Packing school lunch is on my mind again. Much less angst this year, in part because my daughter’s taste in food has recently expanded to include much more variety–even salad! Things mixed together! Maybe making lunches will be easier this year. Here’s what I wrote on the topic last fall, from much shakier ground. Enjoy!
(September 11, 2012)
My four-and-three-quarters year old only child needed a lunchbox. She had been in half-day Nursery school the previous year, but after I got full-time work, my husband and I decided to enroll her for full days. She was fine with this plan, excited. (After the first year’s welcome picnic, she had said about her school, “I want to live here.”) But for several days after we had made the full-time decision, I felt trapped and agitated, grieving the loss of the era when she wouldn’t be in school all day. When I mentioned this to friends at the swimming pool, they recognized themselves in me: the anxiety more about mother than child, about my hesitation to let go.
When our daughter was a baby, our decisions about how to care for her were based on the desire to build a strong foundation of attachment. This included breastfeeding, wearing her continually in soft wraps, and co-sleeping (though sleeping was never guaranteed). After building this foundation, our intention is to encourage her independence, let her risk, and fall, and find her way.
So with full days approaching, it was time to find a lunchbox. My preference was something environmentally friendly, BPA-free (if plastic), easy for her to use, and easy for us to clean. Cute enough that she would be excited about it, but not emblazoned with some over-merchandized character. Goodbye Kitty: no billboard on my baby’s lunchbox. This increasingly mythic lunchbox would be an adventure. The container itself would reveal a culinary wonderland, encouraging my daughter to finish every morsel from each charmed and airtight compartment. Lunch would be a treasure hunt, and she would find delectable whole food gold and pearls. I got on the Internet.
A system! Yes, a system, with snap-on lids and stackability, a perfect feat of modern hipster design that would keep yogurt from spilling and keep fruit fresh and gorgeous. Controlled and tidy! No mere lunchbox, but a sculpture, a work of art, something beautiful to cradle the nutrition within. I would figure out how to make the magic food later.
I posted a Social Media status plea for advice. Friends responded with links; I moved through screen after screen of rainbow-hued vessels. The photographs made everything look smart, sassy, and simple.
I know this quest is a luxury. We have food to nourish our healthy child; we have a healthy child to send to school. Still, the iconic notion of LUNCHBOX so overwhelmed me that I did what I often do: procrastinate. I enjoyed the dregs of summer, went to the beach, and swam in the ocean with my family and friends, who told me to relax, and that every child leaves most lunch food uneaten.
A couple nights before the start of school, as my anxiety about my daughter being away from me for the bulk of her food day crested, remnants of Hurricane Isaac were approaching Ohio in the form of potential rain–desperately needed during our drought. (Yes, please, it’s dry up here, I thought, though I hoped storms would not disturb our sleep.) At bedtime, I talked with my daughter about the rain, which I’d accidentally referred to as “storms.” I got the Peters Atlas Of The World to show her how far Ohio is from Louisiana. As she paged through the color-coded thematic maps, with data about religions, illiteracy, and adults-to-children ratios, I explained that each map is a picture of the world.
“The whole world?” she asked.
“Yup,” I said.
On the map of the United States, I showed her the two-day, twelve-hour drive we’d taken from Ohio to the beach in North Carolina, represented in about one centimeter on the map. I saw her seeing how big the world is. I saw her world about to get bigger with the start of full days at school.
The next day, slightly frenzied, I bought a BPA-free sandwich box with a built-in ice pack, so whatever we sent with her would not spoil. Now I see the wisdom in the bento box–smallish sections for each snack-sized food. (I know my child is a grazer, and sensible enough to eat something rather than pass out on the playground. In the days of her early meals, she would toddle past the table as my husband or I held out a spoon. She would take a bite. We referred to this as street food.)
I talked to another writer, a sagely parent of older kids. I mentioned that my child, my infant, had begun full day Nursery school.
“Is this the first time she’s had lunch at school?” he asked.
“You hit it!” I said, and explained my dilemma. “So I’m writing an essay about it,” I said.
On the first day of school, my daughter ate one bite of her sandwich, and a few grapes. As usual, she ate the school snacks (crackers, chips, and fruit, but never the cheese, because it’s not our cheese). She had a walnut-sized piece of what our family calls “sticky food”: a homemade granola bar, made from tahini and other healthy stuff.
On the second day, she told me she ate a few bites of her fritter (an egg and cheese pancake with cinnamon, paprika, and turmeric, which has been a staple throughout her solid food-eating life) but when I unwrapped the foil, I saw no missing bites.
On the third day, I sent less food. She ate no green beans, but she ate grapes, and half of the one fritter I had cut into small pieces.
In the dark night, I realized that the child from my body, who still breastfeeds (ritual, nostalgia for the days when breasts yielded meals) was starting to experience the expanse of that map-centimeter’s journey, how the map is really so much smaller than the world. She would be thrilled with a Hello Kitty lunchbox. But from the center of my body came the urge to pack the whole of my nurturing into her lunchbox. That lunchbox would have to be bigger than the world. But even a breast-shaped lunchbox could not contain the complex, flawed, sometimes rejected and ignored nutrition of my love.
As my body navigates this maternal threshold, the things I am not doing become as important as the things I am doing. Inaction becomes action. I remind my body it doesn’t have to dash from work to make eleven-thirty pickup time. I know that I will miss big moments, maybe her first crossing of monkey bars. There is heartbreak. I cannot cook her lunch every day anymore, making sure everything on the plate is crisp; I cannot nag her, midday, to sit and eat.
The loss of control feels like a full force gale. Wanting her to soar and not wanting to let go, the mind battles the body, and usually wins, knowing that for her to grow and thrive, she needs me to let go.
Maybe today she will eat more.