La Panza Blandita

For whatever reason, being responsible for feeding my family has always been a source of massive anxiety for me. It’s not the cooking–I love making food–it’s the weight of making all the right choices about what to eat.

One of the few meltdowns I had before marrying Nate was when I spiraled out of control thinking about what a picky eater he was and how I was never going to be able to cook food he would like for THE REST OF MY LIFE. He calmed me down by promising that he would always eat anything I cooked without complaining. He has kept that promise. As further proof that I always worry about the wrong things, cooking for him has literally never once been a problem.

That still didn’t keep me from worrying about it all over again when I had a baby.

Can I be honest? My decision to breastfeed was obviously based partially on what would be healthy for my child, but it was mostly based on the fact that it was simple. No nutritional expertise required. No preparation required (not after the first few weeks at least). Everything was just there, ready to go, so to speak.

We can talk about the difficulties of nursing a baby some other time, but once I had it figured out, it bought me several months of worry-free baby feeding. Then, as she started to approach four months and then five months old, my anxiety returned. I couldn’t stop thinking about how I was going to be responsible to make sure this child ate three healthy meals a day FOR EIGHTEEN YEARS. What did I know about proper developmental nutrition? How was I going to find stamina for this never-ending job?

I wrote to my sister-in-law, who had babies a little before me, begging for her help. She sent a chart she had used, laying out how to introduce foods one at a time and which ones should be introduced at which age. It even listed amounts per day. This chart brought relief to my anxiety about my ignorance. But it made me feel even more overwhelmed at the magnitude of what lay before me.

I taped it to the inside of a kitchen cabinet and told myself I’d delay worrying about it until she turned five months old. Maybe six?

Then, the week she turned five months old, we took her in for her regular visit to the pediatrician. Remember that we lived in Argentina at the time. Through a friend, we had found a wonderful old doctor who ran a private practice out of a tiny house not far from us. We had already seen him once or twice, and we smiled through every visit.

He was a short man with delicate white hair and a gentle, soothing voice. When he examined the baby, he would talk through what he was doing in a sing-song pattern, saying the same things at every visit. “Tiene la nariz limpia….tiene la panza blandita.…”

The nose is clean…the belly is soft… (Sometimes at home when we were loopy from lack of sleep and the baby was crying, we would imitate that hypnotic voice: “tiene la panza blandita…”.)

On this visit, after the exam, the doctor mentioned that it was about time to start the baby on solid foods. He said he would give me a list of foods he recommended we begin with, and then he sat down and began writing on his little prescription pad. When he finished, he handed it me, a short list in swooping cursive that matched his voice and personality perfectly.

Translated into English, here is what it said:

  • Baby Cereal
  • Jello
  • Soft fruits
  • Sprite (left out to go flat)
  • Yogurt
  • Soft cooked eggs

I stared at the piece of paper. He asked if I had any questions. I looked at the top where his name and medical degree were printed. I had many questions, but I said I didn’t. I folded up the paper and put it in my purse.

In the car, Nate and I looked at the list together. It was like an artifact from a far-off time.

“Why would you give a baby flat Sprite?” Nate asked.

“Why would you give a baby jello?” I responded.

“Jello is good,” he said.

I laughed, and the weight of anxiety lifted a little. He had a point. Jello is good.

At home, I put the list of foods recommended by a medical professional next to my sister-in-law’s detailed chart.

When the time came to feed my baby, I went with the chart. What can I say? I’m North American, and scientific charts make more sense to me.

But I kept that hand-written list nearby, not because I wanted an excuse to give my baby jello but because I wanted to remember that there are lots of ways to feed a child. That doctor had been giving nutritional advice to Argentine mothers for decades, and their children had grown up healthy. They had turned into functional adults. Many of them brought their own children back to the same sweet pediatrician.

The chart may have answered my questions, but the list spoke to my anxiety. It made the whole feeding endeavor seem simpler. It told me I could do it imperfectly, and things would still be okay.

It also made me laugh every time I saw it. Which definitely didn’t hurt.

Always remember: there’s nothing like some jello and flat Sprite to help keep your belly soft.

My doctor said so.

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