Friday, January 14, 2011

motherhood and food

I was driving home from something one evening a couple weeks ago, a church or consulting event probably, and had NPR on in the car. I just caught one part of one story - I don't even know what the program was. It was a story about a first mom and the son she had given up for adoption. They both spoke about the experience of reunion, how he came and found her at the library she worked at and she knew the instant she saw him who he was.

It was a fairly emotional thing to listen to, regardless of what role adoption might play in your life. But I didn't actually start sobbing until the mother mentioned food. It was her first impulse, upon meeting her son. She wanted to feed him, to take him somewhere and buy him food.

My internet friend who is a first mother blogs about food a lot too. She wishes aloud that she could send her son food, she plans carefully for what to make when he comes with his parents to visit. Another of my favorite blog first mom friends uses a food word as her daughter's internet code name.

A lot of my friends on facebook and in my actual regular life have given birth recently, or are expecting. They are all fairly obsessed with feeding their babies, breastfeeding in particular. It wasn't long after J's placement, a few months maybe, when there was a big Similac recall. I made the mistake of clicking on a link that one of my friends posted to information about the recall that was on a breastfeeding support site. The comments left there by breastfeeding mothers about formula and the women who feed it to their children hurt my feelings even though I knew that few of them would fault me in particular for using formula.

J didn't drink Similac, except for about the first month of her life. We paid premium price for name brand organic formula, and bought Fiji water to mix it with to boot. Now she drinks organic milk. The only time she's ever eaten baby food from a jar is when we were camping or traveling. I own four baby food cookbooks and use them, although her favorite recipes are simple - curried broccoli, black beans and yogurt, carrots with ginger. I love cooking for her, feeding her, watching her eat. When she was still drinking formula I obsessed over the cleanliness of the bottles, the measurements, everything.

I'm not trying to brag, or suggest that anyone needs to feed their child the way I feed mine. Objectively I realize that our plan is labor intensive and works for us because we like doing that sort of labor intensive thing. And there is part of me that feels the loss of not being able to breastfeed J, and looks to make sure she has every other culinary advantage. But I've been thinking about food and motherhood and how connected they are. And about the also interesting and not always healthy relationship I have with food myself, as a female in a culture that sends its females wildly mixed messages about what, how,and how much a successful and attractive woman should eat. In the best world I would care as much about what I eat, where it comes from, and how it nourishes me as I do about the food I give to my daughter. In the worst world we mothers take the back biting competitiveness that the worst in our culture teaches us to use with each other and project it onto others' parenting choices to do or not do the breastfeeding, organic food, expensive formula, co-sleeping, etc. It feels counterproductive to me, maybe especially when I'm the judger and not the judged.

I spent six years interviewing parents who had been reported to Child Protective Services because of poor parenting choices. I met some people who had screwed up spectacularly, but I never met someone who didn't love their child. At the end of the day we're all just trying to feed our kids. We can't all breastfeed, and some of us can't parent, but on some level we all want the same thing - to love them so deeply and completely that they thrive and grow and devour the experience of being alive.

I love just about everything about being J's mother, but feeding her is a special sort of pleasure. It's hard to quantify the deep joy that I experience when she eats a large meal, or I notice that she is taller, sturdier, steadier. I think about how my mom still arranges to cook for us, whenever we visit and even sometimes when she visits us. I think about that mother on the radio. She said she couldn't even eat, she just wanted to watch her son eat food she had bought for him and hear about the nineteen years she had missed.

I hope Z has the chance to feed J. And that she doesn't have to wait nineteen years.


  1. Fed by the bread of life....take and eat, this is my body, given for you...
    these are the words that instantly resonated with me when reading your post. These are close to what our family hears every Sunday at communion. Your post brings me to tears, just as the radio story did to you... you are such an insightful, thoughtful, nurturing sweet soul Alissa! I, as an adoptive mother, also find such pleasure when baby Isa eats. I never really thought about the "why" part before until I read your post. I recently re-read all of our baby's hospital records from the nursery she was taken to and it brought me to tears when I read the "food log" the nurses so diligently kept, and found myself almost "rooting for baby Isa" while scrolling down through the hours and days they logged her formula intake. It broke my heart when I saw the words "poor adequate intake" and the like. Similarly, when I think about our babygirl's first mom, delivering her all alone, I have often wondered in those precious first 2 hours of her life, if her first mom tried to feed her. There's a good chance I might not ever know the answer to that, but somehow it bothers me and I would like to think maybe she was fed, especially when I see any baby stories, or birth stories on tv, the first thing first mom's appear to do is to feed their baby....

  2. I'm just now reading this but it is so powerful. Thanks for sharing and letting me think about things that often just become routine. I think one of the scariest things for me was allowing L to wean. I was ready, she was ready, but the surrender of "mama's milk" was very hard for me. Your post has given me some food for thought (pardon the pun!)