Recently, I went to Whole Foods, where a woman stopped me to ask how I got the earthling (who was in the cart, being pacified for the Boring Shopping Trip by a tangerine and a pineapple piece) to eat fruit.
"He just eats it," I said, watching the earthling poke at the tangerine rind. "It's his favorite food group."
From there, we got into toddler eating habits. She kept talking about the foods she wanted her daughter, who was about one month younger than the earthling, to eat, versus the ones her daughter wanted to eat, and I finally had to make my position on this clear:
"We let our son eat whatever he wants to, unless it makes him sick.1 He has a food aversion, so our main worries are getting him enough food and getting him positive interactions with food."
She, of course, asked about food aversions. I get this question a fair amount, and there are three main reactions I get to my explanation. These are the first two:
- "Wow, that must be hard for you." True! It is! Harder for him - he's the one who has to choose between being hungry and doing something he fears - but, yeah, it's hard.
- "How can you be averse to food?" This is a little more problematic, because I just explained it (for most of his first year of life, he had reflux that we couldn't get under control with medications, and when eating hurts so much, after a while you don't want to do it anymore), but, yeah, I get that it seems counter-intuitive.
- "You're so lucky. He isn't going to get fat." I hate this response.2 I really don't think I can communicate to you how much I hate it. What you are saying to me when you say this is: "Well, your child may need medication to make him eat, and he may be at risk for all kinds of problems because he does not eat enough, and if the medications stop working, he might need surgery so he can be fed through a tube, but, hey! He'll be skinny!" There is, in fact, such a thing as too skinny - let's ask Karen Carpenter about that one, shall we? - and there are things that are worse than being fat. A lot of them. A real fucking lot of them. The earthling has some fat on him right now, and I tell you what, I cherish it.
You know what will help her daughter develop bad habits? Being taught all her life to ignore the signals her body sends for "hungry" and "full." Being taught that there are foods that are sinful and foods that are good. Being raised with the subconscious belief that the ideal amount of calories to eat in a day is none.
To be honest, when you tell me you've put your child under two on a diet so she won't get fat, my basic reaction is to want to call Child Protective Services. Toddlers need calories. They also need fat. That is how their bodies grow and their brains develop. So when you deprive your kid of needed calories and fat, you're restricting her growth and you're potentially causing her lifelong problems, and I kind of wonder if maybe you shouldn't go through a few classes to learn how to feed her.
Which brings us to the next thing this woman said: "It must be so nice not to have to worry about your kid's weight!" She gave a little trilling laugh as she said it. It made me want to punch her right there in the produce section, except then they might not let me back in Whole Foods, which is of course one of the few sources of Produce the Earthling Deems Acceptable. Because of course I worry about the earthling's weight - I take pains not to let him see, not to react, because I have to, but, yes, I worry. I worry that he will not gain weight appropriately, and I worry about it constantly. My child got twice weekly weight checks for months, and then weekly ones for many, many more months. He still gets monthly weight checks, although he is 19 months old, where kids normally get weighed twice a year. If he does not gain appropriately - and right now he is; he is totally on track with his eating and weight gain and we are very happy about that - then he faces a lot of medical interventions, some of which, as I said, include major surgery. Of course I worry. And my worries are real worries, unlike this woman's, whose fear is that her 18-month-old daughter might be, you know, porky.
We, by the way, are indeed lucky, but not because the earthling is food averse; we're lucky because he's an incredible, fabulous kid, first of all, and second of all, because he's mostly overcome his eating problems. His weight is (for the moment) good, his weight gain is (again, for the moment - with these kids, it can all change so quickly) good. He's still food averse, but it's under control. That took a year of feeding therapy, a suite of medications, and a team of health professionals. It took major effort from me and from Best Beloved. It was work. It was and is stressful. It was and is a big deal.
If your child just eats, spontaneously, without any extra effort from you, please consider yourself lucky, because you are. And if your child just eats, and you are doing your level best to fuck up his or her relationship with food, then please don't tell me about it. I really, really mean that. I am so tired of listening to people who think their two year old or three year old is fat. I am so tired of hearing people brag that they only let their kid eat non-fat yogurt (FULL FAT until at least two) or that they make sure their (non-diabetic) toddler only gets no-calorie sugar substitutes or that they keep their entire family including the kids on a no-carb diet. This is not healthy eating. It is a fucking travesty. And if you can't stop doing it, then shut the fuck up about it.
1 Fruit juice in quantity has a digestive result I'm not going to get into here, so we do limit that and dilute the fruit juice he gets, but not because we're worried he'll get fat; we're worried he'll explode. We also limit foods with caffeine in them, like chocolate, because, um, they keep him awake. Which perhaps should not have been as surprising to us as it was. I will note that we also work hard to encourage foods with protein and fat, because the earthling sometimes thinks a fruit and water diet would be ideal, and that is not how you gain weight, unfortunately for him.
2 People, do not say this. Do not. I have a friend whose daughter could not sit up on her own at 11 months, let alone crawl or walk. People actually said to her, "Oh, you're so lucky. You don't have to chase after her." No. No. No. Some developmental milestones are annoying, yes, but you still want your kid to go through them.
I realize that if you're saying this, it's because you're uncomfortable with the topic of disability or delay and so you're trying to pretend that the disability or delay isn't real (and at some point you should really, really think about why you react this way), but it's not okay to do that. Here's what you can say: "You're so lucky. Your daughter is such a wonderful person." Because that is true - my friend's daughter is a marvel and a wonder, a gentle, creative, loving child, and my friend is lucky to have her, and knows it. But the luck does not arise from the fact that her daughter has physical delays; it arises from who her daughter is.