Was I even a good mom today? Did my kids feel any love from me? Did we laugh or talk?
I despised being Sergeant No.
After everything I unearthed during my research, I understood the world did not have my family’s health in its best interest. Constantly trying to shield them was exhausting. Modern parenting felt like pushing a double stroller through the Boston Marathon in a hailstorm while trying to protect the kiddos amidst a constant barrage of pelting, frozen peas.
I first sensed this dark cloud when Tanner entered preschool. I was delighted for his first taste of independence and ninety minutes in a loving, nurturing environment. However, I silently observed the parent-supplied, non-birthday cupcakes twice the size of his pudgy fist, handed out for 10:00 a.m. snack. As a relatively new mom, I hadn’t found my voice. I kept my opinions to myself and rarely stood up for what I thought. Unspoken mom-pressure kept it that way. Instead, I watched the children’s eager eyes and giddy smiles as the “favorite moms” brought in frosted delights and the disappointment on their faces when I provided sliced apples and pretzel sticks.
When my second son, Kyle, entered school, he brought home a memo outlining allowable, allergy-friendly snacks. The “healthy food” column included Twizzler candy and marshmallows. Just what my kids needed—a printed document from the educational system classifying blown sugar as a recommended health food. Since then, our schools have made progress and now support and encourage healthier snacks. But that experience was an eye-opening parenting lesson for me; regardless of my personal philosophies and preferences, I couldn’t control what happened outside my home.
As errands and after school activities increased with age, the constant, cheap junk food confrontations went from pea-sized pelts to a frozen strawberry pounding. At the grocery store, I fended off well-intentioned bakers who offered my children pancake-sized frosted cookies while I shopped for bread. Those cookies were so pretty, so enticing, yet my firm, gentle voice asked, “Didn’t you already have a treat in school?” While waiting in line for the cashier, we spent about seven tortuous minutes surrounded sneaker-to-pigtail by candy bars and bubble gum in the checkout lanes. Tired, battered, and grouchy, I curtly replied to every request, “No. Just no,” while trying to choose between paper or plastic since my reusable bags were in the trunk. On Tuesday afternoons, we’d sit for thirty minutes in a musty, guitar-lesson lobby surrounded by a pile of year-old Popular Science magazines and two glaring vending machines which whispered, “Cheetos anyone? Coke? Snickers? Anyone? Anyone?” Like a Groundhog Day movie flashback, I kept repeating to my duckling entourage, “No, honey, not today.” Pelt, pelt, pelt. Baseball practice involved two hours sitting on bleachers adjacent to a well-placed snack shack, the air saturated with the tantalizing aroma of fried dough, hot popcorn, and deep-fried chicken nuggets. Spring was damp and chilly and even I had to be strong. I’d chant, “We’ll be home for dinner in an hour.” School fundraisers kicked off in September with motivating pep rallies encouraging my children to sell frozen cookie dough or boxes of chocolate candy bars so their classes could win, of all things, an ice cream party. The barber handed out lollipops. The red candy machines on the way out of the toy store offered Skittles, Boston Baked Beans, and gumballs for a measly quarter. My children were constantly asking for quarters.
It really wasn’t the isolated instances—the one friend who baked sumptuous brownies or the neighbor who invited my children to decorate egg-shaped sugar cookies—it was the exhaustion from battling the constant barrage of excess that depleted me. From the viewpoint of a person under forty-eight inches, the world was a Candyland—a couple Oompa-Loompas short of Willie Wonka's Chocolate Factory. We lived in a tantalizing, tempting, coaxing, persuading, junk food Garden of Eaten.
So whom did that make me? Let me tell you. Not a noble, admired, loved family member. It made me the No-Meister. No this. No that. No. No. No. A sour-party-pooper-wound-too-tight-mother. An evil mommy. A control freak. A woman who wanted to throw the towel in every three days, give or take a grocery trip. An exhausted parent who fell asleep wondering,
Was I even a good mom today? Did my kids feel any love from me? Did we laugh or talk?
I despised being Sergeant No.
At this point, it may surprise you to know I do encourage my kids (and even myself) to revel in life’s pleasures. My weakness is salty, crunchy snacks and cheesy, warm appetizers at book club or at football parties.
I’m not embarrassed to admit that all members of the Marsh family have a love for cookies—homemade chocolate chip or oatmeal cookies to be exact. Instead of being a dictator, I found empathy by declaring, “My favorite cookies are oatmeal, especially warm from the oven!” My children were amazed I was, in fact, not a cold-hearted control freak, but a real human who also loved warm cookies. On occasional Sunday afternoons, I pull down our organic ingredients, and the kids mix and scoop. The Easter Bunny manages to bring treats, and Santa Claus still fills stockings. Birthdays have cakes. I am not such the Evil One.
While I embrace a special treat here and there, the definition of “treat” has become muddied.
I have read that a treat used to be a juicy, seasonal fruit; the sweetness from a watermelon or blueberry was all we humans needed. (I wonder what the checkout aisles looked like then! Were children surrounded sneaker-to-pigtail in clementines and kumquats?) Did we once nibble on those items with the same reverence we now give to a chocolate-frosted donut? In many cases, treats simply blend in with everyday food. Which part of fast food is the treat: hamburger, fries, or soda? All of them? Or do we consider that dinner, and for a treat we order an additional apple pie or chocolate shake? If a food’s first five ingredients include one or more types of sugar, shouldn’t we consider that a treat of the week? This definition varies from parent to parent. We can’t teach our children moderation without first deciding how we define a treat. Is it sweets? Junk food in general? When should we indulge? How often? What is a healthy rule of thumb? Do we look to books, or do we look within for our answers?
Defining a treat is also difficult for our children. On one particular trip to a discount store, I challenged my kids, “Buy any snack you want as long as it is healthy.” (Interpretation: I will be as humanely patient as possible while waiting for you to make a decision in the name of a life experience, even if it takes you twenty minutes of perusing all the aisles.) I thought this was a rather generous exercise, as I did not start the sentence by setting a price limit or dictating what they could not have. At the end of the quest (and my patience), one of my children went for nuts. Another for raisins. And the third proudly decided on fruit…snacks, that is. Fruit snacks. Gummy, plastic snacks, made with nothing but recently invented corn syrup and food colorings (not genuine food). My son’s long lashes and sky blue eyes melted with disappointment as he tried to grasp why this didn’t pass. Why? They were called fruit (pointing at the illustration on the package). His friends ate them for snacks, not treats. Why was mom saying with a firm, clenched voice, “Let’s choose something better”? In the end, it was eye opening to see the world from their level. Kids don’t compare toothpaste, but they do compare lunch box items. They don’t proudly share what brand of shampoo they use but are proud to announce what snacks or treats they brought from home. As soon as children hit the school cafeteria, they learn not-so-subtle messages about what food is cool to eat and what is not.
Another lesson started with a slamming door, a backpack thrown on the floor, and a beaming daughter exclaiming, “Mom we had Oreos for snack today at school!” Then she paused, reconsidered her words and whom she was telling. “They were organic Oreos.” I bit my lip. I was silent. I looked at her. She was only six and she was trying to be aware of the things her mom was concerned about. Finally my restraint faltered, and I broke out laughing, causing a flash of anger to cross her face. “Honey, Oreos—organic or not—are not food.” It made sense to me, as junk food does not equate to real food. To me. I had forgotten my audience, and my response brought utter confusion and watery eyes. Emphatically and assertively (I do love this in her) she stated, “Yes. They are. They have wheat.” What could I say? The double-sided chocolate cookies, a precious treasure, were handed out by her beloved teachers and ravished by her peers. Who was I in her world? It will be a few more years before she really understands my selective, food classification system. In the meantime, I will bite my lip and celebrate her awareness instead. My children did want to show me they were doing their best, but again, many times I stumbled and had to learn as well.
With the lessons my children taught me, I dug down deep and decided to employ the strategies parents use to prepare their kids for social pressures—awareness and discussions—to arm my children with tools to navigate through real-life seductions. If we can empower children to face down cigarettes, drugs, underage drinking (and now what kind of lip-gloss to buy), I certainly could educate them around the dinner table, while shopping, or while traveling. My goal became to raise my children to be media savvy, with the confidence to resist peer pressure with a polite “no thank you” when needed, in hopes they would go forth and make decent decisions in the name of health and a good life.
I muster up my resolve, stand my ground, and offer bear hugs and an “I’m so proud of you!” for report cards and season-ending baseball games. The outside world offers prizes in boxes, social acceptance through brand names, and funny cartoon characters on packaging. My nemesis—junk food companies and their advertising—spent 4.2 million dollars in advertising in 2009. That is some serious persuasion vying for my children’s loyalty, birthday money, and lifelong addictions. I will never be bigger or more powerful than the industry. I can only do what I can do.
When I shifted to this viewpoint, I found tools ready and available for parents like me. Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution television series brought in someone other than Mom leading the discussion. The website, www.theMeatrix.com, used cartoon spoofs to share the basics of factory farming to a preteen’s mind without using real animal film footage. Michael Pollan published his Omnivore’s Dilemma in a young adult version, which I now recommend to most adults. Food Inc, a movie inspired by Omnivore’s Dilemma, now stimulates peer discussion in high school philosophy classes as well as being an effective introduction tool for husbands.
I was careful not to preach to my children. I empathized alongside them, discussing why it is harder in their generation than it was in mine. At least my age group simply didn’t know. We discussed what it meant to farm organically and why some farmers chose to do it. I thought it would be better to feed them morsels of information, let the conversation develop, and allow their questions to guide the way. I resolved not only to answer them truthfully but also to be the best role model I could. I’m a firm believer that children learn more from what they watch and witness than what they hear. This, of course, meant I couldn’t constantly indulge in my favorite snacks either. I, too, had to practice restraint and choose the apple or carrot sticks over the potato chips, even when I really, really wanted those chips. No more using the excuse, “Because I’m the mom,” when my kids asked why I was allowed to do something they weren’t.
I believe if they witness that these ideals are important to me today, then these ideals will be important to them tomorrow.
(P.S. They made it. ;)