Well, it’s happened. One of our children has finally spit on my face.
It didn’t happen on purpose (I don’t think), but the other night while we were in the throes of a dinner time battle of wills, a chewed up medley of tortellini with chicken and zucchini came flying out of Addie’s mouth as she raged against my request for her to swallow.
It all started a few weeks ago when she started flat out refusing to eat vegetables. Fruit came next, and shortly after that pretty much anything other than bananas, crackers, and yogurt or cheese went out the window. This frustrated me to no end, as this was our little foodie, the girl who would eat anything put in front of her with only two exceptions: green beans and Velveeta (which I can’t say I’m too torn up about).
I should have known this day was coming. For months and months I would toss vegetables in with her favorite foods, flavoring them well and making them taste (in my humble opinion) amazing. But not so long ago, she started picking her favorite foods out of her dinner, eating the chicken and noodles and leaving the broccoli, peas, or zucchini on her plate. A dinner like the one we had the other night would have been a major hit just six short months ago. But last week, it was a disaster.
I cut up zucchini into little pieces, no more than 1/4 inch square, and sautéed it with minced onion and garlic powder. Then I added pre-cooked pieces of chicken and cheese tortellini and tossed it all together with parmesan cheese (a simple, quick dinner I would ordinarily recommend to anyone with toddlers). After tasting it myself, I knew I’d hit on something flavorful and yummy, something Addie would be sold on once (and if) I could get her to take a bite of it.
I was wrong.
I put a bit of it on her favorite plate (the pink one) and gave her the Minnie Mouse fork. After putting the plate down in front of her, I encouraged her to take a bite and held my breath. She took one look at it and announced (without tasting it), “I don’t like it.”
Meanwhile, Mia was chowing down. She had two helpings, plus peas. And carrots. And corn. And green beans. But Addie sat in silence, refusing to take a bite, insisting she didn’t like it. I left her alone, as sometimes she gets brave and slyly tries to take a bite when she doesn’t think I’m watching. But she didn’t take a bite this time. She just sat there, full plate left untouched, stubborn as can be. After calmly trying to explain that she didn’t know she didn’t like it because she hadn’t tasted it yet, I finally (somehow) got her to take a bite. And then another. And another. And then, out of nowhere, she stopped eating. And she got very, very quiet – the sort of quiet that has come to mean that she is now holding a bite of food in her mouth and is refusing to either swallow it or spit it out.
And so, I let her keep that bite in her mouth. She asked (full mouth and all) if she could have frozen yogurt stick, and I told her that she could if she swallowed that bite and chewed and swallowed another three bites. But, I warned, if she spit that bite out, or any bites she took after that one, she would not get to enjoy the frozen yogurt, nor would she get to have anything else to eat before bedtime.
There we sat, neither willing to give in to the other. And then, after holding that food in her mouth for at least ten minutes, she started crying, the kind of crying that litters her forehead with red splotches and turns her voice into a high pitched screech. At this point in the game, I knew that she would not swallow, nor would she spit it out. She was hanging on to that food for dear life because she understood that to spit it out is to relinquish her claim on the frozen yogurt she wanted so badly.
Not being willing to let her scream like that for an hour, only to finally have her swallow and then reward her with frozen yogurt, I took control of the situation and made it clear to her that I was going to help her spit it out. She protested, screaming louder, and it was at this point that the chewed up food came flying out of her mouth and landed on my cheek.
I am proud to say I stayed calm. I quietly walked away, gingerly wiped the goop from my face, and returned with a cool cloth to wipe Addie’s face too. And then I lifted her out of her chair, walked over to the nearby armchair, nestled her onto my lap and let her calm down, stroking her hair and waiting in silence as she did.
Eventually, she calmed down. She didn’t get to eat her beloved frozen yogurt, but she did get a bit of one-on-one cuddle time with me. And it made me wonder if it’s true: perhaps this battle is less about the vegetables than it is about attention. With so much attention focused on her baby sister for almost a year now, perhaps she has finally found a way to get the sort of focused attention (negative as it may be) that she lost the day she gained a sister.
And so, instead of feeling defeated and angry, I’m learning to do my best to stay calm and pay attention to what her needs really are over and above her food preferences. And I’ve decided to be more intentional about giving her focused attention in between meals. Offer more encouragement and less bargaining. Get better at hiding vegetables, but let her watch me eat and enjoy the kinds of foods that she refuses to eat. Limit crackers, offer more fruit. Be ok with letting her “go hungry” until the next meal. Bottom line: I’m not going to push too hard or worry too much about it because the truth is, she’ll eat the food she’s offered when she’s hungry enough, just like she’ll come snuggle with me when she needs a hug or ask me for water when she’s thirsty. And that’s a good thing, I think. Learning to recognize what she needs and being able to give it a voice. Differentiating between what she wants and what she needs. Learning how to stand her ground and let things go, all with grace and a bit of humility. I pray that as we teach her these essential life skills, she’ll learn how to do it with a lot more grace than I have, and I pray that in the process we become even better at it ourselves.