How Do You Stop Caring?

How Do You Stop Caring?
will he ever eat an artichoke?

I just lost again. Another mealtime with Harry, another ugly episode that starts with him walking into the kitchen, looking over dinner, and stamping his feet in protest, and escalates over the course of the meal into a battle of wills that, even when I win, I lose.

As requested Harry tasted the roasted butternut squash—the one-inch cube of exquisitely soft, maple-glazed deliciousness—but only after many reminders that it still sat on his plate. (Why didn’t I just stop? Why didn’t I just walk away then?) Finally, after Stephen and I had finished our entire meal, Harry took one tiny bite, microscopic really, and grimaced and groaned and fought back tears and chewed and chewed and chewed until there was nothing left in his mouth but smashed neutrons and electrons. (Why didn’t he just swallow it in one gulp? It was minuscule enough to go down without even chewing.) And then he asked the same question he’s been asking at every dinner for months now:

“Did I eat enough to get dessert?”

And the answer, as much as I didn’t want to say it, was no. We’d agreed earlier that he would eat the entire (quite small) piece. He’d forced me to draw a line in the sand, I drew it, and I just couldn’t get past it. The next twenty minutes were given over to first whining, then tantrum, then sobbing, then eating. That’s right, he ate the damn piece of squash. But I’m pretty sure he’ll never eat squash again. Lord knows, after that I don’t want to.

I can’t remember the last time Harry tried a new food that wasn’t 90% sugar and actually liked it. The grimace, groan, and half-hour chew is a knee-jerk reaction at this point, a conditioned response to my caring too much. Instead of food becoming something for us to enjoy together, to explore together, it’s become a soul-crushing dividing line between us. I leave the dinner table angry—hating him for not being open to the vast pleasures that come with food (and not wanting to share something I’ve chosen to build my life around), and hating myself for taking this so personally. Each time he rejects something I’ve cajoled him into tasting, it stings as if he’s rejecting me. Which is ridiculous, I know. And yet, I can’t stop.

Most days when I pick him up from school, I bite my tongue to keep from asking what he ate for lunch, but as soon as he turns his back I rifle through his lunch box to examine the remains—several weeks ago, I stopped sending him with a home-prepared meal, after too many consecutive days of him bringing it home, uneaten, to be thrown away. His school offers free lunch for everyone, so if he wants to eat he can. Most days he has peanut butter and jelly, which secretly pleases me since it seems more wholesome, less processed, than the hot meals. I still provide snacks, lots of fruit to make up for the vegetables he’s not eating, and sometimes a granola bar for a treat. I stopped sending yogurt after four straight days of it returning home untouched. The waste, it kills me.

I know I need to stop caring so much. Once I stop pushing, I’m pretty sure Harry will stop pushing back. But for all my resolve to just shut my pie hole about his eating habits, I never seem to make it through an entire meal without some comment slipping out. I can’t seem to just let him have dessert without earning it by actually eating something from his dinner plate. I know this is wrong, according to all the experts. I know this is backfiring, proving those experts right. And yet, here I am again. Losing.

Please, tell me how to stop this. I’ve figure out the new-parent thing, how to feed yourself and all that, but the picky eater thing? I’m drowning in shame, anger, confusion, and sadness. I fear I’m ruining food for Harry forever. I fear I’m failing as a parent. It’s not about techniques at this point, about what the experts say. It’s about my mind-set. I need to shift my thinking, and I can’t figure out how. Suggestions?

[Psst… Here’s an update.]