I have a confession to make: I’m living a dual life. In one, I’m a medical doctor who teaches Stanford courses on child health and nutrition. In the other, I’m a mom trying (and sometimes failing) to make the right food choices for my family. Eating right can be hard when you live in a part of the world where fast food is waiting for you on every street corner. The ads on TV telling tired parents to relax and stop for pizza don’t help much either. But sometimes talking to other parents – and sharing ideas for how to feed our children right – can help a lot. The Healthier, Happy Lives blog at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford is a perfect place to start a discussion over the next few months. Together, we can get this right!
My uncertainly over what to feed my three children started ten years ago when the first tiny human being was handed to me by a nurse who forgot to give me the instruction manual. I knew that breast milk was the best food for babies. But breastfeeding wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. Soon after my first baby was born in Vancouver, Canada, I needed to return to medical school and I had to start supplementing his diet with formula. Somehow, I felt I had already failed as a parent. I also worried about which formula to choose (PS: they’re all the same) and even which bottles to choose: Glass or plastic? Latex or silicone? The choices – and fear of making the wrong ones – seemed overwhelming.
Then, a year later, my medical training landed me in a township nutrition clinic in South Africa, where I finally realized what was behind my anxiety: I was spoiled. In fact, I was spoiled rotten by too many options and too much time to worry about making the wrong ones. The mothers I met in South Africa didn’t have these luxuries. In a place where HIV, poverty, malnutrition and crime seemed to be everywhere, they were raising children. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I met a single mother, named Baselwa, who breastfed her twins in a one-room shack made of laundry detergent boxes. Her determination to give those babies the best nutrition grew out of the fact that she had seen too many babies die from drinking formula mixed with dirty water. Without the antibodies in their mother’s milk, these babies couldn’t fight off the infection hiding in their milk bottles. Watching Baselwa, I felt embarrassed about my own worries. Bottle or breast? Glass or plastic? Try life or death? Those were possibilities I never had to face.
Here in the US, we have so many choices, and so much time to think about those choices, that we often end up doubting ourselves. Sometimes, we quietly criticize each other to make ourselves feel better: “Can you believe she lets him eat that?” I saw none of that judgment between the mothers I met in South Africa. Instead, they would listen to each other and trade ideas. They would bring food and help cook a meal. They would tell each other: “You are managing to care beautifully for this child.” And they would mean it.
I don’t wish for any of us to experience the struggles faced by the Baselwas of our world. But we can learn a lot from parents like her. As we try to do the best we can with what we have, maybe the smartest choice we can make is this: to feed our children with good sense and love, supporting each other along the way.