“Yesterday was the worst day ever,” my son said when he woke up. For the record, he says that a lot. When you’re six years old, the world is concrete. Up or down. Black or white. Good or bad. Thankfully, he also often says, “This is the best day ever!”
“Why was yesterday the worst day ever?” I asked.
“Because I cried a lot.”
He sure did. The evening before we went to the Food Truck Invasion that visits our neighborhood park every Tuesday. I was really excited to take him because I looked online and saw that there would be a pasta truck there. He recently faced his fear of spaghetti and decided he loved it (as he does ziti and elbows but not penne because it has ridges and those are scary—except for ridges on potato chips, which aren’t scary at all).
Adding spaghetti to his short list of acceptable foods was a mixed bag. It was another carbohydrate when what he really needed in his diet was protein. But it was new and every new food he tasted chipped away at the brick wall he’d built up around himself.
My son was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder (SPD) a few months before his fifth birthday. He spent the next year in intense occupational therapy—swinging, jumping, leaping, stretching, and strengthening—to find comfort in his own skin, overcome his fears and anxieties, lessen his sensitivity to sound and touch, and build confidence. After treatment, he was, quite simply, a different kid. My scared, listless, there-but-not-there child shed the skin under which he was trapped to illuminate his true self—a bright, funny, and outgoing boy.
Transformation aside, to say he’s cured would be misleading. He’ll always be sensory sensitive, and we work daily to help him overcome the fears and negative behaviors to which he still clings. The biggest obstacle that remains is food, for which we have three goals: (1) introduce new food, (2) teach coping skills for when faced with unacceptable (to him) food, and (3) generalize (for instance, spaghetti home tastes just like spaghetti at a restaurant). What we want more than anything is to help him succeed (i.e. eat) in as many environments as possible including school, camp, birthday parties, friends’ homes, restaurants, and now the food trucks.
There was a bonce house in the center of the Food Truck Invasion at the park. Not surprisingly, we started our culinary adventure there. After about an hour of bouncing, I said, “Okay, let’s eat.”
“Spaghetti?” he asked.
“Spaghetti,” I confirmed.
There was no prouder Mama at the park than me. To be able to finally purchase food—plain spaghetti with Parmesan cheese—for my child. When we finally sat down at a picnic table and opened the plastic container that held his dinner, something had happened. The plain spaghetti with Parmesan cheese morphed into plain spaghetti with melted Parmesan cheese.
He shut down. He refused to eat a single bite. Not even one cheese-free strand. He threw his fork on the ground. He threatened to run back to the bounce house. He cried. He screamed. He cry-screamed. He melted like the cheese on his spaghetti.
Except it wasn’t the end at all.
There was more crying and screaming. In a dramatic scene, we abruptly left the park. He had a long time-out at home, a silent bath, and a hasty bedtime. The thing about food, fear, SPD and my son is that the moment he lost it at the Food Truck Invasion at the park was as much about me as it was about him.
I was naïve. I wrongfully built it up the night before. I researched menus, mapped out the night (bounce house then plain spaghetti with Parmesan cheese then ice cream!), and as a result, forgot how unpredictable six-year-olds—with or without SPD—could be. I also didn’t account for the fact that Parmesan cheese melted when inside a hot, closed container.
I was angry. I paid $8 for plain spaghetti and Parmesan cheese and he didn’t say thank you. I couldn’t think of anything more delicious than melted Parmesan cheese, he didn’t trust me that it would taste good and he had behaved so poorly.
I was confused. SPD is a tangled web of physical and behavioral problems. Where did one end and the other begin? I didn’t want to punish him if his neurological system was out of whack but I couldn’t tolerate cry-screaming over melted cheese either.
I was exhausted. I couldn’t prepare his food perfectly for the rest of his life. I couldn’t cut the white rind off of every single wedge of orange, toast a waffle just so, and make sure bread was free of crumbs forever. I couldn’t promise that he’d never be faced with melted Parmesan cheese again.
I was scared. I love food. I live for food. Many of my most cherished memories are connected to food. If I close my eyes, I can taste the peanut butter and marshmallow fluff sandwiches I ate on the beach as a child and the sand that ground between my teeth with each sweet and salty bite. I can feel the steam rising from my mom’s matzo ball soup. I can hear the sizzle of my dad’s Sunday morning chocolate chip pancakes on the griddle. How was he going navigate life without food?
I was guilty. (Oh so guilty!) I’m the one person in this world who is supposed to love and accept him unconditionally but in that moment at the park I wished he were different.
I was negligent. I convinced myself that his food issues had improved when the dysfunction was simply hiding behind procrastination and avoidance. The spaghetti breakthrough was a success but it wasn’t enough. I stopped pushing him because doing so almost always made me feel naïve, angry, confused, exhausted, scared, guilty, negligent, and sad. Sad for the unwelcomed, unwanted, and uninvited Invasion in our lives.
I went to sleep sad that night and woke up sad the next morning. To my son who told me yesterday was the worst day ever because he cried a lot, I replied, “Yesterday was a pretty bad day for me, too.” Then we got dressed for the day.
Except it isn’t the end at all.