Tuesday, March 22, 2011

What to Eat?

As I fried tiny slices of bacon this morning, before the sun had come up and before the cold rain that is now pouring down in sheets had even begun, I started thinking about meat. On the one hand there are very good nutritional arguments for why humans need to consume animal proteins and animal fats. On the other hand, I can’t quite make sense of why some mammals apparently need to eat animals and why some mammals seem able to live on vegetables and grains. I’m sure there is some scientific explanation for this, like that our genetic engineering like that of lions and tiger and bears requires vastly more fat and protein than that of ostriches and squirrels. But then you have the problem of vegetarians—real vegetarians who eat quinoas and brown rice, tempe and spinach, not the kind of vegetarian I was in high school before I got pregnant who ate a diet absent of meat, mostly consisting of milkshakes and french-fries instead of cheeseburgers. How is it that some humans can live on vegetables and grains? Vegans seem to be thriving just fine. You don’t see vegans walking around drooling or running into walls or sporting unnatural ticks any more than their non-vegan counter parts. As far as I know they don’t catch more viruses or contract more diseases. They’re not at higher risk in pregnancy and they don’t seem to be a drain on society in any way. So, though the arguments for the consumption of animal proteins are pretty sound, I have to wonder: do humans really need to eat meet?

It was weighty thought for early morning but moms, I think, are often fixated on questions of nutrition. Like sleeping and peeing in certain specific locations, eating is one of those inexhaustible motherhood topics. You get a group of moms together and within minutes, they will be swapping details of their children’s latest sleeping patterns, if they’re potty training, how it’s going, and of course, how’s her appetite?

“Is Sarah getting really picky, because Sophie’s getting picky? I’m really worried she’s not eating enough.”

“All Brianna eats is crackers.”

“Jeremy begs for treats all day.”

Mike won’t touch vegetables.”

As parents, we’re always afraid that this new fleeting phase will be the one that ruins them in the long run. We worry that if our daughter only eats carbs and dairy now, she’ll grow up to struggle with her relationship to food forever.

Aside from sleeping (and maybe pooping) there is little in a young child’s daily life that is more important than what she eats. And like sleeping and pooping, there is very little we have less control over. You can offer and present, you can suggest and request, debate, negotiate, bribe and beg, but at the end of the day you can’t make your kids eat, sleep, or poop.

It’s one of those mother paradoxes: that the three most vital aspects of a child’s survival are the three things mothers can’t sufficiently control. Maybe there is some deep spiritual lesson in it. Maybe it’s the foreshadow for mothers that one day we will be able to control nothing in our child’s life and it is to our advantage to begin using methods other than coercion to achieve desirable outcomes. Better still, maybe the lesson is that we shouldn’t be trying to manipulate our children into doing what we want but instead teaching them how to make responsible decisions that will serve them well in the future. You know the old teacher adage: Teach them how to think, not what to think.

It’s hard though. Like most really important things, it’s hard to do. It’s hard because every decision your young child makes deeply impacts you the caregiver. Whether it’s the “Science Experiment” that you know you will end up cleaning off the sofa, or the nutritious meal your son refuses to eat holding out instead for snack at school which often consists of little more than Nilla Wafers. You want to allow your child freedom but doing so means taking on the extra burden of picking up the pieces when the experimenting gets messy or the skipped meals turn into a crazy juvenile, screaming, spitting, crying meltdown. The job of a mom seems to be the constant repetition of letting go, backing off and then picking up the pieces.

It’s hard to not tell our kids when we know that what they’re doing is going to end badly. Indeed there are days when that very phrase comes out of my mouth dozens of times. In fact, the other day, as Twila climbed into the Kelty Backpack that was propped against the door, she paused, looked at me and asked, “Is this going to end badly, mom?”

It’s hard to keep our mother mouths shut because we don’t want our kids to get hurt, or go to bed hungry, or have an accident at school, or be tired, or get sick. But it’s also hard to keep our mouths shut because we don’t want to have to spend our days dealing with the collateral damage of failed experiments and risky maneuvers. We don’t want to spend our whole day pulling ice packs from the freezer and digging Band-Aids out of a drawer full of Band-Aid wrappers. But we have to.

We have to find a way to not always be telling our kids what to do or we’ll resent the fact that we spend the whole day arguing. The very fact that we do know what will happen is the reason we have to not always tell them because then when they do fall out of the Kelty Backpack or the experiment does explode all over the family room, instead of learning from the accident, they resent us for knowing before they did what would happen.

It’s hard to not helicopter over my kids but I’m trying. I’m finding ways to back off and allow freedom where freedom can be allowed. When serious safety issues are not in play, I try to keep my hands off and my mouth shut.

When it comes to food, there is a way to not battle. I am slowly (oh so slowly) learning the somewhat obvious lesson that kids cannot eat what is not around. It’s almost comical how many times Ryan and I have gotten exasperated with Twila for insisting on having a cookie when she’s barely eaten any dinner. We get into the inevitable sticky territory of the “I’m full/You couldn’t possibly be” debate. I hate challenging a child when she is giving information that only she could possibly have. I hate even more insisting that a child have “one more bite” as if that one bite contains the magical ingredient to nutritional balance. If a child is full, one more bite teaches her that she doesn’t know her body; that she shouldn’t stop eating when she is no longer hungry. And if a child really hasn’t touched her meal, one bite does not a complete meal make. So one bite is really just a last ditch effort of the parent to feel in control of something she is not in control of. So I hate debating about food. Ryan and I get indignant; Twila gets indignant. Nobody wins. But if there is no cookie in play, if dessert is not only a non-option, but not even in the house, suddenly kids get a lot more honest about their appetites.

Sometimes kids really aren’t hungry and unlike us adults, they haven’t learned yet that when people are eating you should eat, that when the clock says its meal time you sit down and put food in. In short, they still listen to their bodies’ cues. That’s not a habit I want to curtail. So if it’s not about the treat she’s going to fill up on instead, she can eat as little or as much as her body needs that night and I don’t say a word. I have nights when I’m not as hungry as other nights too.

But one dilemma still remains. As I am stocking my cupboards and refrigerator with only foods I am comfortable with Twila devouring, the question persists: what do I buy? The information out there on food and nutrition changes with the phases on the moon, it seems. Yes there are certain truths that seem to stand the test of time:

· -Eat natural/unprocessed food

· -Eat vegetables

· -Eat whole grains

But unless you’re a person who can eat quinoas and broccoli three meals a day, you face the question of: what else? High fat or low fat? Is dairy good or bad and if it’s good should you buy whole milk or skim? Nuts or no nuts? Meat or tofu?

Now that soy has been called into question I feel like there is no solid nutritional rock on which to stand. There are nutritionists who insist that animal fat is vital to the development and maintenance of the human brain. So I fry the bacon. I don’t want my daughters’ brains to not develop properly for goodness sake. But there are those who say with the rise of childhood obesity, we must only feed our children lean meats like turkey and chicken. There are others still who insist that a vegetarian diet is best for the heart and liver. Some days it feels as if you have to pick which organs you want to properly care for, because there doesn’t seem to be a diet that will maintain them all.

I was at the co-op the other day and I picked up a book on nutrition, something about changing America’s Diet, or something like that. I flipped to the middle and read something along the lines that the consumption of dairy has never actually been proven to increase bone density. The only study to come even remotely close to linking the two was paid for by…The American Dairy Association. I know that is a weak reference since I can’t even name the book or the author. I promise to follow up on that. The point is it blew my mind. Whether it’s accurate or not, the fact that someone is positing that more dairy won’t build stronger bones? Where to turn? What to feed my children so that they grow up strong and healthy and without major food/body image issues? The author went on to claim that higher osteoporosis rates are correlated to countries that eat more protein. Challenging protein? Suggesting it might weaken our bones? I almost cried right there in the vitamins and supplements isle.

Lately I have more questions about food than answers. It’s difficult to prepare a meal for myself or my family that I feel one hundred percent sure about. I just keep waiting for more news to come out about food thus tumbling my belief systems out of whack again. In the mean time, I just take my best guesses. I try to stock the cupboards with nuts and dried fruit instead of cookies and crackers. I try to make more vegetables and fewer white carbs. But who knows what nutrition research will tell us tomorrow. I guess we just do our best until then. So here I am, still in limbo, frying the bacon.

Monday, March 14, 2011

What Do Mom’s Accomplish?

You’re not a real mom until you’ve scrubbed poop out of the carpet before nine am. And if that is the gold standard of motherhood, I’m proud to announce that I am a real mom several times over. As usual, the time change comes as an unpleasant reminder that kids do not conform to the patterns of society. They follow the beat of their own drum; their internal clocks are much more powerful than any glowing, red, digital numbers. They were up until nine last night, up at an unusually early six fifteen (seven fifteen) this morning and before nine o’ clock, Twila had drawn on the white board with permanent markers and Jada had pooped on the floor and stepped in it. And we’re off and running.

Each day as a mom is an exercise in finding balance anew. Despite how entirely balanced she was yesterday: playing with her kids, engaging the children in helping with chores and cleaning, finding time for herself, accomplishing some important todo’s, today is a new day and the potential to come completely unbalanced, to obsess over cleaning or lose the day to sitting around un-showered in pajamas, is just as great and real as it was the day before. It’s hard to gain traction as a mom in search of balance. But maybe that’s the point.

Someone told me right after Twila was born that being a mom is one of the greatest spiritual practices. I didn’t understand this at the time, but over the years it has begun to come clear. The spiritual cliché: The Journey is the Destination is a perfect illustration for motherhood.

Any mom can tell you that orienting your goals to a particular end is a losing proposition—every time. But it doesn’t stop us from still trying to accomplish specific things each and every day. ‘Today we’re going to play at the Children’s Museum,’ ‘Today we’re going to get this house clean,’ ‘Today we’re going to wash your hair before school,’ ‘Today we’re going to write those thank you notes,’ ‘Today we’re going to get in touch with grandma,’ ‘Today we’re going to stop using diapers,’ ‘Today we’re going to get a good family photo.’ And so it goes, the best laid plans often go awry. But if you’re a mother of young children, the adage should be that the best laid plans always go awry.

Just as soon as you’ve made a clear, decisive plan for the day, the kids get sick, spike a fever, figure out how to open the paint samples and destroy their carpet, refuse to put the receiver to their mouths, decide they hate writing their name, poop on the floor, or, in our case, they decided they were too tired to sit, hug each other and smile for our family photo shoot last week.

I scheduled our photo shoot a month out. I bought new outfits for the girls, new shirts for Ryan and me, got up at dawn to shower and dress the girls and myself, and blow dry my hair. I even left a few minutes to clean up the area where I thought most of the photos would be taken. Our shoot was at nine am.

Things went well for the first few minutes. Twila loves the camera and was all too happy to try new poses in new places. Jada on the other hand was already declining towards nap number one. She rubbed her eyes, wandered back and forth but was reticent to display that sunburst smile that she is famous for. She also showed very little interest in holing still or looking at the camera.

Usually Jada is very easy to photograph, she loves to smile and somehow seems to “get it” so I was thrown off by her disinterest in the process to put it mildly; frustrated would be more accurate. Highly irritated would be more accurate still. But with children the journey is the destination. Luckily the photographer was a friend who is very patient and likes my kids. So even when midway through the process Twila started getting tired and frustrated with Jada’s lack of cooperation and started showing her own frustration in a strange rebellion against the posses I suggested, refusing to take her glasses off the top of her head while posing with sunglasses and actually bursting into tears when I told her she had to choose between the glasses, our patient photographer stuck with us. I didn’t envy her job when she said our kids where easy compared to some.

When at the end to the shoot, I pulled Ryan out of our office to get a couple good family shots, Twila and Jada were absolutely finished; in every sense of the word. They were tired and fussy and crabby. Jada arched her back and squirmed to the floor each time one of us tried to pick her up and point her in the direction of the camera. Twila for some reason adopted a deeply creased brow and angry scowl that she refused to turn off. But instead of getting angry about the fact that weeks of planning, scheduling, shopping and preparing were ending in one of our family’s least photogenic moments of all time, Ryan and I just laughed.

We laughed because it was so classically comical. Planning a family photo, it seems, is tantamount to actually asking for everything to go wrong.

We let the girls go, let them run off and play with the photo props and accessories and stuff Pirate’s Booty in their mouths. We took some shots by ourselves and shook our heads at how things turn out. I’ve found that that’s all you can do when things fall apart: accept that some things are out of your control—no matter how controlling you are—and try to find the humor in the situation. There is always humor; you just have to be open to seeing it. Usually the obstacle to seeing the humor is my inability to lighten up. I often take myself too seriously and can’t laugh at the absurdity of kids crying when you’re paying someone to capture their smile, of a cup of ground cinnamon which shouldn’t have been in the car in the first place not just spilling but exploding all over every square inch of the upholstery, of a child deciding she doesn’t actually want the elaborate snack you were cajoled into making, of a wet, slippery child wanting to get immediately out of the bath she begged to have in the middle of the day. Even as I write these examples, they don’t seem all that funny. But you have to laugh.

You have to laugh because so often in life it’s a choice between laughing and crying, or laughing and shouting. And laughing is invariably the better choice. And if nothing else, that is what I’ve learned as a mom: that when you can actually embrace, right there in the moment, the inherent beauty in imperfection, in messes and mistakes, you truly can see the journey of motherhood as more valuable than accomplishing some distant achievement, or arriving at some distant destination.

And if achieving patience, and showing my kids how to laugh at themselves and see the humor and possibility in their mistakes is all I accomplish in this life, I think it will be enough.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Art of Lowering Standards

My standards are rapidly changing. I used to put a fair amount of energy forth trying to keep the house clean throughout the day. I quickly discovered that by attempting to maintain a level of cleanliness, I was spending each and every day cleaning constantly. The reason for this is twofold. First, kids make messes way faster than an adult can clean them up. And second, even the simplest cleaning project takes hours when active children are underfoot and asking to help (which of course you have to let them do because if you don’t, you fear, they will grow up to be skill-less, lazy, unmotivated deviants who live in a tiny and filthy apartment and collect unemployment). So to take on the challenge and the expectation of living and playing, cooking and working in a clean house, effectively means that you must resign yourself to constant, constant, sweeping, wiping, picking up and putting back.

At least, this is the way it is right now. Like all things, it won’t last forever. One day (I hope) my girls will know how to put their own clothes away, they will stick with the promised task of putting away all the paper plates, plastic flatware and cardboard cups that have been stripped from their new hiding place and used for an impromptu picnic in the guest room. One day very soon, I hope that my girls will load the dishwasher without trying to eat the cleaning gel, and help clean the bathroom without attempting to bathe their toys in the toilet. And they will I think because I let them “help” with cleaning projects even though cleaning with kids begets more cleaning. But it won’t last forever.

After months of wondering where so many days disappeared to when I hadn’t worked on my book, hadn’t returned that long list of calls, hadn’t checked email or even gotten dressed, I finally figured out that I was sinking countless hours into keeping the house clean. And though I love sitting in an orderly house, seeing the clean, shiny floors instead of a horizon of cracker crumbs, pieces of tape, crayon wrappers, popcorn, dental floss and puzzles pieces, while I work, I realized that I was never getting to the work. I decided I was going to have to give something up.

That something was a clean house. Instead of enjoying an orderly house all day, now we let it fall completely apart throughout the day and clean it once, together, in the afternoon, right before dinner. Then we enjoy a clean house for the night and start the process of dismantling the clean house the next day. Because frankly, I wasn’t enjoying the clean house any way. I was sweating in it, and constantly barking at the kids for leaving junk all over the floor or dragging their toys out to the living room in great big heaping laundry baskets which seems over and over again to be the entirety of the game. I haven’t figured out yet why this activity brings them such endless joy.

I’ll have a clean house when they’re in college, I tell myself and then I sigh and put my blinders on. It’s been good though. On almost every level, it’s been good to relax the standards. I play with the girls more, I respond to friends more quickly and (most importantly) I have been working on my book again. The momentum has picked up into a kind of gallop which drove me near the end of the book. Finally, it seems, the end is in sight. I went back and read some beginning chapters that I haven’t looked at in a really long time and something I didn’t remember writing made me laugh out loud. It’s a strange feeling to find your own writing enjoyable to read. But also a wonderful one and I feel hopeful about the book once again.

My relaxing standards have also made me a more pleasant mom, I think. I’d have to ask Twila who still occasionally asks me to please “Just calm down,” but I think I am better company when I’m not constantly sighing and asking her to “put that away” or “pick that up,” or cringing and asking her to go wash her hands “right now.”

I was even pretty fun last night when we went to a birthday party at a jumpy room. It was a warehouse full of giant inflatable slides, bouncy castles and mazes. I didn’t even dwell (very long) on the fact that the place probably hadn’t been disinfected since its inception and the rubbery tunnels were probably crawling with germs. I just shut off the germaphobic part of my brain and crawled after Twila, letting myself get bounced and tumbled around. Truth be told Ryan and I probably had even more fun than Twila.

When we left, it was pitch dark outside and the snow was falling again in big, fluffy flakes that sunk very slowly to the ground. Millions of them filled the sky, illuminated by the yellow floodlights outside the building. Jada, who was screaming in protest to having to leave, suddenly stopped short, looking up into the snowy sky. Flakes began to fall on her face and stick in her eyelashes. She grinned and squeezed her eyes shut. It was one of the moments I hope to always remember.

The car ride home was long and fussy; the roads were getting snowy and slick and neither child managed to fall asleep (the Holy Grail of long, post-dinner car rides). But when we got home the snow was still falling creating a blanketed quiet all through our yard. Once again they caught Jada’s attention and we stood out in the driveway watching them float gently to earth for a little while.

I was secretly glad that the girls hadn’t fallen asleep in the car because then we were able to wash their hands and change their clothes before putting them to sleep. I’m getting very close to night weaning Jada but last night I enjoyed rocking and nursing her to sleep. The peace and contentment that came over her were absolute as she fell into deep, heavy sleep.

After music class today we stopped by the grocery store. As I loaded the groceries, Twila hopped into the back seat and started eating her cup of cinnamon she had brought from home (don’t ask). I’m not at all sure what happened but the next thing I knew, there was cinnamon everywhere in the car. A fine powdery dusting of cinnamon coated the seat and her shoes and her clothes. And though Twila went into emergency mode and swore up and down that she was “super duper sorry,” I couldn’t make myself care about the mess. I cared about the inevitable conversation Ryan and I would have to have about why Twila had been allowed to bring cinnamon into the car. But right then, the backseat of my new Volvo being coated like a fresh pastry, didn’t bother me at all. I think I’m growing. Either that or my standards are just changing. Either way, I’m a happier person and a nicer mom for it.