I was diagnosed (possibly misdiagnosed) with celiac disease at about 18 months old and, as a result, had an extremely restricted diet until I was around 4. It’s interesting to look back and remember my big sister, Wendy, being so robust and healthy. I don’t remember any sense of sadness or jealousy. But I do recall, clearly, my mother’s anxiety. Our lives are made up of so many layers and memories, some of which we can never, ever be sure are actual – or manufactured by us or other important people in our lives who “remember.”
Quite a few years ago there was, in the playgroup, a little girl whose parents travelled together a lot for business. She was an incredibly sweet and gentle child. A few months into the playgroup she began repeating, plaintively: “I hungy” (I’m hungry). I would offer her food, and she would just cry. A few days into this odd “behavior” I suddenly had an idea: she was hungry for her parents. I called them and spoke to the mom. I said: “You might think I’m crazy, but I have this idea.” I felt very fortunate that her mother thought it made a lot of sense! Her daughter was doing the same thing at home and the mom said that she and her husband were confounded. I suggested, for future trips, that she and her husband prepare a special calender, so that their daughters could mark the days until they returned home – along with calling and sending cards and presents.
The next week when her daughter came to the playgroup, she, anxiously and once again, repeated: “I hungy.” I asked her if she wanted a hug. She smiled and ran into my arms. At that moment I was as sure as I could be that she knew I understood what she was feeling. What a beautiful moment! If my memory serves, she rarely said she was “hungy” anymore. In fact, it became something we could laugh about together, like an inside joke. I’m continuously amazed that adults can make such deep connections with very young people.
When my daughter, Sara, was about 2-1/2, she wanted rice cereal for breakfast, pasta with parmesan cheese and steamed broccoli for lunch, and pasta with parmesan cheese and steamed broccoli for dinner. (Loving all kinds of food ourselves, we did offer her other things!) I had recently transitioned her from her beloved bottle – of milk or orange juice – and decided to put a small glass of milk next to her plate. Eventually, she drank the milk. I made a point of not saying anything – of not pushing her to eat anything in particular – of simply enjoying our meals together. Her father and I did the old: “Eat your dinner and then you’ll get desert.” This was a “left-over” from our own childhoods. We stopped doing that, though, because it always seemed like creating a battle that didn’t need to exist.
Since it’s inception in 1984, I’ve carried this attitude to the kids who have attended the playgroup. No pressure to eat. Only, if they’re hungry, to eat and drink at the kitchen table. What usually happens is that their desire to be with each other at lunch and snack time trumps their need for attention from my assistant, Kristen, and me. Lunch lasts anywhere from 10-30 minutes, depending on their level of hunger and how much they like what their parents packed for them.