In the beginning, before they could talk, I would tally their dirty diapers when there were questions about whether or not they were getting enough to eat. How many wet diapers? How many poopy diapers? How does this compare to the usual? Eventually we taught them baby sign language and they could start to tell us themselves, when they wanted milk or food, if they wanted more or were all done. They are little boys now, four and six years old, and there are no more questions about it. They tell me exactly when they’re hungry, when they’re not, what they hope to eat, what they won’t touch, what’s too spicy, too hot, too gross, or too green. I worry they’re eating too much sugar and not enough vegetables.
So much of motherhood is about feeding children.
When I was pregnant with my first son, reading all the books and the blogs and asking my veteran friends all the questions, I mostly overlooked the amount of time and energy that would go into feeding him. Of course I knew I’d have to feed my baby — and eventual toddler, and eventual big kid, but I thought it would be more of a checkbox task. Feed him to keep him alive, and then move on to the real work of motherhood. I thought the feeding part was just a prerequisite to get to the juicier stuff like sleep schedules and discipline philosophies and socialization.
And then I actually became a mom.
The very first time I lifted that tiny baby to my breast, both of us delirious and exhausted, it was evident that the act of feeding him was hardly about food at all. My body was suddenly something brand new. The way he instinctively knew what to do was perhaps the second greatest miracle I had ever witnessed firsthand, the first having been his arrival into the world just moments before. I was at once filled with worry about whether or not I was doing it right, and contentment that I was doing it at all. And with that, my motherhood journey had started.
Breastfeeding always toed that line of being about feeding and being about something more. The connection between mother and child, the celebration of what a woman’s body can do, the amazement at the divine design of it all, the way he looked up at me so adoringly and made it all seem so simple and romantic, if only for that moment.
I’ll never forget the first time I fed my second son, either. He was 14 days old and we met him in the NICU a few hours earlier, called in by our social worker after a long process to become foster parents who hoped to adopt our second child through the foster system. He was only four pounds, bug-eyed and doll-like. He had a feeding tube permanently inserted up his nose as he hadn’t fully developed his suckle reflex yet, but the nurses had starting giving him bottles for a few minutes at a time. One of the nurses showed me how to do it, unwrapping a slow-flow nipple from it’s sterile hospital wrapper and securing it onto a test-tube sized bottle of high calorie baby formula. I cradled his tiny body in my left arm and touched the rubber nipple to his lips. I held my breath, hoping he would latch to the bottle easily. I needed to know I could do it, feed this baby that was not born of my body. I needed to know he’d accept it from me, a stranger whose voice and heartbeat and smell were all brand new. He latched, and I breathed a sigh of relief. And from that point forward it was my responsibility to feed him, because that’s what mothers do.
We feed our children.
We progressed from breastmilk and formula, respectively, to sweet potato mash to peas and bananas and avocados and applesauce with spinach blended into it. We graduated to cow’s milk and peanut butter and processed foods I swore I’d never allow. We learned the importance of snacks. In Ziplock bags and in colorful reusable containers, in the diaper bag and in my pockets and in every compartment in my car, we never, ever, left home without snacks.
My kids developed their palates and their personalities. The younger one will eat almost anything, but will take it as a personal offense if it’s too hot. The older one is a pickier eater but a savvier negotiator, always bargaining for the best bites-to-dessert ratio. I can occasionally convince them to try new things, but they are mostly their own little people now, flexing their opinions about what I feed them with with conviction and flair.
And we work it all out at the table. Over breakfast and lunch and dinner and the countless snacks that seem to punctuate the events of the day, I prepare and offer while they inspect and decide. We negotiate and reason while I try to teach them that too much sugar will make them sick and a variety of vegetables will make them strong. I tell them it hurts my feelings when they dramatically eschew what I’ve prepared for them, and for a moment I think they understand. There are a painful number of reminders about table manners, about hygiene, about how fortunate we are to have this food and this family to eat it with. We are all learning a lot when we come to this table together.
I once met a professional spear fisherwoman who, in telling the story of how she came to love spearfishing, recounted the satisfaction of being able to catch “just enough fish”. Just enough to feed herself. Just enough to feed some friends if there was going to be a backyard barbecue somewhere that evening. Nothing extravagant, no fish to waste, but just enough.
Her story brought to mind the Gospel story of Jesus feeding 5,000 men with only two fish and five loaves of bread, miraculously multiplied so no one went hungry. Aside from the resurrection, this is the only miracle recorded in all four gospels of the Bible. Jesus didn’t turn the bread into cake or the fish into steak, he didn’t summon fruits from the heavens or wine from the ground. The miracle, the thing he did when his people were hungry, was simply that he made it enough.
I think about this sometimes when I feed my children, both their stomachs and their minds. I catch myself occasionally putting so much pressure on myself to feed them meals and lessons that are beautiful and diverse and organic and crafted with love from my very own hands and heart. And there is a place for that—for the feast. There are moments when it’s appropriate to go a little overboard, planning for days or weeks in advance, dissecting the recipes or the parenting books, getting second opinions about side dishes or bedtime rituals. There is a time to indulge.
But most days, “just enough” is just right. Just enough vegetables. Just enough of a plan. Just enough talk about manners and gratitude and sugar. Just enough certainty about any of it.
I know now that feeding children isn’t a checkbox task en route to the real work of motherhood. What I first started to understand when I brought my son to my breast in that hospital bed all those years ago I know for sure now. We don’t just feed them, we nurture them; sustain them. And in receiving what we feed them, what we attempt to teach them, they teach us. They teach us about dependence and provision, about selfishness and selflessness, about developing your own taste, one meal at a time.
I understand that so much of motherhood is about feeding children, but it’s also about more than that. It’s about learning what is enough. It’s about recognizing that not every meal can be a feast, nor should it be. It’s about knowing how to take two fish and five simple loaves of bread and somehow make it work, with faith and prayer and magic. Because this is what mothers do—we feed our children.