Why i feed my kids
“Can I have this?” my daughter asked, holding up a can of chicken soup. We’d just gotten home from a very long trip.
“Sure,” I said, “Gimme five minutes.”
Five minutes later she found me. “Can I have the soup now?”
“No,” I told her. “I’m not gonna make it.”
“What??” she asked, aghast. “Why?”
“Because I don’t want to.”
“Go eat some cereal.”
There I was, watching myself be a heartless witch in real time — and I had zero remorse. What did the girl want from me, anyway?? My house ain't The Barefoot Contessa!
“Fine. I’ll make it myself,” she threatened, lifting the unopened metal can into the microwave; ready to explode the kitchen, new dish towels and all.
“Omigod, don’t do that!” I scolded. “I’ll open it. You put it in a bowl and cook it.”
“Fine,” she said.
“Ughhh,” I whined, hammering home the point.
I’m a good mom but I have a glaring blind spot: I don’t really care if my children eat. I don’t want anyone to starve, let alone my own kids, it’s just that the preparation-slash-consumption of good food, to me, is an afterthought.
Frankly, I can’t understand why my family’s not content to shove a soup spoon into a tub of peanut butter and then into a jar of jelly, and then gobble the bootleg Goober in four slurps and call it a day: That's what worked for me three out of seven dinners, post-college! Who are these little gourmands? And what do they do for me???
I’m sure you feel bad for my husband, whose mom, like mine, is an expert chef, but he's a good enough cook for the both of us, and I order a badass takeout. Besides, when I make delicious things for my family it’s not like I get a heartfelt “thank you” or the accolades I crave and one of my primary Love Languages is Words of Affirmation… So what's my motivation to cook???
Of course, they don’t understand that. One morning when my mom was visiting, I was busy slaving away on a batch of pancake batter whose destiny was to be charred, when my daughter casually mentioned that pancakes were the least I could do since I “don't usually feed” them. I spun around.
“Listen here,” I said, all business. “Every mom shows their love in their own way, and some moms show it with food. But I don’t. So don't expect it from me. Got it??”
Boundary, stated. Repentance, none. My counselor says I can be harsh. My kids and mom – who does show her love with food – gaped at me, shocked. But I didn’t care. I poured my coffee, burnt our pancakes, and went on my unrepentant way.
But slowly, obnoxiously, over the next few months, a nagging awareness snuck up on me…
My husband was on my back about food: We’d discovered that my daughter, a very picky eater, wasn’t consuming the offerings at school. She (that snitch!) had mentioned to my mother-in-law that she wasn’t eating anything of substance at school. My daughter hadn’t brought it up to me, because she didn’t think I would care.
Geez, I thought, I guess I DO care. But maybe not enough? I had simply, conveniently, unthinkingly assumed she had her own lunchbox handled. In fact, I’d figured that making her manage her own midday meals was increasing her sense of responsibility: a win/win situation. But I’d never bothered to check. Was my blind optimism justified, or just me being lazy? Was this benign neglect or actual, physical neglect?? Even worse — was this further evidence that I don’t know how to properly love??
“There I go again,” I thought, “messing up the kids.” What if my daughter hadn’t been eating anything as a way of getting an adult’s attention and some serious intervention?! What if she was subconsciously thinking, If I’m not important enough for someone to feed, then I won’t feed myself. Or, Let’s see how much I need to starve before someone feeds me. That’s the shit I would’ve pulled. What had I done??
Or maybe I was overthinking things. Maybe she was just hungry! But I mean why should it be my responsibility to make them food when they can reach the XL tub of pretzels just fine!? My cheese-its are organic, for God’s sake. I look after them in so many other ways — why can’t they handle anything themselves??
My frustration made sense. But had it edged into passive aggressiveness? Perhaps it wasn’t my responsibility to prepare all of the meals but it WAS my responsibility to make sure that the kids, indeed, were eating. Maybe I was the one who needed to change.
A few weeks later, we were in the car listening to a self-improvement podcast (to my children’s great dismay) and the featured guest was a Buddhist scholar. Now I’m not Buddhist, but I appreciate the zen. And loud and clear, the guest stated that a major tenet of Buddhism is the mandate to share your gifts of time, energy and material resources with those in need. Material resources, he added, includes food.
“I didn’t hear that,” I said aloud. Come on brain – rewind. (Who needs to self-improve, anyway???) But the damage was done, as it dawned on me: I might love my kids, but I wasn’t showing them love. So maybe they couldn’t really feel my love. Maybe they NEEDED the love that I didn't feel like giving.
I glanced at them in the rearview mirror. “Would it make you feel more loved if mommy cooked for you?” I asked, warily.
“No,” said my daughter.
Awesome, I nodded, stoked.
“Well,” she piped up, “I don’t really know what you would cook. You don’t exactly… cook good.”
“Well how about pasta?!” I demanded.
“Especially pasta,” she said.
I scoffed. “And how about you?” I looked at my son. “Would you feel more loved if mommy cooked for you?”
“Nah,” he said. “Yeah,” he said. “Nah,” he went with.
Sounds like a nah, I decided.
“But —” my daughter announced, “it makes me feel loved when people bake, because I feel like they put their hearts into it.”
Damnit. Come on brain, rewind.
The thing about baking, people tell me, is you need to measure the ingredients precisely, which makes me mad because I resent recipes on the whole. I don’t like people telling me what to do — not anyone, including cookbook authors: “No YOU add a teaspoon of salt!” I’ll grumble while searching for my incomplete set of measuring spoons.
So I wasn’t sure how to go about “baking” without turning into a bitch. While amping myself up for the undertaking, though, I had a breakthrough: I recalled that Oprah Winfrey once proclaimed: “The greatest discovery of all time is that a person can change their future by merely changing their attitude.”
Hang on, I thought, I can just change my attitude about cooking!!! Cooking won’t be torture; it’ll be an opportunity to provide sustenance and love! I’ll be baking mitzvahs!!!
One hour later it was clear that I, in fact, was baking nothing. I was buried in flour and disarray. And I was torturing myself: Usually when I cook I’m in denial that I’m cooking, but I’d decided to bake with my heart in it this time, which meant being present to my suffering.
I’d dug out a recipe for raspberry crumble bars that my mother-in-law had once made. I’d reviewed them in my homemade (rarely used) cookbook as “Yum. Too good” – code for “If you make these you will binge.” But the bars I made were terrible. (“What are those?” my husband inquired, disturbed.) Must be something wrong with my old review, I reasoned. At least I put in the effort.
Next, I bought a cookbook: a real one. It claimed “Five ingredients, Five steps, Healthy meals.” I gave my husband a post-it pad. “Bookmark the recipes you like and I’ll make them,” I told him. But he didn’t mark a single one — the recipes were too healthy. Haha suckers, I thought. It’s the gesture, right? At least I put in the effort.
But had I?? I’d known, somewhere deep inside, that my husband wouldn’t want those healthy recipes – and my daughter doesn’t even like raspberry crumble bars!! It would’ve meant more to her if I’d gone to the convenience store and bought back peas and a sack of Wonder Bread! My efforts made neither her nor my husband feel any more loved because my attempts were considerably half-assed. And, because they weren’t targeted towards them. “Effort” wasn’t enough; I had to customize my efforts to make them actually meaningful to the person I wanted to show love to.
This realization brought to mind the work of distinguished author Gary Chapman, who identified five Love Languages — each of which describes one of the five purported ways people tend to both show and soak-in love. The “languages” are:
-Words of affirmation (as in, “Good meal, hunny!”)
-Acts of service
Everyone tends to give love in one or a few of these ways. And everyone needs different things in order to feel deeply cared for.
Sometimes there’s a mismatch between the giver and the receiver: I could give my husband words of affirmation morning, noon and night (because they might come easy to me) and he still might not feel a meaningful sense of my love, because he might yearn for something different, like physical touch – especially if that’s what he craved most in childhood; especially if that’s the hole in him that longs to be filled.
What’s irritating is that I don’t always feel like showing love the way my people need. So when I refuse to cook, it might come off to my daughter like, “My mommy doesn’t love me enough to feed me.” Whereas in my mind I’m just like, Omigodd do I realllllly have to make food right now?
Which means that sometimes – in order to make the people I care about feel satiated (both belly and soul) – I have to sacrifice. Sometimes – when you have it in you – you need to give people the type of love that THEY need, even if it pains you to give it.
That said, the good news about customizing your love is that not every human will want a gourmet meal: My daughter just wants to hear the question, “Would you like chicken noodle from the can or the box tonight?”
We think of “love” as just a feeling, but it’s more than that; it’s also a verb: You participate in it, by asking “are you hungry?” And then actually making the food. And when you express your love, it helps you feel it! Talk about a win/win.
“What’s this??” my son asked a few days after my grand epiphanies.
“It’s an after-school snack!!” I replied with glee.
“Oh.” he said. “For who??”
“Yeah!” I answered as though serving food were my long-standing tradition. I smiled like a fool. A little bowl of olives – I’d opened the can myself.
He relaxed into his chair. His body warmed; I could see it! I’d made my son feel taken care of.
I still think preparing food sucks and that it should not have to be my job all the time but when I do have to slap together a last-minute snack bag for the children, I don’t whine about it; I prepare it with equanimity and I deliver it with as good a vibe as I can muster — along with some flickers of love. I am on their team!
“I should have made you that soup,” I told my daughter a day or so after we almost exploded the kitchen.
“Yeah,” she replied. “I was never gonna put the can in the microwave, you know. I was just trying to get you to make it.”
“I figured,” I told her, and I had. She’s clever — in addition to being wildly lovable. And at last, I understand, it’s important to me that I show her she’s lovable….
By showing love.