Coping With A Mealtime Monster

Recently, I was talking with a good friend during a particularly dark moment about coping strategies. Her son will celebrate his 2nd birthday with his twin sister two weeks before TJ and his twin sister celebrate their 7th. At the time, I was distressed about TJ’s weight and the possibility of a feeding tube. Her son is facing open heart surgery within the year. My concerns are to prevent a surgical intervention; hers are to prepare for one.

There is no worry more passionate than a mother’s. We worry about our kids’ health, their education, their development. Are they making friends, being bullied, eating enough? The point is not to compare one’s worries against another’s concerns. It’s all relevant and valid. What brings balance to the chaos is how we choose to cope with the concerns and worries we have.

I tend to use a task-oriented approach, meaning that I focus on the cause of the problem and the search for solutions.  I want to lessen my son’s anxiety about food, and search for ways to reduce his fear of eating. I spend inordinate amounts of time reading about nutrition and psychology, experimenting with different ingredients in smoothies, and introducing different foods using non-confrontational techniques.  When a new food makes it to his mouth or a smoothie is devoured, success is sweet and rewarding.  It’s a victory over our monster, one that already wins far too many battles.

Food that remains untouched is still a victory, although it can be difficult to think of it in that sense as it slides into the compost bin. Specialist appointments that rule out physical and developmental reasons are good news, but being denied answers causes frustration. Not knowing how to help or what causes his anxiety makes me feel helpless. I see his bony frame on the playground against his chubbier peers, and I wonder if time with my child is limited. And by how much.

My friend, on the other hand uses an emotion-oriented method. She can’t change the fact that her son was born with a hole in his heart. She searches for the silver lining, finding ways to change her perspective of the things she cannot change and frames them in a less negative light. 

There is also avoidance-oriented coping, one that we both temporarily visit to some degree when we dream about leaving the kids in the competent care of their respective fathers and soaking up a week in isolation. That’s more about self-preservation that an attempt to deny the truth. Parents get tired and sometimes we all just need a break.

As I read my friend’s post this morning, I started to think about which coping strategy would be best in our case. It’s my nature to be proactive, to take a problem and beat it to a pulp with solutions. Perhaps trying to conquer food neophobia is a problem that has no solution. Right now, I have too many pieces and I’m not all that certain they are even for the same puzzle. I need to appreciate each positive step for the victory it is. I need to look at defeat as a learning opportunity, something that didn’t work today, but may lead to success further down the road. TJ is doing his best to try to conquer our mealtime monster, but that battle will be won on his terms, in his own time. As much as any mother would go to great lengths to protect her child from harm, I cannot fight this battle for him.

TJ’s diet, though limited, is varied enough to include some fruit, whole grains and dairy.  It could be better, sure, but it could also be a whole lot worse. Every meal where TJ joins us at the table is a victory. Every meal where he is able to tolerate the presence of unfamiliar  food is a success. It’s my worries, and my fears, that need taming because these are what give our monster strength. As this adaptation of Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer says:

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
The courage to change the things I can.
And the wisdom to know it’s me.”

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