What I know now about feeding a family

This essay is part of Motherwell’s new Parenting and Food column.

By Micah Stover

Food was affection in our house. A love language, or lack thereof.

I watched my mother starve herself for years, rotating between vast periods of deprivation to deep indulgence, food as a kind of inhaled medication. Not a thing of nourishment, not a thing of pleasure.

As it turns out, it takes more than positive intent to raise a child to feel good in their body. I didn’t understand all this back then. I simply internalized it the way kids do. My dad had permission to eat. My mom did not. And I fit somewhere awkwardly in the middle.

There were things I enjoyed. Buttermilk biscuits, warm, flaky, like sweet air in the mouth. Creamy mashed potatoes and macaroni cheese, all the good Southern staples. Velveeta cheese, the thick, gelatinous one that was more yellow than orange and only questionably considered a dairy product. I am almost hungry when I remember.

“Are you sure you want second helpings? You don’t want to have your mother’s problem someday, do you?” my dad’s voice pierced into an otherwise automated hunger response.

The serving spoon clanged as I placed it back in the bowl.“I guess not.”

Mom sipped her ice water with lemon while we waited for him to finish second and third helpings.

“We can’t let anything go to waste. It’s bad luck.”

The dissonance was hardest to digest.

 *

Still it was shocking when, at sixteen, I developed an eating disorder, seemingly inconceivable to either of them. I’d grown up on everything fresh from our own garden. No cans, no preservatives. Just food prepared in love. For everyone else’s consumption—except for hers.

My period stopped. My jeans were size zero or double zero, as if that’s even a thing. My breasts, one of many symbols of the contemptuous budding ascent I was making into womanhood were finally gone, and my chest caved in where my ribs met in the sternum. I loved the feel of my ribs, each one so triumphantly protruding through my clothes, visible in plain sight. No fat or weakness left to conceal them. I had achieved the ultimate standard of discipline.

I hid the chunks of hair on my pillowcase each morning in fluffy wads of Charmin tissue in the trashcan. I made a point to indulge in two pieces of homemade banana bread at least twice a week for breakfast to ensure nobody raised an eyebrow. Those days, I would forego one coffee and there would definitely be no cheese. 1000 calories or less a day is harder than it might seem.

The day it all fell apart I had a car wreck. I don’t really remember what happened in the moments leading up to the crash or after. There’d been a terrible thunderstorm just before I left the house. One of those Tennessee springtime storms. The kind when the air is both hot and cool at once, and smells of freshness and potential. The kind when steam rises from the pavement. A thunderstorm that might morph into a tornado, and so you’re mostly relieved when it doesn’t.

I was in a familiar out of body place when it happened, fueled by fight or flight and heavy caffeine. Suddenly, there was all this water right in front of me, a small river obstructing the road. So much water, no time to respond. I jerked the wheel as hard as I could, the worst thing to do. The car spiraled. One circle. Two. Then three. Before it slammed blunt into a barbed wire fence with a force so intense it tipped upside down.

Stillness. For five seconds. Minutes. Maybe ten. Was I alive? Was it a dream? Would I be in trouble? How would I explain? Flashes of possibility and panic darting across the screen of my eyes. Then, smoke billowing out from under the hood. The shattering sounds of sirens cutting through my thoughts as ambulances and a fire truck approached. A man and woman, perfectly placed grandparent figures, approached the fence as I climbed out of the ravine barely bleeding and covered in dirt.

“How about we get you a drink, honey? A Coca Cola, some lemonade maybe? You can use our phone to call your parents and wash your face in the bathroom. Thank goodness you’re ok.”

“My parents?! No, I couldn’t possibly do that! They’re going to be so upset with me.”

 *

My mom gave me recipe books, baking dishes, silverware. She tried to teach me, provide me with the raw material, on how to can and make homemade preserves and popsicles. To pickle cucumbers that are both refreshing and like a spicy sting on your tongue.

But she taught me nothing about how to feed a family, about how a body needs food to live and grow. About how eating should be a thing of pleasure and connection, not simply a matter of survival and utility.

This is one of the most challenging aspects of parenting—the often vast chasm between our good intentions and the actuality. The way the subtext and nuance matter so much more than all we carefully curate on the surface.

By the time I made it to adulthood, I had vehemently rejected all notions of a woman in the kitchen. Cooking to me meant making smoothies and toasting a bagel. And that worked just fine for quite a while. Certainly while I was single. And even to an extent after I was married. My husband likes to cook and nothing in his world view conditioned him to see the kitchen as a woman’s workplace.

But motherhood is different. I find myself again hyperaware of the places where this disordered thinking around food still lingers and hides. Subconsciously the calorie tracker continues to tick, like an outdated program I simply haven’t taken the time to completely uninstall from my hard drive. There are safe foods and unsafe ones. There is the absence of me in the kitchen. There is a consciousness around eating that I think is simultaneously too much, and also just enough.

*

I watch my boys eat. They love what they love and leave the rest behind. Plain and simple. It’s all pretty uncomplicated initially. Just a matter of discovery, learning their tastes, without too much noise from us in the background.

We aim for balance. Something green. Some protein. A grain or two. Fruits and veggies. Not too much sugar, but a little is ok, now and then. Eat until your body says it’s full. Can you feel that feeling? Not too full, but just right. That’s its own sort of education. That is the point of all this really—helping them learn to hear and trust their body’s wisdom. Helping them to understand that eating is not about convention or necessity. Rather, it’s about coming together, nourishment, connection, feeling safe and good. It’s a conversation with oneself about what it wants and doesn’t.

When they were really little, and beginning their exploration of solid foods, I tried to make them the things I knew how to make—casseroles, mashed potatoes. Creamy, Southern stuff. Rich and dense. They were never interested. Initially that made me feel inadequate, guilty, worse, like I wasn’t a proper mom. A mom who cooks and cares for her children the way she should.

But thankfully there is kid wisdom, all the little ways they reveal the truth through the purity of their perspective. The way my boys could really care less whether I cook or don’t. The way that cooking to me is still making smoothies and toasting bagels. The way that, while my husband makes dinner in the kitchen, my sons and I build Lego castles on the rug. We make puppets at the art table. We’ve learned to play to our strengths, to embrace them.

The way I know now that feeding a family is about far more than food.

Raised on a farm in rural Tennessee by evangelicals, Micah is a far way from home in Puerto Vallarta where she lives with her husband and two young sons. She’s in the final stages of revision on a memoir chronicling the path to heal PTSD with MDMA, psilocybin and guided psychotherapy.

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