Dear readers, thanks as always, and a quick note to say that I’ll be teaching a workshop on the 29th, “WHERE’S THE HUMOR IN IT?”— a class for anyone who could use some more space and levity in their narratives, or some tools for writing/living through tough stuff. You can find out more or register here. Now back to our regularly scheduled (de)programming.
Of all the ways to express your love for another human, the school lunch is the most disastrous. Naturally, I have chosen it as my métier.
I harbor the belief that I can nourish my children in a thoughtful, fun, attractive, balanced, and tasty way, concentrating the breadth and depth of my love for them into a single metal box with three neat, Fibonacci-esque compartments.
This despite the evidence.
I have tried many strategies. I’ve tweaked the ratio of whole foods to processed as far as my Puritanical self-punishing streak will allow. I’ve gotten them attractive totes with fun prints, and special bamboo spoons; I’ve made, with or without shame, a host of other privileged and ridiculous moves on the parenting-is-a-gerund train.
I’ve begun packing and re-packing their lunches the night before, to give myself a first draft, a good base with which to work during the panic and disorganization of the morning (get the coffee made, soldier, though the troops be screaming and the heavy artillery booming / was that impressively textured crashing sound one of their firewood sculptures falling off the coffee table or was it the homemade wheelbarrow being launched down the stairs, avec book selection?).
I’ve tried fancy, plain, novel, and established foods; I’ve loaded them with fodder sauced, dry, sliced, seasoned, soupy, crumbly, crunchy. I’ve even gone so far as to ask the goblins themselves what they want (ice cream, a cup full of maple syrup: this is what they want.)
[Information from other people about what they desire is generally problematic in that it has very little to do with what you want.]
The verdicts are nothing if not consistent: the bentos come home smeared and worried, but almost wholly un-plumbed. The only thing that gets recurring marks slightly above “awful” is packaged snack-bars— and even these get summarily snubbed if they aren’t rotated on at least a three-day system.
My conclusions are as follows:
My children are air-plants
They must be doing something stupid, like engaging with new skills and their peers at school, rather than attending to their mother’s emotionally laden assemblies of frustrated caloric arrangements, Miss Havisham-style relics that carry more elegiac brio than inviting picnic vibe.
Which brings me to the rub, as in “ay, there’s the rub”:
When I think I am “giving,” very often what I’m actually doing is trying to care for myself— lessen my anxiety, do a thing I like, or “prevent” “disaster.”
While it’s important not to club people to death with our help (as one of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott, says, “help is the sunny side of control. Stop helping so much. Don't get your help and goodness all over everybody”), and it’s important to notice when our neuroses are taking the wheel—even if their outfits are FIRE—I think there’s one more thing to consider, besides laying the fuck off the bento boxes:
I enjoy packing lunches.
To be sure, there’s a whole bunch of Russian-mafia-style underground psycho-nonsense going on, having to do with everything from capitalism to patriarchy and back again; it’s also quite clear at this point, now that our 60-square-foot compost frame is mostly full of rejected lunches, that I’m doing this for me, not them.
AND: perhaps that’s just fine.
The other day, when I picked my kids up from their preschool, which understands the spirit of small humans so thoroughly that their only rule regarding clothing is “keep your underpants on” (WOW WE REALLY JUST BARELY MADE IT ON THAT ONE), there was a beautifully palpable version of kid-dom humming in the air.
It had to do with variety, and engrossment— there were three kids at the art table, so absorbed that it seemed a snow-globe of focus surrounded them; there were three children running and dancing in their underwear (I’ll give you one guess who two-thirds of them were); there were a few playing with props and books.
What is it that makes me think I am, or must somehow craft myself to be, fundamentally different from these little pods of humanity, each—as our beloved nanny and friend says—“Doing a Thing”?
When I pack those bentos, I too am Doing a Thing. As long as my pleasure doesn’t hinge on a specific reaction from my kids (and yes, the metric tons of lunch-begotten compost have assisted me in this slow but necessary letting-go), I say onward, dear little packety-packer.
I’ll continue to maneuver nutrients like chess pieces, fully engrossed in my game. Like most things, Lunch at School will not unfold as I had hoped (as a direct, simultaneous IV to their guts and hearts), but hey, I’ll be caring for at least one human by allowing myself to do this ineffectual thing that nonetheless brings me pleasure.
If I’m lucky, in the end, the bento marathon will boil down to all that basically anything can hope to boil down to: I did my best, I was useful, I loved.
I LOVE your Annie Lamott quote about "help" being "the sunny side of control!"
One suspects that the only way to truly help is to give up all hope of making things right.
Accepting defeat at the hands of 4 yr old reality may, in fact, be the most loving thing one can do.
It gives them the best shot at growing into who they were born to be; and each one is SO utterly unique! ...right down to their underpants. 👩🎨 🐥
I just got quite weepy at this. I too am a lunchbox marathoner. And I too, mostly do it for me. LOL