When I first found out that I was having a daughter, back in July of last year, I was awash with joy. I had secretly hoped for a girl, although I certainly gave everyone the standard answer, “Of course, we don’t care about the sex, we just want a healthy baby!” I mean, who doesn’t just want a healthy baby? Obviously. Naturally. Oh wait, ME. I WANTED A GIRL. I wanted a healthy GIRL. And a healthy girl is what we have so far. Like many parents, I am constantly assessing the things that are within my capacity to keep her that way---both physically and mentally. As a woman and a clinician, I feel I have a distinct responsibility (somehow greater than my husband) for safeguarding our daughter’s mental health.
The recent Time Magazine cover of a young mother breastfeeding her 3-year-old child piqued my interest for perhaps different reasons than most. Lately, I have been obsessing about the next developmental phase for our baby daughter---transitioning from exclusively breastfeeding to feeding her solids. The fact is . . . I am daunted by the prospect of actual food entering into our relationship.
Breastfeeding has had its own set of challenges and possibly deserves a separate column. But there has been some comfort in the ancient, simple ritual of my body producing the perfect meal and my daughter eating it happily. To a large extent, I don’t have any say in the quality or quantity of my milk and breastfeeding takes on no emotional life, save the sweetly mutual opportunity to reconnect throughout the day. Meanwhile, like so many women, my dynamic with food---the kind you select and prepare---has always been rather fraught.
Feeding a child seems like a truly basic function of parenting and clearly it is. And yet it has me tied in knots. Let’s set aside the fact that I don’t really cook, never really have, not even for myself and certainly not for my husband. Dinner in our household is like parallel play at preschool---we each enter the kitchen and put together our own separate meals, side-by-side. Sometimes we share a task: for example, together we will cut up vegetables that we will each use in separate salads. My fortes are (not surprisingly) salad, pasta and translating the stunningly complicated and heavily accented descriptions of the sushi specials for my husband. This is all very tragic and boring and I know this even as I write it. But there are larger issues at work here. Ultimately, I will learn to cobble together meals to nourish a child and/or rely on a bevy of spectacular delivery options in the wonderland that is New York City. My paramount concern is that I want to raise a daughter who is not neurotic about food and her body.
In an ideal world, I would like to feed my daughter without tainting her experience of eating with my own food ghosts. I recognize the exquisitely delicate balance it requires to bring up a child - particularly a girl - with healthy attitudes toward food. The experts caution that parents should maintain a neutral, positive approach to eating, offer a wide variety of nutritious options, not to label certain foods as “good” or “bad” and never use food as a reward or a punishment. Of utmost importance, specifically in terms of the mother-daughter dyad…check your own fixations about food and your body at the door. Children as young as two years old are watching their mothers (and popular culture at large) for cues about gender socialization and how to feel in their own skin. This is a lot of pressure for a new mother who has battled weight issues and body acceptance, essentially always.
I grew up in a Southern California beach town in the 1980’s, which tells you two things right off the bat: I was immersed in a culture of excess and I was expected to be in a bathing suit on a daily basis. My first bikini was at age 4 or 5 and it was an orange, terry cloth triangle top with bamboo ring connectors. I was first told by a friend’s mother not to order lemonade because the sugar in it would make me fat in 3rd grade. As far as I knew, several of the mothers in my life ate nothing but Alba ’77 shakes for at least two decades. In Junior High School, a friend taught me about a weight management technique: chewing food “just to get the taste” and then promptly spitting it out. By High School, I was experimenting with eating nothing but air-popped popcorn and an apple for lunch. Incidentally, high school lunch took place on the quad, where the Senior boys would sit holding up numbers written on notebook paper, “rating” girls as they walked past. And so on. Although it was a different time and place, I am keenly aware of the pitfalls awaiting my tender infant.
Since embarking on an adult life of intensive self-exploration and cultivating health, I have come to terms with the fact that I may never shake the critical voice in my head entirely. While I would like to achieve perfect liberty, it is not out of the question that I will be 95 years old and still pause, experiencing a lightning flash of self-loathing before reaching for a cookie. But I will persist in swimming upstream against it. And now I will do this for my daughter, as well as myself.
My plan, therefore, is first and foremost to buy some kind of steamer? Or something? I understand squash, gourds, yams and the like might be first on the menu for our tiny gourmand. Oh, and avocado, too, which seems infinitely easier to “cook.” Second, I will commit to meal times being low-key, joyful and inviting experiences, free of gravity and judgment. Third, even though she is only a few months old, I will not allow her to see me frowning in the mirror, muttering about my soft bits or hear me talk about foods that I “should” or “shouldn’t” be eating. This will be my auspicious start.