever was available that would nourish me just enough to get on with the day.
I went on a big grocery trip today, and Mia, of course, wanted her usual junk foods, which I hadn’t bought in a few months at least. I bring home more fruit and fewer crackers. No more yogurts in tubes; it’s in cups with whole ingredients instead. For a while, I’d even only bought food with all the listed ingredients that she could read. But today, as I walked up and down aisles, still experiencing my own lack of interest in cooking and food, I realized how many times I think, “No, that doesn’t sound good,” or “No, I don’t like that kind,” or “Ew!” Why couldn’t I respect my kid’s food choices?
So I went ahead and bought a few of the junk food crackers she loves, the ones I used to buy all the time because I was desperate for her to get some calories in her. I even bought a small box of Lucky Charms that she asked for. When I got home, we were both putting groceries away and pausing to snack on a variety of things we had opened on the table—fruit, chips, crackers and hummus.
“If you’re hungry, I can make you something,” I said.
“I’m not hungry. I just want to snack,” she said.
“Yeah, me too. I guess we both are like that. We just like to snack on foods we like.”
And so we made a deal.
I gave her a lower cupboard with her food, cups and bowls. I sectioned off part of the fridge. We talked about it, and I decided to see how it goes. As long as she’s making healthy choices, and not going for ice cream bars on an empty stomach, I give her free reign of her appetite. No pressure to eat three more bites, no choices of one or two things to eat or nothing else, no bribing to finish her meal in order to get ice cream.
And so far, it’s worked extremely well. I’ve let go of this pressure to have a sit-down meal where we pass the potatoes and eat two-thirds meat and one-third veggies. My kid drifts in and out of the kitchen like I do, standing for a minute, leaning up against the counter, while she digs into some yogurt or cheese or fruit or peanut butter. It’s not quite like Cher’s character in the movie “Mermaids,” but pretty close. I’m totally okay with that.