Here's one thing that never occurred to me before I had a child of my own: The idea of a "motherly instinct" is either a complete myth or something many of us were born missing. I'm not talking about having a sweet, nurturing disposition and a yearning to procreate. I'm talking about the way it seems, when you're a kid, like your parents know all the answers before there are questions. They set the rules for your existence because the rules always existed, fully formed, in their heads. My mother, a mere 23 when she had me, could make her every proclamation sound like it came down from Olympus.
When it came to food—though now I know she'd basically just learned the fundamentals of cooking a couple of years before—what she served was The Right Thing to Eat, because she said so. For breakfast, that meant Cheerios, Cream of Wheat, bread and jam, or on very special occasions, a sweet, milky strained oatmeal concoction she grew up with in the Dominican Republic. She'd been raised in a house with servants, so the crafting of most other Dominican meals was never passed on to her, but my sister and I were always made aware that our first-generation status set us apart.
When we came home from sleepovers and dared to ask why we couldn't eat the bowls of colorful sugar served at my friends' houses, her answer was something like, "That's what Americans eat." (If you're about to dispute the provenance of Cheerios and Cream of Wheat, please refer back to my previous point about the power of her words.) When I was around nine and she finally learned to make things like pancakes and muffins from Jane Brody's Good Food Book, she never let on that this was an improvement from her old ways.
One of the things I wish I'd known to ask her before she died is, "Were you just making it up as you went along? Were you faking it? Did you hide that from us all along?"
What's the exact opposite of conviction and instinct? To me: motherhood. From the very start, you're meant to offer up your breasts—those things you were told to keep hidden your whole life—as this beautiful, natural substance that will give your child everything she or he needs for a healthy, smart life. It will all just flow from your body to his, like it does for every other mammal on the planet.
There's a reason "lactation consultant" is a real job, and I saw three of them. Thus began the notion that being a "good mom" meant feeding my child healthy food effortlessly, that I was doomed to failure from day one. This is when doubt settled in to stay. Absolutely no voice of ancient wisdom spoke from deep within to guide me. I had no answers for any of the questions that followed. My every attempt to follow the not-so-ancient words of wisdom from books and blogs seemed to fail too. In my heart of hearts, I began to feel like a bad mom.
Kristin Iverson's essay here, "What Happened to Breakfast After Having Kids," made me nauseated with envy. My picky eater, who's now three, has never let me feed him strawberries and avocado slices, let alone eggs or fried rice, Kristin's go-to on lazier mornings. The beautiful, groggy chaos she describes is completely foreign to me.
Perhaps in earlier generations, a "bad mom" breakfast consisted of day-old donuts or the kind of cereal advertised during cartoons. Today, it looks like this: Every morning, at around 5:30 a.m., he sucks on squeezy packets of applesauce and a sippy cup of strawberry Kefir yogurt drink in front of the TV while his dad and I lie on the couch, dreaming of alphabet songs and talking trains. That's the closest he'll get to fruit all day. By the time I'm alert and together enough to "whip up" pancakes, my little Bright Eyes has been up for hours. Once I finally manage to get them on the table, he's throwing a tantrum that he wants peanut butter and jelly, and only if I've been fully caffeinated can I catch the flying, blueberry syrup-drenched flapjack he's just thrown in the air.
I know there's some nutritional advice for kids about "eating your colors." The only colors that will currently pass this threenager's lips are shades of purple, pink, brown, and beige. So this second breakfast, sometimes served at dinner, too, is the sole time when he eats foods that I imagine good moms feed their children (on a bad day): oatmeal (instant), whole grain (frozen) waffles with almond butter, raisin bran with milk (slurped from my own bowl). Watching zucchini and pumpkin pancakes and gourmet chia seed smoothies tossed on the floor a few times has destroyed my inclination to go homemade. It's breastfeeding all over again. My ego is too fragile for that rejection.
I do have a tiny bit of hope that things will change over time. Maybe the kid's taste buds will develop, as everyone's do. Maybe, as he grows up, goes to school, and becomes more and more of a person, I'll stop seeing my success and failure as a mother in terms of his low percentile in height and weight. Maybe he'll come home from friends' houses asking why I don't serve vegetable frittatas and green juice every morning. Maybe I'll learn to give him a fully confident answer on the spot: "Because I'm your mother, and I'm bad."
Sabrina Rojas Weiss lives in Brooklyn with all the other writers who always seem to get the last blueberry banana muffin just before she gets there.