Feeding a child is deeply rooted within us mamas. It’s almost beyond maternal and instinctual. It’s a part of what we do, and right or wrong, it’s a part of how we measure our success. And when it didn’t go according to plan, it affected me much more than I could have imagined. Being a mama is a huge part of who I am, and this failure hurt my soul.
If you would have told me that we’d be having food issues nearly 5 years later, I would have thought you were either nuts, or that we surely messed our daughter up somewhere along the path.
Hmmmmm… which is it?
Tess was 12 months old when she came into our arms. We knew (know really) next to nothing about her time before us, but we do know that she was born prematurely with low birth weight. At 12 months weighed barely 15 pounds and we quickly learned that she couldn’t sit up, pull up, bear weight on her legs and still had a profound gag reflex most likely indicating that she hadn’t had solid foods yet. It was the feeding therapist that said she had all the classic signs of being force fed.
But these things could be overcome, right? Nourishment, a high fat diet, a calorie supplement, lots of love.. we could fix all that, right?
As her new mama, I had some anxiety about my malnourished daughter that just didn’t eat. And because only a generous insurance company at best would pay for “feeding therapy,” we paid dearly out of pocket for a feeding therapist as soon as we got home. It was one of the best things we did. We learned how her lack of core strength was a huge hurdle to getting her to eat solids, and thus her physical therapy was critical to her eating progress. We learned how to introduce foods to her in a non-threatening way and expose her to an amazing variety of foods that we never would have considered, (including straight mustard, pickle juice, and all sorts of stuff way out of the box.)
By her third birthday, she was eating enough to stay on her own growth curve; a curve that was 50% below 0 on the growth charts. But a healthy curve nevertheless.
She would not eat fruit.
Not a single banana, applesauce, grape, peach or melon. Not fresh, frozen, dried or mashed. No fruit leathers. None. She had a peculiar relationship she had with food. One of luv and hate. She used food to control her environment, and she often refused to eat even when she was hungry. We continued to offer her every food under the moon, including fruits, for years. We encouraged but never forced her to eat anything and kept her on a high-calorie formula supplement. And after no less than 13,767 presentations of the foods she didn’t care for and years of attempts, she began to eat fruits and a pretty normal-ish diet.
Yet, as we approach her 6th birthday and the food issues are not over. To the contrary, new issues are coming forth, and they seem to be escalating. Mainly food hoarding. Her middle-of-the-night visits to the cupboards, ‘fridge and freezer. Currently, every night she gets up when we are all fast asleep and raids the cupboards, binging on whatever she can find. We’ve lost much money from the freezer door that always seems to be left open. I’ve gotten up in the morning to find 10-12 otter pop wrappers hidden under her pillow. A precarious stack of over-turned buckets and boxes stacked high enough for her 36″ frame to reach the freezer door. A box of popsicles melting between the bed and the wall. An empty box of saltines and a bed of crumbs. Every. Single. Night. this is happening.
So what to do…
Refrigerator and cupboard locks.
These come to mind first. Taking away the power for her to hurt herself or destroy property.
But the more we consider these options, the more we realize that her eating issues are attachment issues in disguise, issues deeply rooted in food trauma. Hoarding and binging are her way of controlling her environment rather than releasing control and trust to those she loves.
She needs to control the food, even in the middle of the night, to feel safe.
With some great advice from fellow adoptive parents I remember these truths. Children who come from a history of trauma and/or loss need to feel safe. It is my priority. My obligation to her. There is no attachment without it.
So tonight, after her teeth were brushed, and after her brother and sister were tucked in, we went to the kitchen together and packed her middle-of-the-night snacks. She chose what would go in her basket o’ food and how much to put into it.
A cream cheese bagel.
4 saltine crackers.
I love you so much mama!
A small baggie of grapes.
And I can eat this whenever I want?
A large baggie of cheerios.
Oh mama, you’re the best mom ever!
I want 6 carrots. No 7. No 8. No 10. No 14. Can we just put all of them in the baggie?
Yes, of course we can.
She carried the basket in to her room looking around carefully, and ultimately set it next to her bed.
And that night she went to bed happy and with a sense of peace that I hadn’t seen in a while. It was her choice. Her power over her food. Safety. Security. And it hopefully comes back full circle to attachment.
I don’t think there’s an ending here. And that seems to be the whole point that escaped me 5 years ago. As parents we didn’t necessarily do anything wrong or mess her up, and yes, 5 years later we are still dealing with food issues. Our baby, adopted at 12 months old, is still working through her past. These issues of attachment and food are intertwined and aren’t necessarily “fixed” but a journey…
… one that we’re more than willing to walk with her.
I woke the next morning before Tess and discovered that she didn’t touch her basket of food that night. And for the first time in 2 weeks, Tess did not get up in the middle of the night to binge. The freezer door was closed just as I left it. And there were no wrappers, melted or spoiled food, piled boxes to reach the freezer door, or any evidence to be found.
Her basket of food, untouched and right where she left it, was her first thought as she woke. With her eyes not even fully open, she reached over to touch it and promptly asked if she could eat it. Yes. She asked if she could eat it any time she wanted. Yes. And again she didn’t touch any of her food in her basket and was satisfied to wait for breakfast with her siblings. In a tiny bit of panic, she was also concerned if she needed to share her basket food. I assured her that she did not. It was all hers to eat anytime she wanted and there was plenty more of it for both her and her siblings in the kitchen if they wanted. She suggested we keep her special food in her purse that day, so she could carry it around, just in case. And so we did.
Over the course of the next 2 weeks, Tess still didn’t eat her basket food in the middle of the night. Although on occasion she would munch on her favorites before breakfast. She still is sure to have her basket of midnight snacks next to her bed every night, but it now contains just a couple items. And it’s all her choice. She just doesn’t seem to need as much food next to her to feel safe anymore. We find it interesting that she has never needed to eat the food to feel secure, just have access to it.
My girl… what latent memories are still in your head from so long ago?
They still seep in.
And we assume as the years pass, they will continue to resurface in different shapes and forms manifesting in various food or attachment issues.
And it’s still okay.