My 14 month old kicks her feet against the table and makes a deafening screech while reaching for her Daddy’s beverage at the restaurant. As he allows her to have a sip of his drink, I look around to see how many fellow diners are tsk tsking our choice to allow our baby to drink what they must think is SODA! I have the overwhelming urge to announce “It’s only unsweetened iced tea…really. She never has soda, I swear.” But that would not be entirely true and besides, now our five year old is loudly promising to eat the rest of her pasta and veggies after she eats all of the french fries…she promises. The floor is covered in the crushed remains of the fire roasted zucchini and rice pilaf dish we ordered for the baby…her grinning mouth is dripping and bubbling with ice tea, not one single piece of food has passed her lips. I eat my (now cold) food with one hand (not my dominant one) while liberally applying even more ketchup to my daughters fries. My husband is fishing ice out of his cup with a fork to entice the baby with since the tea is now gone and the she is gearing up for another screech fest. Did I mention that our teenager ordered nothing but appetizers and is sulking in the corner of the booth because I went ahead and surreptitiously ordered her a salad and had the gall to ask her to please put some green food in her body before loading it with junk? The single thought running through my head is: If they eat this junky stuff, then everyone in the restaurant will assume that they eat like this all of the time…and that I let them do it!
I always struggle with these scenario’s. On one hand, I want my family to make healthy choices as often as possible. But, I also want to enjoy the time I get to spend with my family. My husband always points out to me that our family DOES make very healthy choices at home, so why not allow our children to make fun choices while we are out? And I have to admit that it would make for a much more pleasant evening if I just LET them order the fries, and the soda, and the blue-slushy thing that causes cavities just by looking at it. Aren’t we there to step out and have a nice time? As adults, don’t we often justify having the dessert or the rich sauce because we are out and we’ve been so good all week or we deserve to be nice to ourselves? What would be the point of taking your family out to a restaurant to simply have the same thing you would have at home? And sure, there are the times when we go to the dine-in area at the Whole Foods and have the hummus falafal wrap and the spirulla-keifer super food drink. And those are the times that I look around proudly and hope everyone is noticing my sweet baby eating hummus by the spoonful while saying mmmmmm, and our older girls are happily munching on organic fruit and passing around the 12 grain crackers.
Why, oh why, do I spend a moment of my time worrying about what these complete strangers think of me, my parenting choices, or the dietary habits of my children? It all goes back to an early parenting moment in my life. Fourteen years ago, while at a department store, my second baby, a super-chubby, exclusively breastfeed little girl (who is now the surly teenager pushing pieces of lettuce around on her plate) was happily perched on my hip in her sling while playing with a 16 oz plastic soda bottle which we had filled with colored water, beads, and glitter as a home-made toy. The beads and glitter had settled into the bottom, and it was tucked into the sling with only the top and some bright red-colored liquid showing. A complete stranger tapped me on the shoulder and chewed me out by saying “You are killing your baby by letting her drink that poison. She is already obese and the authorities should take her away from you. I hate seeing stupid, irresponsible parents feed their babies soda. You disgust me.” And she stomped away before I could defend myself. The baby wasn’t drinking it…she was holding it. And it was a toy, not a beverage. But, too stunned to chase her down and correct her, I never got the chance to point these simple truths out to this stranger. Being accused of something that is not true, and being unable to defend myself is really one of the worse feelings.
Sure, it has been years, but even all of this time later, and with all of my parenting successes, I still worry that without the entire story, without a complete history of my parenting career, that others will assume that the blue-slushy/appetizer combo is the usual fare for my family that I am somehow being awful to my children. This is the reason I usually fight so hard to defend my choices and to eliminate any chance for misunderstanding. This is the reason that I order the healthiest thing on the menu for my children and then spend the rest of the night fighting with them to eat it.
I really do strive to adopt the fun attitude that my husband has about allowing the kids to be kids while we are out. I do want to practice stepping out of my comfort level and leave behind the shame that I felt when that person accused me of being a terrible parent once and for all. It would be so much more relaxing to stop trying to prove that I have the kids, and every single public situation under perfect control so that no stranger will ever misunderstand me ever again. Even if I did run into that rude person again, or someone just like them, the chances are that they would not be swayed to be more understanding or polite by listening to my explanations. And that is frustrating for me. But, that scenario has not happened again in 14 years, so perhaps I can finally loosen up a little and feel confident that the choices I make are reflected in the health and well-being of my children, not in the eyes of strangers. Perhaps.
The waitress comes by to coo at the baby and ask if we need anything else. Smiling at my stunned kids, I ask for the dessert menu and hope that they have cheesecake for me and big sundaes with sprinkles for the kids. It’s a start.