So, true confessions time: sometimes I feed my kid chicken nuggets. Sure, they’re organic grass-fed gluten-free ones. (At least as often as possible.) And my toddler LOVES them. He is over the moon when chicken nuggets are on the menu. But they’re still chicken nuggets, i.e. evil processed convenience foods that will make him grow a new organ inside his little body. And I have great guilt about this sometimes.
This might be ridiculous to some. Why the guilt? Such bougie #firstworldproblems! What’s wrong with chicken nuggets? Stop being so hard on yourself! Some people would be so lucky to be able to feed their kids everyday! People are starving in Africa! In terms of deep dark confessions of the soul, this makes me seem like I have the emotional depth of a toilet bowl.
It’s amazing, though, just how three or four little nuggets of meat can be this small but persistent niggling source of shame in my life. I work full-time; I try to devote time to keeping healthy and my own creative projects; my time and energy are really scarce in this busy lane of life. Chicken nuggets are so easy: you just heat ’em up, throw them on a plate with some cut-up fruit or veggies and voila! Easy simple meal!
I recognize all this, of course. But I still feel guilty. It’s not a huge weight on my soul, but it’s a little persistent one — one that whispers instead of shouts. Maybe because it isn’t huge, I tend to brush it off. But brushing it off isn’t the same as really reckoning with it. And so it comes back again and again, getting a little bigger each time. Which, as you can imagine, is no fun, and you never know when it will erupt into a great fit of self-loathing (shaped somehow like a dinosaur.)
Here’s the thing I’ve learned about these little niggling guilts, though: guilt is an inside job. You can’t rationalize and logic it out of you. Guilt — and really, let’s call this what it is, which is SHAME — is about feeling unworthy, inadequate or somehow “less than” when we can’t do, hustle, push or whatever to meet expectations that are often outside ourselves. To unpack it, you have to go deep in the fissures of your self, unearth the ugly that’s making you feel icky and then shine some light, honesty and a little love and compassion on it to let it go. And so dealing with my little chicken nugget problem becomes an opportunity for self-knowledge and a little wisdom.
Part of the guilt stems from my own childhood programming. I grew up with a mom who made a great homemade meal every single night of my childhood. My mom is a great cook. Everyone’s mom is, but mine really, really is. She just has that culinary know-how that’s so rooted and grounded that it expresses itself with great lightness of touch and ease. She can smell a dish and know what it’s missing or even if it’s over-salted. She can add a dash of this or that and make something mediocre or pedestrian into a great symphony of flavors. I’m not at liberty to tell my mom’s story, because she did have her troubles and struggles, but I think it’s safe to say that she expressed her love for us through food. (Did I mention too that we are repressed Asians?)
Complicate this with the fact that we live in an age of intensive parenting, and we can’t even let kids walk to a park without fear that someone is going to call Child Protective Services or shame us on social media. The ethos of intensive parenting has its clutches on meals and food, too, whether it’s Pentagon-level meal planning, cooking homemade baby food with a Baby Bullet or Tiny Ninja, making sure to eat local and organic… you know the deal. All these upscale foodie cultural trends have extended to parenting, to what I think is unbearably high expectations for moms and dads who already work hard with very little social or practical support.
And it takes great deliberateness and presence of mind — not to mention energy — to actively deflect these. I remember reading the forward of a cookbook by a wellness/mommy/food blogger that basically said making sure kids and families ate “clean” and in a “detox” way was the most important responsibility of being a mom. (I should mention that this blogger’s version of wellness has been debunked by many scientific publications.) This of course pissed me off for a number of reasons: eating the way she advocated was expensive, time-consuming and for the highly socioeconomically privileged. Plus, not everyone makes a living testing recipes and cooking all the day long. And why is it the MOM’s responsiblity all the time? Surely dads prepare meals sometimes? I ended up tossing the book across the room and whipping myself into a feminist-flavored bolshie rage. But rage is exhausting, and I’d rather just go on with my life.
So how did I finally let go of the toxic load of guilt that dogs me when I nuke some nuggets (or boil up some Annie’s mac and cheese, or whatever)? I started doing something simple but perhaps rather compulsive and weird: I began tracking my time for a certain period. I did this for a number of reasons — file them under “general life audit” — and I only did it for about a week. But I recorded how I filled all my hours: what I was doing and how I was feeling, even down to minutiae like “exhausted and online shopping on Zara website.”
But I learned a lot about myself from doing a time audit. (Boy, do I like to look at ankle boots online!) And one of those things is that taking the time to make a homemade meal — prepping the food, making it, eating it and then cleaning up afterwards — takes up a LOT of time and energy. My partner works at night, so I don’t have any extra help. I do prep and plan as best as I can, and I use lots of shortcuts, like leftovers, precut produce, cooking stuff in the Instant Pot or slow cookers. But since it’s only me, making a full meal can still take up a lot of time, especially when a toddler still demands a lot of my attention. More importantly, it takes up a lot of energy and focus, because I honestly can’t multitask when I’m alone with my kid and I’m cooking on the stove or oven. (Too many burned or overly gloopy meals have happened trying to manage a meltdown over a missing Lego piece with googly eyes.)
Most specifically, I found that by the time I get home around 5pm and then start getting Budge ready for bed around 7, I wasn’t spending any “quality” time with him. I would just get home, start cooking, we’d eat and then I’d clean while he played by himself…and then it’d be time to start his bedtime routine. And the whole thing just robbed me of joy, and I felt that in the drive to get a “proper meal” on the table, I’d deprived myself of the connecting and bonding at the heart of family meals to begin with. Parenting began to feel like nothing but childcare, and that just feels like drudgery.
So I did some reckoning with myself. I know a lot of people equate mothering with meals, food, feeding and such…but I am not that mother, and that is just not one of my strengths and interests. (Though I did nurse my son for a year… so there you go, parenting police!) I do my best — I discovered I tend to cook 2-3 homemade dinners a week, eat off leftovers a few nights and go for convenience (or takeout!) 1-2 nights a week. Honestly, I think that works fine for me, my kid, my circumstances, my budget and my life.
Doing a time audit also helped me nail down in a concrete way how my values shaped my parenting — and be more mindful in letting them guide my choices. I realized I don’t want to be a mother that shows her love through dinner. I don’t want to sit at the table exhausted and grumpy; I don’t want to resent cooking or sharing a meal. I know cooking and super healthy food cultures are important to some people, and that’s fine. But it’s not in alignment with my values, at least not to that extent. It’s one of those things I’m perfectly fine balancing in the way that I can.
Most of all, I realized I valued presence with my child. I’d rather take time to go for a walk in the evening, or play ball, or draw or bang on the piano aimlessly with my son. I’d rather us snuggle up together on the sofa to watch “Happy Feet” and jump up together to tap dance when the penguins do their version of a step routine. I’d rather build castles with Legos, and listen to him prattle and chatter about the wondrous things he’s learning and seeing. I can’t take the time and energy to do those things AND make a completely homemade dinner, not within my set of circumstances and my own very human limitations.
And you know what? Once I realized an occasional meal of chicken nuggets buys me the ability to be calm, present and energized with my child on those frantic busy days — well, that’s a small price to pay for togetherness and connection. Which, to me, are the hopes, dreams and reasons we grow our families in the first place.