First, allow me to submit a footnote. There are people who don't have enough food. I've worked with them. There are people who don't have a choice about when and what they eat. I've met them. There are people for whom eating is an intensely painful, psychologically wrought effort. I know them. So, I would never want to complain about my picky eater. It feels very first-world problem-ish. But actually, the journey I've taken with a picky eater (she prefers "selective eater," by the way) over the past nine years has helped me more acutely appreciate the many layers of physical, emotional, cultural and psychological significance wrapped up in the food we eat.
When my 9-year-old was a baby, she vomited constantly. She wasn't in pain or discomfort, thank God, but she vomited ALL. THE. TIME. There is not a single picture from her infancy in which she's not wearing a bib. In fact, the day we baptized her, I had a scroungy old bib covering the gown her grandmother made for her until the absolute last possible second, when I whipped it off and stuck it in my husband's coat pocket, probably. I prefer not to think of the amount of vomit that infiltrated the fibers of the glider rocker where I fed her. Ick.
She was never much of a "healthy" eater, although that has become a bigger and bigger focus for me in these past few years. Currently, I spend hours every week researching food, recipes, grocery shopping and cooking -- only to have her, in response, somehow perfect the ability to feel and taste the tiniest piece of green cilantro (or anything of the hated World of Green, which she shuns), extricate it from a mouthful of food, and place it with utter disdain on the Siberian side of her plate.
She has always dealt with stomachaches, random vomiting, headaches, digestive back-ups and the ever-popular gag at the smell or sight of certain "healthy" foods. (God forbid you actually force her to take a bite of one of them). When we've spent time with people who try to "encourage" her to eat food she doesn't want to eat, she's asked us later if she's a "bad child" because she refuses. In restaurants and social situations that include food, she's asked to sit by me so she'll be shielded from the comments of others about what she's eating. (I guess the Evil Eye of Mama does still work in the world). Holidays and vacations (which always seem to revolve around food!) were sometimes torturous, as it was like being "outed" over and over again for her pickiness. She's cried in my arms because the cramping her tummy is so painful. She's told me flat out, "I can't take this anymore."
We've tried all of the above: Explaining why it's important to eat healthy foods, withholding dessert, making her "take one bite" of everything on her plate, cutting her carb and sugar intake (what's left?), making a game out of eating, tricking her sneaky-chef style (she was very offended when she saw that cookbook, let me tell you), arranging her food in "funny faces" and heart shapes, sending her to culinary camp, allowing her to plant her own vegetable garden, asking her to help with the grocery-buying and cooking, giving her probiotics, peppermint tea and herbal remedies. I drew the line at making her sit at the table until she cleaned her plate, although my husband told her pointed tales of how he was made to do that as a kid. We've had vials of blood drawn out of her little arm to test for food allergies (all negative). The nurse had to stick her three times, and she didn't even cry.
I have always known in my heart that her issues had to be food-related, but I couldn't, for the life of me, figure it out. Finally, last fall, I was prompted by two good friends and the Lord to take her to a specialist, who said confidently, "I know exactly what's wrong, and you can feel better right away by removing ONE little item from your diet." Gluten. The very same day, we went to Whole Foods and bought up every gluten-free item in which she showed an interest. The bill was $89. (I have since learned much more economical and easy methods to keep her diet gluten-free! But it was exciting for us both to think there may be light at the end of the tunnel). I didn't know a thing about the diet, but the words "gluten intolerance" were something to cling to.... Hope. She'd just come off a two-day diarrhea binge after eating the universal kid favorite fast-food hamburger and French fries.
We went back to the specialist one month later. I had to restrain myself from jumping over the desk and kissing her on the lips. Copious tears threatened to spill out as I answered her simple question... How's she doing? Fine. Really good. Really, really good.
That little girl has taken control of her diet and her health. She orders in a restaurant now with confidence. She politely declines any food she's not sure about. She's become (a bit) more open to the healthy foods I put on her plate. She feels consistently well, physically and emotionally. The black shadows under her eyes have disappeared. She doesn't worry that she's a bad child because she doesn't eat the same things that other people do. She started her own web site called "Gluten Free Lifestyle." She's been the catalyst for her whole family to become more mindful of the food we eat. Our family and friends have rallied around her and supported her in the sweetest of ways. Oh, and by the way, she's NINE. I'm so darn proud of her.
So, writing about food. Not as easy as it sounds. Food is an integral, necessary part of every person's daily life and yet it can carry so much weight and burden. It can represent comfort and joy, deprivation and shame. One person's "What's the big deal?" is another's person's Jericho.
So grateful she's been given a victory.