A week or so ago I took E. in to town on Saturday morning so he could ride on the double-decker bus and we could go to the library to choose some new books for bedtime stories, and so Q. could have some peace and quiet and time to himself where he didn’t have a toddler shouting at him (as the transition to our life here has caused some bumps in our son’s normally sunny disposition).
E. had a blast. He loved riding on the double-decker bus, especially when he opted to sit on the top level on the way home again. He loved the library and the wooden train whose cars serve as storage for picture books. He climbed all over the engine while I tried to choose some titles I thought he would like. Selected Nursery Rhymes and Posy? HUGE hits. Mr. Gumpy’s Outing and The Foggy Foggy Forest? Not so much.
Once we were home I told Q. all about our day. I finished with having a rant about the English and how nuts they are about their sweets. They really are crazy for their cakes, and their biscuits, and their chocolate covered digestives, and their lollies and their chocolate bars. The queue for self-checkouts in any shop inevitably runs the full gauntlet of sweeties.
“You’ll never guess what I saw.” I told Q. “When we were walking through the arcade on the way to the library, there was a father with a little girl, younger than E., in a stroller, and he was buying her a cookie from that cookie shop. It wasn’t even 10 in the morning!”
“Well,” said Q. thoughtfully, “we do that sometimes with E. when we go to the market.”
And that stopped me dead. Because he was absolutely right. Back home we took E. to the farmer’s market nearly every Saturday. He’d have his morning snack while Q. did the shopping and I watched the toddler. E. could choose what he wanted and for weeks he always requested the same thing: a ginger cookie from a particular stall.
So E. was often eating a cookie, albeit a low sugar organic one, at 10 a.m. on Saturdays. And I often felt the judgment from other parents at the market, whose children were eating non-fat, no sugar (and no taste- I’ve tried them) sweet potato muffins or fresh fruit, or children who weren’t getting a snack at all. Sometimes I even got passive-aggressive comments along the lines of, “Well aren’t you a lucky little boy having a cookie so early in the morning!”, at which I’d have to bite my tongue to keep from replying with some sort of rationalization for my actions, like “Oh yes, it’s a special treat!” Because, really, who the fuck do these people think they are? They have no idea about our lives, no way of knowing that E. normally eats a very healthy diet with lots of fruit (if almost no veggies these days). I love getting a treat at the market: a freshly baked scone, or a brownie to have with tea that afternoon. And ever since we started the baby-led weaning adventure, we’ve operated under the principle that what we eat, E. gets to eat. So if I can have a treat at the market, he should too.
Parents in our neighbourhood at home are exceptionally conscious about food. I constantly hear mothers (because it’s always mothers) offering excuses or being self-deprecating at the drop-ins if their child is eating something packaged, or, gasp, possibly not entirely good for them. “The other mothers must think I’m a terrible parent, giving you this fruit leather,” said one mum on one occasion. “Look at all those other kids eating lovely homemade snacks.” I couldn’t really tell whether she was just calling us out because she felt silently judged, or if she was trying to head off the judgment by acknowledging that she’d made poor choices, or if she was trying to point out the ridiculousness of judging the competence of other parents by their children’s snacks. She had three kids, so I’m hoping it was the latter. I have seriously lost count of the number of times someone at a drop-in or playgroup has apologized for their child eating something that came out of a package. These kids aren’t sharing these snacks- the mother is apologizing as if the sight of her child eating a processed food is offensive to the other mothers whose children are eating chopped up fruit or home-made muffins. It takes a self-deprecating form, and it often has some type of justification in it, “Oh goodness, it’s too bad you’re eating these animal crackers but we were in such a rush to get out the door to get your brother from preschool”, but the end result is the same: mothers criticizing themselves for their child’s snack because they KNOW that the other mothers are judging them, and acknowledging it and making it clear that this snack is somehow an aberration and most snacks are lovely and healthy and home-made is some sort of weird self-defense to ward off the judgment.
It is totally bizarre, and I have more than once over the winter gone home and told Q. all about it. I’ve even been on the other end, when I’ve commented to another parent at the market that the cookie their child is eating looks delicious, and they immediately respond with, “Yes, well I suppose it’s full of sugar, and she shouldn’t be eating it, but oh well.” They hear: “You are a bad parent letting your child eat that cookie. Don’t you know cookies are bad for her?” when what I meant was: “Hot damn that cookie looks amazing. Where can I buy one?”
There is another mother in our neighbourhood who drives me absolutely MENTAL in the way that she interacts with her daughter. At the open house for E’s preschool she was there, and she confirmed all of my prejudices about her when during the session explaining parental duties she put her hand up and said, “What sort of snacks do people bring in? We’ve never given our daughter sugar.”, which translates as: “Is this preschool going to be filled with ignorant parents who will stuff my daughter full of wicked sweet things?” Her daughter is younger than E., but only by a couple of months.
I have a big problem with the way that sugar has been demonized in our neighbourhood. I don’t know what these kids think when they hear their mothers speak negatively about themselves for allowing their children to eat something processed. Instinctively I can’t see how it sets anyone up for a good relationship with food later on. As for the banning of sugar, that strikes me as ridiculously extreme (see, I’m judging again). We don’t eat a lot of dessert, but when we do, E. always has some. And sometimes he wolfs it down and requests more, and sometimes we give him more, and other times we have a talk about how we don’t have seconds of dessert, that we have only a small amount. And sometimes he gets halfway through and declares he’s all done, even occasionally with ice cream, which is his all-time favourite treat. This just blows my mind. I am simply not capable of leaving food on my plate, especially dessert. I can be stuffed to the gills, but if there is chocolate cake to be had, I will keep on eating.
I want more than anything to protect this ability of E’s to moderate his own appetite, to eat when he is hungry, to stop when he is full. I never, ever, want dessert to become the forbidden fruit, something that he covets. We will never tell E. that he can’t have dessert unless he eats his vegetables, or has five more bites of dinner, or whatever. We don’t want to establish that dessert is a bribe, and vegetables are things that require a bribe in order to be worth eating. Some nights we have dessert. Most nights we don’t. I have so many food issues (another post on that coming soon, I hope), and I want so much to be able to keep E. clear of them.
The thing is, the families in my neighbourhood back home are predominantly white, upper-middle class. If both parents work, there’s usually a nanny. Alternatively many families can afford to have one parent working part-time (it’s rare to get a stay at home parent), or both parents work flexible enough hours that they can juggle a lot of child-care between them, like Q. and I have been doing. Houses are expensive (we’d be priced out of the market if we were just now looking to buy). Some, but not all, children will go to private schools. Many, but not all, cars in the driveways are more expensive European models: VWs, some Audis.
And our white, upper-middle class neighbourhood is the perfect, perfect reflection of privileged society’s current obsession with food. We can afford to shop at a farmer’s market. We can afford to buy organic fruits and vegetables. We think we should be able to cook everything from scratch. And we judge those who fail to live up to our standards.
I try not to fall into this trap, given I’m so aware of it. I know that mothers judge each other on their children’s food choices because it gives them a way to bolster up their own insecurities. We seem, as mothers, to be incapable of NOT judging each other. There are always, always, memes going around on Face.book or the like exhorting mothers to get along, to not judge, to refrain from making comments about someone else’s parenting decisions, because you don’t live in that family. And, for the most part, I try to do my best. I have my own personal opinions about breastfeeding, and co-sleeping, and attachment parenting, and sleep training, and potty learning, and infant feeding, and developmental stages, and appropriate toys, etc. etc., and I know what works for our family, and what works for E. And as I’ve become more confident as a mother I’ve been able to more successfully beat down that little voice inside of me that is desperate to make me feel better by thinking worse of someone else: because their child is eating fast food, or watches television, or still wakes up in the night.
I’m definitely not perfect, and I still have some big bug bears where it is very very hard for me to reserve judgment. Feeding soda pop to a baby less than a year old is one. Toddlers with their own iPads is another. And I will absolutely judge, and get very very angry about, the vaccine issue, because that doesn’t just affect one family and one child, and I cannot, will not, sit by and be silent when people peddle inaccurate, discounted information (outright lies in some cases) to frightened new mothers who want the best for their children. (I’m not super popular on my city-centric Mummies Face.book group as a result since the cry “Can’t we just all respect each other’s opinions and agree to disagree” is like a red flag to a bull for me on this issue.)
But I’m getting better at recognizing that I can afford to be so snobby and so superior and so judgey about my family’s food choices when compared to someone else’s, BECAUSE I operate from a position of privilege, where I have access to the knowledge I need to understand nutrition, the good, organic, real food I need to cook with, the skills to know how to cook it, and, most importantly, the money to be able to buy it. And I also recognize that I use my instinctive judginess about food and toys (especially electronic ones), which are my two biggest issues, to make me feel better about areas in my parenting where maybe I don’t feel as secure.
I’m trying to realize that it’s much more about me than it is about them.
But, as Q. made me realize that Saturday, I’ve still got some work to do.