Just now I am not making breakfast for my 9-month old baby, Ines. I am drinking coffee, sitting next to a high chair in which remains of last night’s dinner are still vaguely encrusted. She is sleeping in the room above me, and when she wakes up I’ll strip her down to her diaper so she can eat the way she likes, which is to say, so that she can cover her torso with porridge and fruit and yogurt, and rinse it all onto and into her diaper with sippy cups full of water.
I really do regret my recent absence from these pages, which is equal parts unintentional and belabored. But sometimes it seems like for the past couple of months, maternity leave has, for me, meant that I think about writing - making pages of inarticulate scribbles during naps and late at night - and otherwise spend my time trying to feed a baby who has intermittently eaten well and refused to allow food to pass between her tiny little lips. I am horrified/delighted that Ines will probably always be stubborn and opinionated and generally a tough customer (what do you do about teenagers?) and horrified, period, that I have let this one little thing - eating solids - consume me. As with all completely normal baby-related experiences and feelings, I feel like I am facing a dramatic, unique problem, one which lies far outside of language. This it is not.
I have this idea that I’ve got only a couple of months to turn my little milk & bottle feeder into a full-on gourmand, that I must use this window not just to introduce her to the concept of the meal, but somehow to help her learn to chew and swallow; to distinguish between hunger and thirst; to enjoy different textures and spices; to enjoy eating as a social experience; in short, to get her to eat what I want her to eat when I want that to happen, so she is healthy and happy and grows properly, and enough. Imagine an impatient and stubborn person - me - trying to guess when such an overwhelmed little person, who of course cannot speak, is full or just taking a pause. Hungry or thirsty, for that matter. How overwhelming. Really I'm just helping her learn, making suggestions and gently prodding. And rather selfishly trying to figure out how to work my child into our adult dining agenda at the same time.
One recent Saturday at breakfast I demonstrated my fail-proof/failing methodology for my sweet husband - offering our infant about 6 different and wildly varied foods at a single meal - whereupon he suggested I might just be overwhelming her with choice. Et voila: he was obviously correct. It turns out that one or two things at a time is actually quite enough for someone whose stomach, at 8 months or so, is probably about the size of lemon. She’s finally eating now, and it’s basically becoming sort of fun to offer her tiny plastic spoonfuls of mushy things. For her to smear colorful muck across every surface she can reach is completely fine, as long as it sort of also gets smeared inside her mouth.
Have you ever seen a small baby scream because she could not grasp a matchstick-shaped bit of melon in her fingers? Because the slice of avocado broke before she got it to her mouth? Imagine the delight but also the frustration in feeling these mysterious things, finding disappointment in them well before their capacity to satisfy presents itself. I take deep pleasure in her glee, but I am also disproportionately devastated by her dissatisfaction. I think I have too much time on my hands, or else this is my maternal version of procrastination. For weeks I think I have said to myself, I simply can’t face anything beyond this, today.
Obviously this is a bit too much. Over the top. Okay, it’s wrong. She is a person, and she will probably work on eating well, to suit her taste, according to what’s available to her, for most of her life. I hope she will have the opportunity to eat well, healthfully, because it’s a luxury but also because it’s so hard to teach, let alone learn the importance of treating one’s body with respect, if I’m any indicator. And then I am afraid for what food will look like for her in this blistering hot world full of chemicals and genetic modification and plastic… and hunger.
I am wishing I could spit out what I really want to say, which is: I think I’ve lost it, if “it” is a realistic grasp of the situation. The situation in which I am feeding Ines three times a day, mostly yogurt, and spending at least an hour a day cleaning up after her meals. For part of the difficulty is that she hates being fed, loves to feed herself, smears colorful edible muck all over her face and into each crevice she can reach. She drops huge spoonfuls of it down her chest and covers her diaper with it. I have taken to wearing an apron at mealtimes, so that the only parts of me that are caked in baby food are my sleeves and the bottoms of my pants. And there it is: waste. Feeding a baby is like practicing the art of zen, I imagine. All of the work I invest in making things delicious or appealing or varied is invisible, as it should be … I guess. So why do I care so deeply about this?
To begin, I can. I am so fortunate to live in a place where it's OK to stay home with my baby. But also, my obsession with her eating began during a two-week interlude when she refused to eat anything but pouches of mushed vegetables and fruit directly from the straw attached to a sachet. (Ella’s Kitchen is actually amazing - it’s organic food that isn’t heavily processed, doesn’t require refrigeration, and is easily portable.) No this was not so bad. Actually, it was tidy and efficient. And it meant she finally ingested something apart from milk, which was enough to make me cry. But the thought of a child who eats nothing else is more than a bit horrifying. And anyway, who can spend so much on pouches? I probably couldn't if I wanted to. Or, what if they went out of business!
Finally, I found a way in. I made her applesauce. We ate it together, off of spoons. She was nonchalant, my heart swelled with pride. The next day she ate yogurt. Then there were leeks and sweet potatoes and broccoli. She still doesn’t like to eat all the time; I still forget she likes to slurp some water between bites. And the table still looks like it belongs on the set of Double Dare when we’re done, three times a day. One day at a time.