Monday, April 29, 2013

Strange Hybrid: On Motherhood and Identity

Enjoying a restaurant spoon--a baby's best friend.

Henrietta is hungry.

I realized this after about a week of much more fussiness than usual, and waking up about 4,000 times a night.

But let me back up to why this was not immediately clear.

When I got pregnant, it felt like I was required to choose a mothering identity: would I have a natural birth, or a medicated one? And the identity spread out from there: cloth or disposable diapers? Breastfeeding or formula? Babywearing or the opposite of babywearing (whatever that is)? You get the idea. These felt like big decisions, decisions that didn't have to do with the decision themselves so much as who I was. I can say, six months in, that I've ended up rejecting the false opposites here and doing a little of both in almost every case, which is all well and good, unless you're me, and you long for nothing more than to pick one side of the spectrum and endorse it and love it and become it entirely, to enthusiastically give your identity to whatever you're attempting. This, sadly, as much as I long for it, never works for me.  Perhaps that's a good thing, but it makes me slow to catch on, and causes a lot of needless guilt.

In the case of feeding Henrietta, here's how it played out: back when we started her on solids, it didn't go well. This was when she was around five months old, and she showed signs of being ready, so I dutifully cooked and mashed and thinned and tried to feed her with a spoon, and the whole affair was miserable--for her and for me. She didn't want it, didn't want anything she tried--banana, sweet potato, avocado--and she eventually pursed her lips together as soon as I set her in her high chair. Because I'm me, I tried to force it: I stressed and sat her down and fought her for several minutes exactly three times a day. I'd had a lot of anxiety about feeding her in the first place, and I thought if I just kept trying, if I just got it right, it would be okay. I knew all the advice about not forcing, so I didn't try for long, but looking back, it's so clear she just wasn't ready. After three days, I gave up, feeling defeated, but sure it was right to wait.

About a week later, we were heading to California to visit my family, and I was trying to finish packing and get her out the door by myself. I had bought some baby crackers and I handed her one to keep her occupied, and she was confused at first, but then thrilled. She gummed that puppy into oblivion, and was so happy doing it. A few days later, on a beach in California, my mother offered her an apple core, and she loved it. I mean, she really loved it. And we concluded that part of the issue was that she wanted to do it herself, wanted to feed herself, which wasn't surprising considering the rest of her personality.

When we got home, based on a friend's recommendation, I bought this book on Baby-Led Weaning--which should really be called Baby-Led Solids--an approach that advocates skipping purees altogether, and makes a pretty compelling case for it. (If this sounds insane slash dangerous, the website has good information that may put your mind at ease?) This method was much more joyful. I'd make my lunch or breakfast, then set out slices of cucumber or pepper or apple or fingers of toast, and we'd eat together. She had a lot of fun trying things, and it was beautiful to watch her select each item and eat it enthusiastically, holding it up in the air triumphantly before shoving it into her mouth, stopping occasionally to look up at me and grin. She tried a lot of stuff this way, and I was feeling good about it, and then last week happened.

Last week was rough. I prayed to know how to help her. (Motherhood has turned me into a more earnest pray-er than I've been in years.) And one morning late in the week, I woke up worrying about her, and I had this clear God-thought: She's hungry.

It took me a few days to process this, but it began to make sense. It might be one thing if we were offering her food at every meal, but we honestly don't sit down all together and have baby-friendly stuff at every meal, so she was missing some of them. A lot of our meals are on the run, and some days she'd only have milk. And as hard as she worked on eating what we set out for her, she only has two little teeth, so I don't think she was getting all that much. They say this isn't a big deal, since babies her age aren't relying on the nutrition from solids yet. But I'll tell you what: I think she was relying on that nutrition, and she wasn't getting enough of it.

Today she cried for most of the day, which is not at all like her. I tried to nurse her; we tried to get her to nap; we took her on a walk and set out new toys to entertain her, and still she cried. When I put out dinner for her, she dug in with gusto, and though she got quite a bit, she still seemed hungry, so I pulled out the box of baby cereal I had never opened, mixed a little with formula, and fed her some. She ate it. She ate a lot of it. She seemed grateful, and still took her night-time bottle, and ended up falling asleep while her dad fed her. I have not seen her that peaceful in days. Maybe we'll still have a rough night, but I'm thinking it's going to be better.

I mean, here's the thing, baby-led solids is great. We'll keep doing it. We'll keep offering her food we're eating, confident she can handle it, and I assume she'll continue to be amused and into it. That is an awesome aspect of this approach: I'm now confident she can handle a range of foods, and (with a few exceptions) happy to give her whatever she's interested in trying. But the point is, I don't have to choose! What a revelation! I can give her some purees. I can give her solids. The point is to feed my baby. The point is to do what works for us, and--I suppose not surprisingly--that's a combination of approaches.

I think it speaks so clearly to this longing I have, this longing for some kind of specific identity, some orthodoxy I can attach to. If I were going to do baby-led solids, I wanted to do baby-led solids, you know? I thought I had to make it a part of my mothering identity. I perhaps ignored signs that she wasn't getting enough because of that longing to be able to say this is Who We Are, not just how we feed our baby sometimes. I've felt guilty about this, even though Sam has tried to tell me it's okay, that we know what's wrong now, that we fixed it as soon as we realized it, that we're not bad people or parents.

I've done this with other aspects of mothering: I thought I had to be a Baby-Wearing Mom, but I've realized neither of us like it for long, and I am still too physically weak (from months of bed rest) to carry her for long, so we do it now when it's needful or convenient and stop when it isn't. I breastfed exclusively until it became clear (at around two months) that she was fussing all day because she was starving (a theme?), and I became a mom who supplemented with one bottle of formula before bed, and I hereby testify that our entire little family became happier after that change. I'm sure there are more examples, especially outside the realm of motherhood ...

This evening, whispering over a sleeping Henrietta, we talked about it again, and I told Sam about this idea, that my desire to have a clear mothering (and general) identity makes me slow to figure things out.

And he said, "I'll tell you what your identity is: You're Deja."

"Yeah, but I never know what that means."

"Well, I can tell you one thing. It has nothing to do with how you feed her," he said.

I think he's right, though motherhood is so all-consuming that it doesn't feel that way. Is it just me, or does our culture's attitude about it only pretend to account for individual mothers with individual babies?

All of this is good for me. It's another thing that motherhood is teaching me. It's teaching me that though  I'm this strange hybrid creature--one who longs fiercely for orthodoxy but ultimately complicates it (hello, marriage to someone outside my faith, among other evidence), that this is okay. That maybe I can long less fiercely for a unified identity. That full bellies and happy babies are more important than a unified identity. That complicated identities are perhaps just fine. They're maybe even lovely.

Springtime Baby Picnic


Emily said...

Amen and amen! And I didn't even know there was a debate about starting solids. Sheesh! I know who you are, Deja, you're a mom that feeds her baby! You can wear that badge. I whole-heartedly feeding babies so they're happy and full! I'm totally against people who don't feed their babies at all!

belann said...

Well, Miss Plum looks pretty happy in the springtime picture. Probably be a lot easier if we could pick a philosophy and never look back, but most of life doesn't work that way. It's about thinking and choices, and other choices. Not easy at all.

maryanne @ mama smiles said...

I feed Anna purees in those little pouches (I use the reusable ones at home) and she eats so much! It has made me wonder if Emma (who your Henrietta reminds me so much of) was fussy and didn't sleep because she was hungry and we couldn't find a way to feed her that was easy enough that she ate ENOUGH.

ginger said...

Oh, I understand your mindset so well. How lovely that you've learned from early on that motherhood (and life) can be full of compromises. A little of this and a little of that all along the way...whatever works for you and your family. I always loved the beginning of La Leche League meetings when the woman leading the discussions would encourage everyone to "take what works for you and leave the rest." As a new mom, I felt at ease to know that the ideas different moms discussed were not the "right" way to do things, but rather, the way that worked best for their family.

As someone who has been around the BLW block a few times, can I offer a few pointers? For the younger baby, go big. So instead of offering a slice of cucumber, give her one cut in half the long way with the peel still on. A half of an avocado with the peel still on. A chicken drumstick. A large piece of broccoli with the stalk still attached. A half of a sweet potato or apple is nice too. The goal is food with a handle. It is difficult for a younger baby to get smaller pieces to her mouth and can be very frustrating if she is a baby who is wanting the calories too. The grip of say, the avocado peel and the large size will help her get it up and then there is lots more "meat" for her to scrape at with her teeth and get in her mouth in appropriate sized pieces as well. Having some food with a handle for the first couple of months to go along with the rest of the meal you're all eating will help her be more successful. By the time she is 8-9 months she'll be downing everything you are.

Deja said...

Mary Anne, does Anna feed the pouches to herself, or do you hold them up for her to eat? It really is incredible how different she is when she eats enough!

Deja said...

Ginger, smart tips! I've been giving her food with "handles" but not that big. I'd peel the cucumber and give her a spear of it. Maybe we ought to try bigger! Question: it already takes a long time for her to make her way through a self-fed meal. Do you sit there with your babies? Is it cool to just turn her around so I can keep an eye on her while I get other stuff done in the kitchen? I assume so, but that's been a hang up. Purées are faster!

ginger said...

I totally kept babies along side of me munching on snacks in their chair while I worked in the kitchen. They would also join us for every meal and eat whatever curry, lasagna, ribs, pork chops, gratin, etc... we were having. It is really only 2-3 months until they become quite adept at it. I made purees and did some BLW with baby #1. For the other kids, it was a bit of sink or swim. I may be able to cram calories in faster with a spoon, but I had other kiddos to worry about and the baby had to figure out how to eat if he was hungry...harsh mother-of-many that I am ;)

Cukes are fun and by all means, keep offering them, a love of veggies is an important thing, but if you've been having a hard time keeping her belly full, I'd be sure she's having a chance to have plenty of more nutrient dense foods (fish meat, avocados, eggs, refried beans, hummus, darker leafy greens...she's ready for whole beans when she has the pincher grasp to pick them up herself). Also, the iron and zinc stores her placenta left pumped full are getting depleted around this time, and are the reason iron rich foods are important first foods. However, iron added as a fortifier is not very bio-available and can overwhelm the lactoferrin from your milk and result in decreased immunity. She's better off getting it in meat or maybe some molasses...even if it is pureed ;)

Annie said...

I really lile this post and I think all moms can relate. I like the idea of complicated identities because I feel like rigid orthodoxy tends to make people judgmental of all those who do not practice their same way, be it baby-wearing or homemaking baby food or breast vs. bottle feeding.There's not one right way of parenting.

Annie said...

By the way, I had the exact same experience with supplementing formula. I thought it would ruin her but she was literally dying without it because of jaundice. Just do what works and stop feeling guilty. You're doing a wonderful job :) and thank you for such a nice comment on my blog. It is so easy to feel like a crap mother. I appreciate your kind words.

Douglas said...

Baby books seem to foster the baby-raising orthodoxy. They need to tell you that everyone else's theory will doom your child to average intelligence and vo-tech school. They tell you that you can be the cool parent who really loves their child.

Throw the books away. Trust your instincts. You are one good mamma.

Reba said...

My babies preferred to feed themselves, too, so we mostly skipped purées. I can't figure out why motherhood feels the need to be so divided, but I think it fades as your kids grow, or I've just become more immune to it. I'd like the time back I devoted to each sleep camp before I realized through the night was only a five hour stretch. Keep up the good work.

Reba said...

I meant mothering, but it applies to writing as well. :)

Giuli said...

I'll never forget fighting with Max one day before dinner trying to get him to eat his pureed baby food. He yelled, screamed, and slapped his high chair in anguish. I was absolutely frustrated. In those days I tried to feed him baby food before we ate our dinner at the table. When I finally gave up and served Jack and me our black bean soup, he grabbed my spoon from me and ate almost my entire bowl. From that day forward I never tried to give him baby food and I always tried to give him what we were eating. To this day he loves beans, any kind! When Kizzie came around, I decided to pretty much breeze through the baby food stage. I still gave her mashed bananas and applesauce baby food, and the ones that actually taste good. However, I just started taking what we were eating and blending it up a little bit so that she could eat it. When we ate lasagna, she ate lasagna, etc. Blended up lasagna is surprisingly yummy, by the way. She ate little pieces of salmon, even, at a young age. About the only thing that I strictly adhered to was not giving her peanut butter or honey until a year. For a few months she was absolutely livid that she couldn't eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches like her brother. All of the WIC baby foods just sat on my shelf, until I realized that mixing pureed sweet potatoes into biscuits is fantastic. You can mix rice cereal into soup that you make for yourself and sam to make it thicker and easier for Henrietta to feed herself. Give her a spoon, I say, strip her down to her diaper, and be prepared to clean up the mess. She will be covered from head to toe and excessively triumphant. Never let pediatricians, websites, or books overwhelm your instincts as a mother. I knew, at three months old that Kizzie was ready for rice cereal when she was trying to nurse every 45 minutes and yanking my plate away from me at the table. I knew that Max was ready to wean himself from breastfeeding at three months when he was screaming, and slapping my breast away during feeding time and happily sipping formula instead, even though the la leche lady INSISTED that there was no possible way that he could be weaning himself that young. Jack just laughed and told her that Max must not be a boob man! When it comes down to it, who cares? Is someone going to ask Max when he is an adult if he was breast fed and how long? Is he currently alive and eating? (sometimes eating, mostly running around) I'm waaaaaaay more relaxed with Kizzie and what my food expectations are with her. When Max went and entire year ONLY eating cheese its, I just supplemented his diet with pediasure.

Amara said...

Isn't it funny -my pride gets in my way often when I'm trying to decide the "right " thing to do. I wanted to be one of those academic people. I wanted to be one of those "all natural" people. This sort of thing just turns into obstacles in my decision making process.

maryanne @ mama smiles said...

Anna usually holds the pouches for herself, but if we're out and I don't want to risk her pouring puree everywhere, say, on a plane, I hold them (I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear that she prefers to hold them herself).