Kid Food, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love a Chicken Tender

Kid Food, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love a Chicken Tender

My kid is eating like seven things total and I am thinking about being okay with it.

When you think about food for a living and write about it for fun, you live in a world of varying degrees of “yes, I’d eat that.”

And as an accomplished eater and cook, you think you have a good handle on variety. You know how to prepare things simply, you know how to dress things up, and you know how to gild a lily. Everyone you know is an adult so you don’t “hide” any food in any other food, unless the hidden food is meant to be a delightful surprise, like marshmallow Fluff buttercream tucked between layers of graham cracker cake, or a core of string cheese running, subterranean, through an unassuming meatloaf. You know your way around a creamy pasta but you also know about twelve kale salads by heart.

Then you have a child and – cue Greek chorus – everything changes. Including your relationship to food and every last notion of what an acceptable dinner is or isn’t. It’s been a long road and I’m learning to love a chicken tender.

But first, it’s early days. When you’re still following the rules and he’s still sleeping in your room and of course you’ll breastfeed until he’s at least a year old, and you’re swaddling like you’ve been doing it since you were born but he’s still crying an awful lot and you’re not sure if he’s latching right, then you’re not sure if you’re making enough, then you’re 100% sure that pumping is the patriarchy’s most elegant invention yet, a perfect means to auto-dismantle an already-frayed female psyche, then you begin to resent that your body is still, after 10 (yes, it’s 10) months of infinite tiny ruptures and sub-tectonic shifts, waxing and waning and waxing and waxing and waxing, merely a host and vessel for nourishment and you might even be failing at that, that which your body has been preprogrammed to do even before you developed viable ovaries, much less a set of preferences about how to spend your time, which for you involves the occasional dose of sacred solitude – you begin to see how small he is, still, when all you’ve been dreaming of are doughy babies with multiple arm rolls and though you know he’s still a newborn you also know that something.

Something isn’t right.

You breathe. You let in a thought so tiny, but so sharp it pierces through you from the inside out so that you can’t ignore the trickle of dread running down your still-rearranged abdomen.

Something is wrong.

You supplement with formula but only a little bit because nipple confusion and formula is the devil and the breast is best and you’re just not going out like that.

You stop sleeping and not just because he hasn’t mastered it yet. Even when he’s asleep and you know that’s when you should be sleeping because It’s easy! Sleep when the baby sleeps! you’re not sleeping. You’re wide-eyed, staring into the abyss where time and space once held everything in place so you float in blackness and terror and maternity-industrial-complex conspiracy theories and also theories about your own tits, then you check your phone and it’s been two hours since he went back to sleep and you hear him stir again and curse the Internet for its distractions and message boards and acronyms and LOs and DDs and DHs and accursed EBFs.

On the third day you rise again, in fulfillment of the practice of bringing the baby to the pediatrician for a routine post-hospital checkup. Your pediatrician is one thousand years old and has seen everything. His breezy, high-altitude view of things leaves you lighter, sighing sighs of what you in in this moment of gaping slow-motion panic have never more repulsively needed to be relief. It’s still early days, come back later this week, he says. You and your husband buy each other sandwiches to celebrate because it’s All Going to Be Fine. The baby sleeps in his carrier and it’s 20 minutes of peace and what feels a little like what normal life might eventually be like?

You’re on the phone two hours later with the hospital because you realize the doctor miscalculated the percentage of weight loss in your son.

It’s too much, too fast.

An angel whose whole job it is to encourage breastfeeding for as long as possible, for as many women and babies as possible, gives you a pillow and sits you in a chair. She is a lactation consultant. She will Know. She weighs him, gives him back to you, you nurse him, she weighs him again, it’s not enough. It’s not nearly enough. It wouldn’t have been enough on the first day you brought him home from the hospital, it’s most certainly not enough now, and it won’t be enough tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that. It will be 10% of what he needs next week. It will be 1% of what he needs next month. And those numbers assume you continue pumping and praying to every god and universe to keep up your pittance of milk production.

In this sense, contrary to everything Instagram, Pinterest, half of Facebook (the half that doesn’t already think you’re a terrible mother for going back to work), and your mother have been chirping at you for those 10 (yes, 10) months, you are not enough. You will never be enough. From the moment he sailed away from the perfect sufficiency of your womb, you have, in fact, never been enough. You are not biologically equipped to support him.

Weeks later, your friend, another angel, tells you that she, too, was not enough. She then jokes that she moaned to her husband that if this were the Oregon Trail, the baby would never survive and that surely must mean she’s an unfit mother. It’s genuinely funny because it’s absurd and you laugh but you also cry because it’s exactly how you felt, have been feeling, feel.

In a modern world where I have access to the kind of technology that allows me to write this, where entire limbs can be transplanted from one human to another, where cars drive themselves, where people take vacations on the literal moon, and where dying in childbirth in my country is a bizarre and tragic anomaly, I am allowed to celebrate technology and science but not when it means my child lives and thrives in spite of a hereditary defect in my breasts.

So although we all know there’s not really anything to forgive, you’ll forgive me when I say my son was exclusively formula-fed for his first year on earth, minus those first weeks of what felt like a sickening breakup with what I thought motherhood would be like, betrayed by my own body, then overjoyed at a son who grew anyway. Thrived anyway. Loved me anyway. Was gorgeous and focused and curious and so, so wise when he looked at me anyway.

Around five months, we started flirting with purees. Peas here, carrots there, with or without a parsley leaf whizzed in, with or without a dusting of ginger or cumin or whatever. Baby was into it. Rejoicing particularly in peas and rejecting nothing except avocado, I felt we were on the road to family dinners together in no time.

We were. And then we weren’t. After about 14 months, the repertoire suddenly shrank. One week I was chopping up Ina Garten’s beef bourguignon and mixing it with soft polenta, the absence of an extra flurry of parmigiano reggiano the only difference in his bowl; the next week I was stockpiling frozen peas and buying glorified chicken nuggets for the first time.

Yes, I am that mother. I am the mother clinging to a dream of No Picky Eaters Allowed. So I am also that mother, aghast at myself for buying chicken tenders. And I am also that mother, aghast at my being aghast, fully aware that I’ve become a caricature.

I want to hate myself but I don’t.

Because he’s eating.

They say: he won’t starve. They say: be firm in his options.

But they don’t have to wake up when he – he who has slept soundly every night for the last 10, count them 10, months – he wakes up screaming in the middle of the night, every night for two weeks, calmed only by a huge bottle.

He might not have been starving, but no one was sleeping.

The doctor confirms he is in perfect health, ears clear, lungs clear, no fever no rash no teething no nothing.

We decide to switch up the dinner game and feed him what we know for sure he will eat. Plain brown rice. Peas. Toast. Those goddamn chicken tenders. Thankfully, any fruit.

I am a tough lady and I believe in boundaries and rules, because I am also a wild dreamer and I believe in creating worlds built on stuff I learn from testing the rules. Rules good.

This will be a No Picky Eaters Allowed household someday. But that day is not today. It’s not next week or next month, either. It might not be for a few more years, when my son is old enough to understand the temporal nature of a rumbly tummy when what’s for dinner is notchicken tenders.

My son’s first weeks cracked me wide open. As someone who thinks almost exclusively about food, the irony is not lost on me that what sewed us all back together was baby formula, frozen peas, and chicken tenders.

Kid food.

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