Friday, March 9, 2012

Bring Your Own Cheese.



It was a night like any other night, filled with after school obligations and community gatherings of the preschool kind. It was Tuesday. Or maybe Wednesday, they all blend together in an endless sea of book fairs and family fun nights.

On that evening, our preschool hosted a fundraiser at the local McDonalds. The teachers manned the fry station and the drive-up window. They took Happy Meal orders.

On that night, there was one mother fretting over the most unhappy of meals.

My dear, wonderful, somewhat neurotic friend Margaret is a champion of organic eating, sanitary environments, and bibs. She believes that the alternatives are likely to ruin her children’s lives. Or, at least, get them sick with rhino-viruses and incubate pre-cancerous cells. When it came time for the preschool night at McDonald’s, a hotbed of germs, mechanically separated chicken, and USDA certified NOT organic foodstuffs, she was feeling a bit anxious.

Three Days Before The Event
Margaret: Are you going to this thing?
Me: Yes, of course, but you know I’m not remotely concerned about my children’s health. You going to be able to swing it?
Margaret: I don’t know! Of course the kids want to go. They are hearing about it at school every day, but . . . do you think I’m crazy that I don’t want my kids to eat there?
Me: No! It’s a terrible place to eat. Horrible. McDonald’s represents all that’s evil in healthy eating.
Margaret: But you’re going.
Me: I’ve demonstrated a solid track record of making bad choices. Why quit now?
Margaret: I have to think about it.
Two Days Before The Event
Me: Why not feed them dinner at home, show up for some ice cream, and be done with it?
Margaret: Maybe. You know, we have eaten fast food before, but I just don’t like to do it. And never McDonald’s.
Me: If you do go, I’m thinking burger is the better choice. I mean, I don’t know what they make the nuggets with. “All white meat” they say. Define “white meat,” I say.
Margaret: I need a Xanax.
One Day Before The Event
Margaret: We’re going. I decided to not be super crazy.
Me: You’re not crazy, you’re concerned. Hey, you could get apple slices instead of fries for the kids and you can have a salad. How bad can that be?
Margaret: Oh good Lord! I haven’t even thought about what I’m going to eat.
Me: Don't forget to bring the hand sanitizer.
The Event

Here we all were, herds of preschool- and French fry--lovers at the local McDonlad’s where the teachers for the two-year-old classes had organized a crush of families into ordering lines. The school’s director was probably in the back melting lard or salting the salt.

I ordered my children Happy Meals and set the whole bunch down at a table that looked relatively clean. They dropped fries on the seats and ate them anyway. Their feet dangled above the floor; the seats are a bit too big still, and when their shoes fell off they crawled under the table to retrieve them.  I was unfazed.

By contrast, Margaret had pulled out plastic placemats that stick to the table. Her children were able to put their meals out before them without having millions of microbes cling to their burgers. The younger boys had bibs. Their oldest, she’s five, was sitting with her shoes firmly attached to her feet. There were no French fries in front of her kids. There were no nuggets.

Margaret finished setting up her brood and said to me, “I brought my own cheese.”

Her kids were eating high-fat, low-quality burgers under less-than-sanitary eating conditions, but Margaret managed to exercise a bit of control over a situation that was clearly stressing her out. She brought cheese from home. Trustworthy cheese. Familiar cheese. Organic Colby-jack cheese. BYO Cheese.  Rather than argue that it didn’t make a difference look, my kids were dipping nuggets in their chocolate milk and were only moments away from trying to eat French fries with their toesI argue that it was the only sane thing she could do.

Sure, her husband and I (he’s arguably less concerned about the McDonald’s experience) had a little chuckle when he described Margaret packing a baggie of cheese for the road. But it was a chuckle I’d just as quickly have had at my own expense.

Because, when it boils down to the high pressure demands of parenting, the ones that require us to be deeply concerned about every aspect of our children’s’ life, from consuming trans fats to redshirting kindergarteners, we all have BYO cheese moments. 

We flounder to know what to do when the big stuff happens: bullies, failing report cards, medical ailments. But we also grapple with smaller concerns like how much TV to let them watch and what kind. Whether our small children should brush their own teeth or if we should do it for them. How we handle things like “pink is for girls” and “that’s a boy toy.” What to say when the seven-year-old starts saying “stupid” all the time.

We need to make room in our lives for moms who, like most of us, are just trying to figure out what’s important to them. When they show up with a few slices of cheese, we can show them the journal we’ve been keeping to track every time our kid writes her name upside-down.

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