A few days ago, I found myself sitting at my dinner table, silently rejoicing because, for the first time ever in his life of five and a half years, my son ate a whole hot dog, complete with bun, without my prompting, wheedling, or bargaining with him to get him to finish it.
A hot dog. And not one of those fancy organic locally processed free range all-natural nitrate-free hot dogs, either. Just a hot dog. From Oscar Meyer. I bought it in a bright plastic package at the grocery store, on sale, plucked from a whole refrigerator case full of processed meat.
All right, it was a turkey-based highly processed, highly packaged, nitrite-filled factory farmed meat hot dog. But still.
I am a vegetarian. I am an environmentalist. I am a gardener. I am a from-scratch baker. I read every book Michael Pollan writes. I am concerned about the health and environmental consequences of our heavily industrialized food system. I feel morally troubled, not so much over human consumption of meat in principle (hunting animals for food is, after all, a thing we apex predators evolved to do), but over the particular treatment of domestic animals in the factory farm system.
When I can afford it, I try to buy locally grown and/or organic food. In the summer, I grow my most of my own vegetables and buy my much of my fruit at the farmer's market. I sneakily swap free-range chicken and beef into my carnivorous husband's diet.
And yet I take my son to Burger King and let him choose a hamburger that has probably been processed with a mechanically rendered beef fat slurry treated with ammonia. I let him eat cheap chicken nuggets sometimes from Tyson (which once plead guilty to 20 violations of the federal Clean Water Act in a town just three hours away from mine, was investigated by the Justice Department for illegally smuggling Mexican undocumented workers into the country to work for little pay in dangerous conditions, and was investigated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for animal cruelty after a shocking video released by PETA).
And I rejoice when he eats a hot dog.
Before my son was born, I, like so many people who do not have children but plan to, held a vision of my future as a parent that was thoroughly colored by idealistic naivete.
Certainly, I had encountered children who were picky eaters before I myself became a parent. I had gone to school with children who would only eat cheese pizza, plain hamburgers, and french fries; I had been a babysitter to a girl who would not eat anything that was green; my own (much) younger brother once went through a month-long phase during which all he would eat willingly was white rice seasoned with butter, salt, and pepper.
Outwardly I sympathized with the parents of these children (including my own beleaguered mother), and would never have breathed a word of criticism to their faces, but, secretly, I judged them. By and large, I thought, parents of picky eaters who subsisted on junk food simply hadn't tried hard enough to get their children to eat more wholesome things.
Wasn't my own mother much more lax with my little brother, her youngest child, in every regard than she had been with me, the oldest? Didn't she allow him liberal access, as a toddler, to nutritionally questionable foods like white bread and soda, both of which had been largely forbidden to me in my early years in favor of wheat bread and juice?
Not that I blamed her, exactly, for going a little soft with my kid brother — she was much busier as a mother of three than she had been as a mother of one, after all — but, well.
I was sure I that, whenever I got around to having my own child, I would be capable of preventing any junk food addictions and overcoming any picky tendencies with proper planning and diligence.
My child would learn to prefer fresh fruit to cakes or cookies, because I would limit sweets and provide a wide variety of the tastiest fresh organic produce at all times.
But, at the same time, my child would not develop a secret, deprivation-driven obsession with desserts and confections, because I would not deny them to him altogether; he would have candy at Halloween, and cake at his birthdays; I would be reasonable.
My child would learn to love broccoli and spinach, because I would introduce vegetables at an early age, and eat them at every meal myself in front of him.
My child, if he ate meat, would learn to be ethical in his choices. I would do my best to serve him organic, hormone-free milk, and eggs from free-range chickens. I would offer him sausage from locally hunted wild deer, or hamburgers from ethically raised grass-fed beef. We would not eat at fast food chain restaurants except under serious duress. (Not that I always followed this rule myself, of course. But I would when I was a parent.) When he was old enough to understand, I would tell him why I, as his mother, made these choices about our food.
My child would never develop a taste for highly processed, environmentally hazardous junk foods, like Oscar Meyer hot dogs, because I simply would not have them in my house.
My child would never go on a month-long rice-only jag.
I had no idea, before my son was born — in fact, I had no idea before I started trying to feed my son solid food — that I would one day find myself praying desperately to a variety of divine beings I don't even necessarily believe in that my son would eat even just one bite of white rice.
That despite my best intentions, despite my most diligent efforts, despite my careful consultation of all the most respected child-rearing manuals (from Sears to Spock), despite advice from family members and friends and pediatricians and dieticians and nutritionists and, later, as the situation grew more obviously dire, a whole host of medical specialists with much longer titles, the goal posts for getting my child to "eat healthily" would move from "Teach him to eat organic vegetables and whole grains!" to "Teach him to eat, um, anything besides breastmilk and three flavors of baby food?" to "Dear God, please get my child to eat ANYTHING AT ALL."
Yet that is where I found myself, just a few years ago: at the table, in a house with a pantry and fridge filled top to bottom with healthy, tasty, natural food, facing an underweight, slowly wasting toddler with failure to thrive, desperately trying to feed a clearly desperately hungry child who would eat almost nothing I offered him.
At his thinnest during this period of self-imposed starvation — at around 12-18 months,when his weight was no longer even present on the growth chart for a child his height and age — Isaac was so thin he looked sick to me. Though he was an energetic, intelligent little boy with bright eyes and a quick smile, when his clothes were off, you could count every rib and see every knob of his spine. He lacked the characteristic pillowy paunch of a toddler. His belly, instead, curved inward. I could not bear to look at his terrible thinness, and yet I could not look away. He looked like a public service poster of a starving child. But he was a real child, in front of me. He was MY child.
These were, without a doubt, the most frustrating, depressing, terrifying few months of my entire life. When I think back on it now, I still shudder. I've been attacked on the street for the last ten dollars in my purse; I've spent nights sleeping hungry and cold in car too young to understand why I'd lost my home and not knowing if I'd see a home again; I've had my heart so utterly broken by a lover's betrayal that I felt it might never beat again. And I would take any of those days over my worst days of fear and helplessness worrying over the health of my son.
I spent thousands of dollars I did not actually have at this time taking my son to expensive medical specialists. An endocrinologist. A pediatric gastroenterologist. A pediatric food allergist. A child psychologist. He was tested for every genetic disease, every bacterial or viral infection, every hormonal imbalance or food intolerance or oral-motor developmental delay or structural intestinal defect these experts could think of that might cause an otherwise healthy and normally developing child to simply refuse to eat. I held my screaming toddler down while phlebotomists with impossibly large needles withdrew vial after vial of his blood from his tiny arms. I strapped him to a table while specialists taped bizarre plastic devices to his private parts to collect urine samples. I restrained him while an allergist pricked his naked back with 40 simultaneous needles. I watched him wheel away, sedated and anesthetized, to a room where a doctor would shove a camera snake down his throat to examine his intestines. Every time I held my child and allowed someone to hurt him in the name of helping him, I wished desperately that they were hurting me instead.
And for months of this, no one could give me an answer.
I was constantly worried that my son might stop eating altogether require surgery to install a feeding tube. I was terrified — cold sweats, nightmares terrified —that someone among this team of experts who could not solve the problem of why my child would not eat would decide that I must be purposefully starving him — that I was abusing him, that I was one of those awful evil Munchausen by proxy parents (which I only even knew existed after watching The Sixth Sense). During my nightly fevered internet searches for things like "failure to thrive" and "post surgical post-traumatic feeding disorder of infancy" and "infantile anorexia" and "Dear Sweet Internet Gods, why the F@#K won't my starving child eat?" I had come across a single message board posting by the friend of a relative of an innocent woman who had supposedly had her failure to thrive child taken away from her by the state under suspicion of abuse, only to have child services discover that the child would not eat in foster care, either, and in fact had a terrible medical condition underlying her self-starving ways, which of course only worsened during the stress of separation from her parents, etc.
Because I hated myself (what mother who can't successfully feed her child doesn't hate herself?), I bookmarked it and reread it from time to time in ritual self-flagellation.
In reality, I spent nearly every waking hour either attempting to get my child to eat, or thinking about how I ought best to attempt to get my child to eat.
I was a terrible bore at playdates and children's birthday parties. "What is going on with you?" the unsuspecting might ask. And I would say, "Oh, my son still isn't eating well at all. I'm very worried. I don't know what to do." And then, compulsively I would relate, in obsessive detail, my latest medically-guided attempt at intervention. A detached part of myself would observe my nervous patter and mentally shout, "Change the subject! Talk about the weather!"
But for me, there was no weather. There were only Days When Isaac Ate Well, and Days When Isaac Did Not Eat.
Friends and family gave me constant well-meaning advice that made me want to punch them in the face. It's not natural, or at least is certainly seems unnatural, for a seemingly healthy, hungry child to refuse all food for months on end, and so naturally most people with casual knowledge of my situation assumed I must be making some simple parenting mistake.
"Don't try so hard to encourage him to eat." "Try harder to encourage him to eat." "Stop breastfeeding him." "Nurse him more often." "Strap him to his high chair and don't let him leave all day until he's finished his whole plate." "Tell him if he doesn't eat one bite of peas you'll make him eat the whole bowl." "Try plainer foods." "Try spicy foods." "Let him see other children eat in front of him." (When he ate with other children, he would, in fact, helpfully give the other children all of his food.) "Get someone else to feed him." (His father, his grandmother, and his aunt had all tried.)
Others assumed I was exaggerating the extent of the problem and advised me he would simply grow out of not eating if I just left him alone.
Every time I spoke in public about my son's eating problems, unintentionally hurtful judgment and well-meaning but uninformed advice surrounded me until I thought I would drown in frustration and self-loathing. And yet I had nothing else to speak about. Because my days were consumed with trying to solve this problem.
When an occupational therapist finally helped my family find a diagnosis — sensory processing disorder — and I finally, finally found therapies that would slowly but surely help my son overcome the severe tactile sensitivity and texture aversions that were driving his fear of solid food, every bite my son took of every new food seemed like a blessing. It didn't matter, to me, whether that new food was a fresh-picked organic locally grown Winesap apple or a hot dog. It was FOOD, damn it, and my son was eating it. My new motto became "If it has calories, and it's not obviously poison? He can eat it."
I know better, now, than to judge the parents I see feeding their children chicken nuggets and fries and soda at McDonald's. Not until I've walked a mile in their shoes. Not until I've taken the beam from my own eye.
But now, with a solid space of four years between me and the worst trauma and fear over my son's initial failure to eat enough to thrive, I am beginning, once again, to judge myself.
Has my gratitude at his graduation from pathologically picky eater to typical picky eater — his transformation from a child who was thisclose to life on a gastric feeding tube to one of "those" picky children, who only (ONLY?!?) reliably eats plain-tasting sweet breakfast cereals (that must be dry), toast, plain, white flour pancakes with plain syrup, plain scrambled eggs, bacon, chicken nuggets, hamburgers, hot dogs, grilled cheese sandwiches, plain quesadillas, plain macaroni and cheese, Swiss (it must be Swiss!) cheese and crackers, french fries, corn chips, potato chips, ketchup, applesauce, sugar-sweetened cooked carrots, mashed sweet potatoes IF they have marshmallows on top, strawberry-flavored fruit leather, the occasional raisin or dried blueberry, vanilla ice cream, and vanilla or banana-flavored yogurt — has my utter, blessed, soul-healing relief that my child finally eats enough of a variety that we can take him to a fast food restaurant and order something he will actually eat off the menu, given me an unjustified feeling of permission to stop trying in the healthy food department?
Have I given up entirely on that dream of a child who blithely eats homegrown tomatoes, organic green vegetables, Indian lentils, and Thai curried tofu?
How do I feel, really, about my weekly purchase of Tyson chicken and nitrite-laden Oscar Meyer hot dogs?
The truth is, there is a little unhappy voice in the back of my brain that still protests every time when I plop factory-farmed meat and preservative-laden snack foods in my grocery cart. Even when I know we can't really afford this week to try the organic grass-fed beef hot dogs, at the very real risk that my son will reject them because they don't "taste right" like the brand he's accustomed to and they will rot and I will have to throw them away.
I struggle regularly with how hard to push my son about the fact that he eats no green vegetables, at all, ever.
As soon as he was old enough to hold a trowel I started involving him intensively in my work in the family garden, hoping that his enthusiastic affection for the bean and pepper plants he so carefully planted and watered himself might translate into some sort of affection for green peppers or green beans, but that hope was in vain. Oh, he's gamely popped fresh homegrown organic baby peas just picked off the plant into his mouth at my insistence, more than once, and screwed up his face in displeasure, and spit them out again. And I let him.
I've tried ordering beautifully presented, perfectly seasoned vegetables for him at restaurants, and he dutifully tries them and spits them out, and I let him. I've tried hiding vegetables in sauces (which he doesn't much care for anyway) and homemade breads, and he tries them and spits them out, and I let him.
After such a long exhausting battle to get him to eat enough solid food at all, I don't want to make his life, or mine, all about his eating now. But when he's grown, if he still hasn't developed a taste for vegetables or fresh fruit — if his limited diet starts once again to affect his health — if he, ever the sensitive soul, always rescuing stranded earthworms after a rain and asking his father to put spiders outside rather than smash them — realizes the impact of his childhood diet on animals and the environment — will he blame me?
Will he think I didn't try hard enough? Will he think I tried too hard?