It began during the grueling seven-month lockdown from March to October 2020. It was the typical story: The nation shuttered, my husband and I started working from home, we pulled our toddler son from daycare, and life got ridiculously hard. But in our case, there was a twist. Not long after we withdrew from the world, we started to notice that our son often cried and gagged at mealtimes. If he saw us put something, anything, in our mouths — a bite of sandwich, a stick of gum, a straw, a fingernail we were biting — he shrieked, panicked, gagged, and sometimes vomited. At first, we chalked it up to extreme cabin fever, the seemingly universal warping that the pandemic was wreaking on millions of otherwise happy, healthy kids. He was sick of being at home and sick of us, we told each other, and it was manifesting in disgust at the sight of us eating hasty lunches between Zooms.
Except when lockdown ended and he went back to daycare, nothing changed. In fact, nothing ever changed. Our son is now nearly five, and we are still forced to eat in the next room when he’s home. He is receiving good and capable professional help, but it’s clear we have a long road ahead. Thus far, talking about it does little good (“I just don’t like seeing eating,” is the most he can explain), and though we’ve learned a few key things about his aversion, the reason for it remains a mystery.
For example, we now know that the disgust is particular to seeing us eat at our home. He doesn’t freak out about preschool classmates at the snack table. At a restaurant, he can watch us dine for two hours and barely bat an eye. Meanwhile, he still insists on his standard fare when dining out, carried in from the car (Goldfish, cereal bars, animal crackers). Dine off the menu? He wouldn't dream of it, give or take the occasional order of fries.
It’s bizarre, inexplicable, and as far as I can tell, unique to him.
Because let me tell you, I’ve searched far and wide for any kid out there going through the same thing. For two years, my Google history has been drenched in worry and barf: “kid gags at sight of food,” and “toddler can’t watch people eat,” and “son vomits if he sees my coffee cup.” I’ve found next to nothing. (This blog post about a baby who vomits as a means of communication was a notable exception.) No one handwringing on a mommy message board. No one LOLing about it on Reddit. (And there’s always someone going through the same thing on Reddit.) We’ve gone down every road: He doesn’t have autism, for which he was evaluated. He doesn’t have sensory processing disorder. He’s just, as far as we can tell, a guy who knows what he hates, and what he hates is seeing his parents down a Reuben at the kitchen island.
Which brings me to a rarely discussed aspect of raising kids, one of the most isolating parenthood scenarios: when it feels like your kid is the only one who does something. When a seasoned therapist says, “Huh, haven’t seen that before.” When it seems as though the entire internet has no idea what you’re talking about. When your friends look at you with concern, then go back to their typical kids who do such enviably typical stuff. It’s as lonely as it is scary.
“The world is full of quirky kids,” write Dr. Perri Klass and Dr. Eileen Costello, a pair of pediatricians. “They live with us in our houses, but they live in slightly different zones, seeing the world around them through idiosyncratic lenses, walking just a little out of step, marching and even dancing to the beat of different drummers.”
Anecdotally, this certainly seems to be the case. After talking to several friends and friends of friends about this vexing situation, I’ve learned that there are a whole bunch of parents out there worrying that their kid is the first and only person to do something strange. One told me about their child’s bitter refusal to wear a diaper — they had to duct tape the waistbands to keep them on. Another mentioned their son’s total inability to gauge danger and the years-long exhaustion of needing to pull him back from the edges of cliffs or yank him out of oncoming traffic. One told me about her second child’s seemingly inhuman disinterest in sleep as an infant, which led her parents to hold her while bouncing on an exercise ball for hours at a time until she finally caved. Every night. For two years.
In fact, the most comforting venues I’ve found are parenting advice columns, where equally baffled parents seek guidance and, I think, try to reckon whether their situation is as singular as it seems. They may not describe kids hurling at the sight of food, but they do describe issues that are just as particular. Recently, one wrote to Slate’s Care and Feeding advice column about their eight-year-old daughter’s banshee-esque low blood sugar tantrums. Another described their preschooler’s undying obsession with her mother’s breasts (“if she catches me changing, she’ll run towards them screaming ‘boobies!’”).
More and more, I think that at every age, in every stage, almost every kid has a freaky phase or two. And while some problems are harder to solve than others, there’s always at least a partial solution. Sometimes the answer is to wait it out. Sometimes it’s to talk to an occupational therapist. Sometimes it’s to ignore it. Sometimes it’s to tell your kid a few dozen times, as many times as it takes, that motorboating mom’s boobies is simply not OK.
This may sound obvious, but when you’re parenting under duress, it can be hard to see it: Every kid has their thing, and the chief reason we feel alone in dealing with these weird things is that fellow parents are often reluctant to fess up to the ones they’re dealing with. So many of us are terrified that we’re doing this whole childrearing thing totally wrong and, worse, that everyone else is somehow doing it exactly right. Reveal your child’s puzzling struggles, and it might make you look inept or inadequate or like a failure.
Which is why I’m writing this. I try not to publicly divulge too much about my kid — I’m happy to share his terrific jokes and hilarious ideas, but his medical and psychological history is information that belongs to him. However, I make an exception here because I see the value in putting this out there. I wish someone else had so that I could’ve landed on their words in the height of the barfing nightmare of 2020. If you’ve arrived here because your child also pukes at the sight of you brushing your teeth or sneaking a donut, know that it’s not your fault, and yes, it will get better. And most importantly: No, you’re not alone.