By Kelly Niebergall
I know before I make the bagel that my two-year-old daughter doesn’t want it. She tells me, “Yes, Mommy. I eat bagel,” after I ask her eight times if she will, indeed, eat the bagel. But that isn’t what happens. I place the pink plate in front of her and within a matter of seconds, she changes her mind. Her little face scrunches into a prune of rage and she screams, “No I don’t want bagel! I want peanut butter toast instead.”
I hesitate for a second, wondering if it’s okay for me to give into her dictatorship. It would certainly be easier to say “Sure, Sweetie, I’ll make you whatever you want. Just don’t throw the plate on the floor.” I have bags under my eyes from my other daughter waking up at 5 a.m. for the past week just because she thinks it’s fun. Plus, it’s Valentine’s Day. A day of chocolate and yeses. So for today, I choose the lesser battle. I make my little two-year-old the peanut butter toast too.
She doesn’t eat that either.
But I do. I nibble on the bagel with cream cheese while making the peanut butter toast, making sure to lick the knife because otherwise it’s so hard to get clean and I don’t want to dirty the sponge. And when my daughter only eats a pouch made with at least some healthy ingredients like sweet potatoes and apples, she announces that she’s all done and slides off the chair. And so I nibble on the peanut butter toast as I clean up the dishes and consider my lunch done.
The other night I ate my five-year-old daughter’s leftover mac and cheese. I absently picked at it, knowing it’s not the same on the second day. It turns wobbly and soft like a soaked pool noodle. I had already eaten my own portion of the stuff and yet there hers was, in all its yellow-orange glory waiting in my daughter’s bowl. I shoveled it in.
Earlier that same day, I had gone to two different birthday parties, each with a host of scrumptious food options like pizza and cupcakes and potato chips and a side fruit salad just for kicks. There was soda and lemonade, and even beers and champagne. I stuffed it all in my face, telling myself that it was just this once. A special occasion. I also told myself the same thing only two days before that at yet another party.
Temptation after food temptation. It’s everywhere I go. It used to be easier when I didn’t have children. When I wasn’t at so many kids’ birthday parties or marathon baking with my five-year old.
I hate to waste food and unfortunately children are key food wasters. But not me. Oh no, I will eat the second half of my daughter’s quesadilla that she refuses to eat. I’ll lather it in sour cream and lick my fingers after I’m done. Then I’ll follow it up with a small dessert like leftover Halloween candy, leftover fudge from Christmas, leftover chocolate from Valentine’s Day, leftover cookies from the three rounds of Girl Scouts that canvased my neighborhood and who I can’t say no to because I was once a Girl Scout, too.
A part of me knows that it doesn’t have to be this way. I have the power to say no to the excess. Another part of me wonders if I was conditioned as a child, like many of us were in the ‘80s, to lick my plate clean before I could leave the table.
It’s a balance, as with all things in parenting, to teach our children to eat until they are full but also not to waste. I try and give my kids what I think they can finish, but they are two and five years old and therefore naturally unpredictable. I can always serve them more if they are still hungry, but then in the same breath I’ll convince myself that they don’t eat enough.
It’s precisely this kind of inner battle that consumes me late at night—and by late, I mean 8:30 pm. when the girls are finally in bed sleeping. It’s when my daughters have closed their eyes and are off to dreamland that I consider myself having won the day. And then the thoughts creep in. You deserve a cookie. You survived today. You deserve a glass of wine. Remember your daughter’s hour-long tantrum? For godsake’s woman, you deserve something!
It doesn’t help that my husband is right along there with me. The other day I caught him eating the leftover crusts from our daughter’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a small helping of leftover pasta from five nights ago, and the piece of pear my youngest hadn’t finished. “I realize my lunch consists of leftovers,” he told me. I didn’t disagree.
He’s right there with me at 8:30 pm. when we collapse on the couch in a soft stupor after having spent the past hour trying to get our kids to bed.
“There’s ice cream in the fridge,” he’ll say.
I don’t disagree.
And so together we eat mint chocolate chip ice cream while binge watching “You” on Netflix. With each creamy bite, I tell myself, I. Deserve. This.
Pre-kids I wasn’t this way. Sure, I might have rewarded myself with a glass of wine or a piece of chocolate every now and then after a hard day at work. But this is different. The food is in the house. It calls to me from inside the pantry.
Lately I tell myself that I’ll start to eat healthier. I’ll build up a thick layer of steel resolve and say no to the cookies, candy, popcorn, graham crackers, chocolate, pizza, and cheese. So much cheese. I won’t finish my children’s meals. I won’t pick off their plates, like a mother vulture.
Maybe I’ll start tomorrow. But first, I have a leftover piece of bundt cake from my birthday to eat.
Because I deserve it.
Kelly Niebergall has a masters in creative writing from San Francisco State University. She lives in Thousand Oaks, California, with her husband and two wild daughters. When not writing about their shenanigans, she has been working on her first novel.
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