Last night, I cut turkey into the shape of a cat. I rolled salami and tortillas into pinwheels and secured them with toothpicks. I packed it all in a $60 lunchbox.
Sixty dollars. My cheeks burn. I hope to God my mother doesn’t read this.
I don’t know who I am anymore.
When my husband and I were dating, we had a discussion about parenting.
“I’m not cutting the crust off of anyone’s bread,” I told him.
Philosophically, I agree with my pre-child self. If kids don’t want crust, they can gnaw around it with their own wet gums, or feed it to the dog.
I took my soggy PB & J to school in a rusty Dukes of Hazzard lunchbox that never held a gummy vitamin, organic ingredient or fresh berry. My mom started work at 6:30 a.m. It would never have occurred to me that she — or anyone else — should do anything more than toss a handful of Doritos into a paper sack. As soon as I developed motor skills, I packed it myself.
Three years ago this week, my friend Phuong posted a photo on Facebook. Hardly a day has passed since that I haven’t pondered that photo and what it represents. It is a tangible stand-in for every conflicting impulse I possess.
It is a magnificent manifestation of a mother’s perfect love. It says: You’re worth my time. I will nurture your body and spirit.
It is everything that is wrong with American parenting. It says: You’re so special that your sandwiches must be carved into the face of Jesus.
I messaged Phuong immediately.
8/21/13: your lunches are stressing me out. I don’t need this kind of pressure
Social media is a quick hit of You go, mama! — and who doesn’t need that now and then? It’s also a place that stokes our deepest anxieties: That we are not the parent our child needs. That all the kids will hang out at the better mom’s house around the corner, and that mom will be the first to know about our daughter’s boyfriend and that mom will drive her to get her first tattoo.
I have a busy life, a new book out, a full-time job and interests outside of my child. I don’t want to fall into the vortex of professional mommying. I don’t want my daughter to be professionally mommied. I want her to drive a stick shift, change her own locks and appreciate what she has. I want her to understand that some kids can’t afford to bring a lunch, and some kids’ parents work two jobs. I want her to share her graham crackers and shut up about it.
But when I saw Phuong’s organic rice Warrior Cat sculpture, a part of me I didn’t know existed wanted to be a little more like Phuong. I secretly ordered the $60 lunchbox and hid it on a shelf for three years.
Last week, Juniper started kindergarten. My pre-child self could never have predicted the pride and agony of that day. It wasn’t about kindergarten, of course. It was about driving, leaving for college, forgetting to call.
It’s good if she doesn’t need you, I told myself. Her not needing you is the entire point.
And yet, if I could have put my actual, beating heart into a box and sent it off with her to school, so she would feel me with her and know she was never alone, I would have done it. Instead, I cut rainbow paper into the shape of a heart and wrote an elaborate love note she can’t even read and taped it inside the lunchbox lid.
I called Phuong. She had, like she does every morning, gotten up at 4:30 a.m. to pack lunches before her hour-long commute to her job as a communications director for a Florida nonprofit. She doesn’t worry that she’s spoiling her boys. They have a mile-long chore chart, and they do their own laundry. She doesn’t care what other moms say about her on Facebook, either. She calls it “Fakebook.”
She created the Warrior Cat on her son’s first day of middle school. When he came home that day, she asked him whom he sat with at lunch. Nobody, he told her. But lunch was still his favorite part of the day.
“I don’t do it to show off,” Phuong said. “I do it for my boys. I truly know what it means to them, and what it means to me.”
As for Juniper, she came home from school bouncing on her toes.
“I want to take my lunch every day, Mommy. It is so bootiful! I ate it all up. Can we pack my lunch now for tomorrow? Can we pack it right now?”
She tried, with her clumsy fingers, to roll tortillas into pinwheels. She speared blueberries onto toothpicks. She cut cheese into the approximate shape of an elephant, if you didn’t look too closely.
I glimpsed a compromise. She was eating healthy food. She was making her own lunch. This wasn’t about impressing other moms. It was just about me and her, creating something. I pictured her opening the box in the school cafeteria, feeling a little homesick and smiling and consuming a few more antioxidants than usual because they were arranged in patterns, and because she did it herself, and because she felt me there with her.
You go, mama.
Her tortilla pinwheel, though, looked like origami made by my cat. I briefly feared that someone — who? — might see it and think I did it.
Before I snapped the lunchbox shut, I pulled it out and popped it in my mouth.
Kelley Benham French is the author, with her husband, of Juniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon, published by Little, Brown. She was a 2013 Pulitzer Prize finalist for “Never Let Go,” a newspaper series about her micro preemie daughter’s survival. She is a professor of practice in journalism at Indiana University. Follow her on Twitter @KelleyBFrench.
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