It’s been a heck of a week. P. came down with a raging case of Coxsackie virus, and an ear infection to boot (talk about adding insult to injury!), prompting his doctor to advise us on Monday: “Don’t let him go back to school for at least the entirety of this week.”
As with all things related to kids and emergencies, it couldn’t have come at a worse time: J. is managing a team that’s implementing a huge project launch this week at work, and I was slated to spend two days at a mega-conference as the guest of our CEO. The conference itself was enough of a jolt to our schedules, requiring rearrangements of pick-ups and drop-offs and carpools (not to mention really careful attention to the planning and execution of dinners); but with me effectively out of the picture, we had to then figure out how to keep J. available for at least some of his duties at work, while keeping P. and his contagious throat ulcers (ew!) away from the rest of the unsuspecting world. And doing so on very, very limited sleep, because painful throat ulcers + new molars + ear infection makes for a truly, mind-blowingly cranky baby.
As we worked on figuring out the mechanics of all this (and finally made a desperate phone call to my mother — Gramma to the rescue!), we were also, obviously, concerned with how to best care for our ailing little one. P. wasn’t — for reasons that are glaringly clear — much in the mood to eat or drink anything, which was making him crankier and more miserable. We were worried about dehydration; the pediatrician was also concerned about lack of calories, since P. is so tiny to begin with. The prescription? Besides an antibiotic for the ear, and painkillers for the discomfort, she advised a steady diet of ice cream and Gatorade, and also pressed upon us a complimentary package of juice box-looking things that apparently contained some kind of nutritional supplement drink, just in case P. wouldn’t take anything else.
So we bundled him home and picked up his medicine, a bunch of all-natural vanilla ice cream, and enough Gatorade to get any football team through the hottest of bowl games. I called the daycare program to let them know that P. would be out all week, and to alert them to the Coxsackie issue — it’s wildly contagious, so I wanted them to be able to tell other parents to keep an eye on their kids for symptoms. The director, an awesome human being who adores P., was pained and sympathetic. “Poor baby!” she gushed. “What can you do for it?”
“Seriously,” I said, “they told us to feed him ice cream.”
Pause. She chuckled, somewhat uncomfortably. “Yeah, but –” I could hear her trying to formulate her question. Finally she blurted, “Would you ever actually DO that?”
Blink. Blink. Huh?
I realized in that moment that I need to be very careful about how I allow myself to be perceived. I don’t think it had ever truly occurred to me that it’s possible for others to totally misunderstand my intentions, my beliefs, or my principles around this food and nutrition thing. When L. goes to school with smoked salmon sandwiches and orange slices, his teachers remark to me, “He’s so…HEALTHY”; when P. devours his avocado quesadillas and fruit and yogurt parfaits, I hear “I can’t believe what you pack for him!” I’ve always thought these were good statements — I’ve always figured that people basically know healthy food choices when they see them, and are glad when they see kids and families who are able to make those good choices work, at least on a semi-regular basis. But at this moment in time, conversing with the director about the Ice Cream Prescription, I felt the blood rush to my face.
It occurred to me, as I stood there clutching the phone to my ear, that this wonderful, well-meaning, totally engaged human being, whose involvement in my kids’ lives is a gift, whose thoughts and opinions I value, actually thought that there was a chance that I’d ignore the advice of a medical professional because I’m one of those “healthy” moms. There was a possibility that she actually believed that I don’t allow my kids to have simple pleasures, like ice cream, because I’m so attuned to their diets and so against packing junk in their lunchboxes. It was possible…even likely…that in her mind, I’m some kind of Nutrition Nazi who deprives her kids of cookies and candy and the typical treats of childhood. And I had to wonder, how did we get to that place?
Let me be crystal-clear: My kids eat ice cream. They don’t eat it every day or even every week, but they eat it. Do I check the label? Sure. Do I try to buy ice cream that is closer to the five-ingredient rule than not? Sure. Do I prefer brands like Ben and Jerry’s, which has a social conscience and guiding principles that agree with my worldview, to big chain budget brands? Of course. But my kids eat ice cream. And even if that weren’t the case, if a doctor says to me, “Feed your child THIS,” I’m going to do it — even if the big-budget chain ice cream with all the additives and crap is the only option. Because when my baby is as sick and miserable as P. has been, I will do whatever it takes to make him feel better.
I’m in an uncomfortable place now, because I’ve been forced to recognize that even those decisions that we, as parents, think are unimpeachable can be cast in a negative light by others. Of course the last thing any parent should be focused on is how his or her parenting decisions are thought of by others; and of course, one of the demons that remains uppermost in our thoughts is precisely that. “How am I doing?” we wonder vaguely, even subconsciously. “Is this right? Is this good?” We are hyper-aware of every disapproving look cast in the direction of our misbehaving toddlers; we are disproportionately pleased with ourselves when we receive smiles and kind remarks from strangers about our beautiful/well-behaved/smart/exceptional children. We seek out other parents who will agree with our views, whose parenting choices seem to align most closely with ours, and whose support we feel assured of receiving even when we know, deep down, that we’re floundering and that THROWING the toys back into the bin in view of our screaming tykes was not the most restrained nor high-minded parenting moment.
But I still thought that feeding them well was going to be a subject that would invite no debate. So now, in the midst of this particular moment of floundering, I have to examine myself and my intentions and the way in which I communicate my messages. Have I unconsciously discussed my beliefs in a way that has alienated others? Have I been so focused in my passion that it’s been mistaken for certitude? Or is it simply, as with anything else, that challenging the status quo can make others uneasy?
I don’t know the answers, but I’ll be thinking about it. And in the meantime, P.’s steady diet of ice cream seems not to have harmed him. He’s on the mend now –expanding his repertoire to yogurt, applesauce, and some of his more favored solids — and yes, both he and L. have unquestionably enjoyed the benefits reaped from having large quantities of ice cream stashed in the freezer (I’m no ogre; if P.’s eating ice cream for dinner, L. can certainly have a dish for dessert). We’ll be slowly returning to more usual eating habits over the weekend, but I’m sure that as we do, I’ll be plagued with some self-doubt. I think I’d prepared myself for my kids’ experiences of peer pressure; I just hadn’t counted on feeling some of my own.