Saturday, November 24, 2012

Food For Thought - Part 1

Looking back today on our journey so far, it does seem like food had a major role to play in our finding a way out of the school system. As a mother, I used to get very worked up when Raghav would not eat anything before he left for school, or he would eat very little after a mammoth effort on my part. I cannot imagine now, the things I did to get him to eat something every morning! I bribed him, threatened him, fought with him, got angry over it…..because it bothered me a lot as a mother that he was not getting his nourishment and enjoying his meal…..but I was not doing anything to make him feel better. Today I realise what a negative experience food has been for him – all because I could not think of a better way to fit into a predetermined schedule that he had in school. Nor could I think of an alternative to school at that point in time.
I am however, thankful to the Universe for showing me the way through my child and friends, to help me retrace this journey – re-live all the tears, helplessness and hope - to make food the nourishing and enjoyable experience that it should be, for us today!

So join me as I retrace the path that we followed until where we are today.....when unschooling has touched every possible aspect of our lives, including food!

Food wars and the early years

I breast-fed Raghav till he was almost 1 year and six months. That was the only time perhaps that I listened completely to my baby for his nourishment needs. My gynaecologist told me not to feed on demand after a few days and asked me to get him into a schedule even for breast feeding. But I did not listen, because somehow I felt that that was not right. I could not bear to think of my baby crying in hunger or thirst and deny it the only nourishment it could get then. So I followed my heart and my instinct. Raghav’s pediatrician however encouraged me and insisted that I breastfeed him as long as possible. I did until it was “time” to wean him off. People around me suggested a number of ways to do that, none of which sounded right to me – from disappearing for a few days so that he would “forget”, to being firm with him and saying no, to giving him a special cup filled with cow’s milk every time he asked to be breast-fed and many other ways.
That period was very stressful for me, as in my heart I could do none of those, and I did not know any better. I tried many things and none worked. Finally, I just let him cry his heart out in front of me one day, held him close to me, and patiently suggested alternatives. He would not take any alternative and chose to remain hungry. This happened for three days! At the end of it, he stopped asking to be breast-fed and refused to drink any other form of milk! I should have realised then what my son was made of – he was made of an indomitable spirit and strong will that no one else could break. 

As I write this today, even after all these years, my eyes well up and my insides churn as I relive those heart-wrenching moments that made me into a demon of sorts…..moments of despair when I thought myself unfit to be a mother. Today, however, I am ready to share my story here, because I have forgiven myself for what I did in ignorance. I would love to find out and hear other parents’ stories of how they weaned their children -  if they just gradually moved on to other foods without any effort to wean – things that I did not know and no one guided me about.
I gave Raghav choices in food ever since he started eating semi /solid food……and for that I am thankful to have found an amazing pediatrician, who showed me the way patiently and with understanding, during the first year of his life. Raghav was always clear with his choices of food – he liked variety, but would only eat what he wanted……the only thing he really did not like was milk – and I forced him to drink that, only because I listened to everyone in the family around me instead of listening to him. A baby not drinking milk?!”– that was unheard of in my family! Raghav hated milk, but I persisted for a long time - not giving up, because I feared that that would make him unhealthy or weak. I also don’t like milk and was forced to drink it as a kid. Now, was I redoing something that someone else did to me in my childhood because that is what I knew, or did I fear that my child would turn out like me and not like milk too? Perhaps it was both. And for these reasons, I have been a demon to him many times! Poor kid!
As a mother, I knew when my child was hungry or sleepy or uncomfortable for some other reason by instinct. I had never really interacted with or handled babies before, but I just knew what my child wanted or needed at different times. But somewhere along the way, I lost that. I lost it to my insecurities, my lack of self-belief and my conditioning. So, instead of being tuned in with my child and his needs, I tuned in to what people around me had to say about bringing up babies. I started listening to them about getting my child to follow routines for sleep and food, develop regular eating habits, and eat only certain things at certain times and so on. They would tell me to give him lunch at 11am or dinner around 6pm and then put him to sleep; say that I had not fed him enough if he did not sleep well at night; that he should have milk from a bottle as perhaps he was not getting enough breast-milk; and so on. They perhaps shared what they knew and had gone through as parents. The only difference here however was that the child was different! No one saw that, including me! All of us put him into the same slots as other babies, wanting him to stick to the usual schedule of eating and sleeping. That was the beginning perhaps of my food wars with Raghav.

Food wars and school

When he was in school, Raghav would usually wake up late, and I would get into a tizzy trying to run against time - that just would not stop, except for Raghav of course! Every morning almost, I would feed him (rather stuff it in!) his breakfast – as much as I thought was enough, to last him until lunch time when he got back home. Many a time, my husband dropped him off at school on his motorbike because that was a quicker way of getting through traffic in the morning (Raghav was always late for school as he took his own time to eat!) and Raghav loved the bike ride. He would however make his father stop alongside the train station on the way to watch the electric trains go by, however late he was for school! For us it was a race against time every single day!
Most days I would be so worried as to what he would do there hungry, as he would not have eaten much in the morning; nor would he get much for snack (which they served). Most days he would come back home tired and very irritable……crying and screaming the minute we got home……sometimes he would cry himself to sleep and I would sit down feeling miserable and worried that my child went to sleep hungry. 

He liked hot food, but the food that I took for him to eat in the car after school did not remain hot and so he wouldn’t eat it. He would be hungry, but just would not eat. He would just cry and cry while I raced through traffic, driving like a maniac sometimes! But he would not show any emotion at school; he would wait till we got to the car or home before venting it all out! And this cycle would repeat itself day after day……until we could not take it any longer and finally broke free.
My worries and conflicts then were these:  
  • Why should food be a reason for almost war every day with my child, instead of it being a happy, nourishing experience? 
  • As a kid who was used to choices at home, how would he eat the snack that the school served him, if it was something that he did not like? Then, would he have to go hungry for no fault of his?
  • What learning or interaction would or could happen when a child was not comfortable with his bodily needs not being met? 
  • How can we look at extrinsic motivation or punishment when it comes to food, when it is a basic survival need? 
  • How can all children eat the same kind of food at the same time, in the same way, when each one is an individual with his own set of likes and dislikes?
They were questions that burned inside me and perhaps worked on me in my subconscious, to precipitate our decision to home school our son. But my son had already made it easy for us and decided that he did not want to go to school – long before we did! I still remember vividly the day I told him that we had had a chat with the teachers in his school and that they were not willing to be flexible with certain things, and that we were going to go with his decision. He said to me: “Amma! You finally decided!”

Food and Transition to growing without school

Not going to school was a choice made by my son, much before we did, and so the transition to growing without school happened quite easily for him. One of the first things that he decided he did not want. was a structure to the day for anything, including eating, and that stands till today. Growing without school brought with it a lot of freedom for him and us, but because I was still tied to my conditioning in many areas, it was difficult for me to trust my child completely in everything and let go of all control, all at once. This was most difficult when it came to food.
Some of the things that changed immediately were these:
  • Raghav started sleeping better and was generally more relaxed and less irritable.
  • He started enjoying his food more – he could watch TV and eat – something that he enjoyed doing, as there was no external schedule or time frame to stick to.
  • He ate less frequently – three big meals a day usually and knew what he wanted to eat.
  • He started unlearning some things that he had formed ideas about at school about food – like oily/fatty foods make your insides stick together (!), non-vegetarian food makes you more healthy and strong, junk food like pizza and pasta are unhealthy and so on. These ideas that had somehow got into his head, made him avoid these foods all-together, out of fear. 
We spent a lot of time together learning more about these things and redefining some for ourselves. We made pizzas with whole wheat flour and lots of different vegetables that he liked; we went looking for whole wheat pasta in grocery shops; we read up and discussed about non-veg food vs veg food (with examples like how my grandma who lived till she was almost 90 ate only rice, dal, sambar, curd and veggies, hardly fell sick and took care of herself till the end), about fatty foods and how they get digested, the importance of using up the energy that you get from food with exercise and activity and so on.

Food choices and control

Once we started to home school, one of the first things that I stopped forcing him to drink was milk. We had the time to watch and listen to our bodies more, and the more I watched him, I thought there was a pattern to his drinking milk and the stomach pain/  cramps he used to have. He used to crouch down holding his stomach and scream in pain. I talked to him about my observation and we decided to try and see what happened when he stopped his milk intake. The problem just vanished! No doctor helped us figure this out; we just figured it out ourselves.
And yes, I did give him choices in food, even before we started to home school, but I did also exercise some control over those choices (even after we started homeschooling)-

  • I decided what he could choose to have and what he couldn’t in some things – I controlled the amount of chocolate/ sweets he ate (fearing teeth issues) and he would embarrass me by asking the shopkeeper of the shop we regularly went to, for his usual gift (some candy or chocolate) every time!  Then, I bought chocolate for him and kept it at home, but would ration it out to him, and he would go back to asking the shopkeeper every time!
  • I decided when he could have food and when he couldn’t – although we did not have any schedule or routine for ourselves once he stopped going to school, I could not let go of this timing for food completely – especially when I got tired towards the end of the day and he wanted a late night snack. I would allow him his freedom at other times, but at night, I would persuade him to eat his dinner early because I thought that food eaten very late would not get digested properly! I would also give him freedom to eat when he wanted to, but would have an outer time limit for all meals; getting worked up and anxious as we got closer to those times and he had not yet eaten.
  • I decided where he could have his food and where he couldn’t – like he could not sit on the bed and eat, or that he could not always watch TV and eat, simply because I feared that it would become a habit or that we would never eat together as a family (something which was very important to me).
  • I decided how much he should have – I did not trust him completely in that he knew how much he wanted and would most often ask him to finish what he had on the plate. This was because he would many a time stop eating, either because he was tired of eating on his own, or bored as it was taking too long to finish; or did not like what he was eating, and often, when I offered to feed him, he would happily eat. So I thought that he really did not know how much he wanted to eat, as he was always busy doing something else and eating. Then, I started controlling his watching TV and eating as I felt that that was the reason for his not eating enough.

    Funny, that now when I write this down, I realise how I thought I was giving him a lot of freedom, but actually wasn’t! Whew! I made so many mistakes as a parent! But I have learned a lot from these experiences with my child – often the hard way, for parenting is a journey like that anyway – one in which no rulebook or “How to” book can teach you whatever you have to know completely. Our children are our books. Our children are our teachers and messengers from the Universe. That is what I believe now completely.

    Do stay tuned in for Part 2.......coming up very soon!

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