Perpetually Mistaken For Pregnant
Plus: Babies eating branzino and Terrible Norm.
Disclaimer: You’re reading this column because you value my input as a journalist who reports on these issues and therefore has a lot of informed opinions. I’m not a healthcare provider and these responses are not meant to substitute for medical or therapeutic advice.
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Q: I’m curious for your thoughts about the hardcore baby-led weaning accounts on Instagram. I see a lot of posts on “how to introduce your baby to branzino.” There’s also talk of not serving babies bread because it “steals the show,” and how you can never serve dried fruit with fresh fruit because (again) it steals the show. Also the expectation that you should perfectly curate your baby’s first 100 foods? This seems like INTENSE stealth-diet culture, under this new guise of ensuring that your child will never, ever be “picky?”
Yep. In many online conversations, baby-led weaning (BLW) has become diet culture indoctrination. The original book on the topic sowed some seeds for this, but expectations that your baby should love branzino and portobello mushrooms, or that you should be diligently working through a list of baby superfoods, are absolutely a manifestation of Kid Food Instagram. And this is such a disappointment because it didn’t have to be this way.
I discovered BLW when we were trying to wean our older daughter off her feeding tube. For many reasons, we couldn’t follow it to the letter: BLW wants you offering small pieces of food that babies can pick up and explore with their hands and mouths. For most of her infancy, my daughter’s oral aversion was so intense that she wasn’t willingly putting anything anywhere near her mouth, including her own hands. But the ethos of “baby-led” resonated because it was so clear that we, as parents, could not lead this child to eat. As I’ve written before, it was only by following her cues, most of which translated to “get that away from me,” that we were able to work, very slowly, towards oral eating. She ate when food in her mouth no longer felt dangerous. She ate when she learned once again to equate eating with comfort and pleasure. She ate when she was ready.
And: She ate food that tasted good to her. The reason for this is obvious. If it doesn’t taste good, it doesn’t feel safe. Learning to eat requires even typically developing infants to take a pretty big leap of faith, and start putting all these different tastes and textures in their mouths when one milky texture is all they’ve known. If it’s not immediately rewarding, why take that risk? This is why many kids with feeding issues (or not!) gravitate first towards foods like Cheerios, puffs, and Cheetos: They are low risk (because they melt in your mouth), but high reward in terms of flavor and satisfaction. One way to understand the importance of food tasting good is to lean into offering foods that are easy for babies to like: Bananas, cereal, pasta and (once they have the chewing ability) bread. Another approach is to decide that it’s your job to reprogram what tastes good for your baby.
This is the message that Kid Food Instagram tends to push. They teach that we should back away from our kids’ preferences for sweets and carbs, and redirect them instead, to love elderberry and kale. They promise that BLW will “prevent picky eating.” But what this really means is that BLW will prevent your child from eating the foods that diet culture demonizes—which also happen to be the foods kids tend to like best. I get press releases every month warning about “the rise in picky eating.” But it’s not at all clear to me that kids today are actually pickier than we were a generation ago. (I, for one, ate almost nothing but spaghetti, white bread, and strawberry yogurt until I was 12.) What has changed is parents’ expectations about how kids should eat, and the pressure we feel to perform our parenting through our children’s eating habits.
Let’s also be clear: These promises very often fall short. Achieving this kind of gold standard BLW is only even slightly possible if you can retain total control over your child’s feeding experience. If you have a child in daycare, a child with older siblings eating differently, a child fed by other caregivers, this all gets complicated fast. In this way, the pressure to BLW builds on the pressure to exclusively breastfeed: Both turn feeding children into work that only one person—the parent with breasts, the parent with the resources to research and execute BLW—can do. Both attach moral value to what should be practical and emotional decisions. And both devalue this parent’s labor by framing these approaches as “free,” or cheaper than purchasing formula and storebought baby food. But that’s only true if you decide that the time of the person doing this work is worthless.
Does every social media account that promotes BLW entangle themselves with diet culture and the oppression of parents, especially mothers? Of course not. I appreciate the work of @feedinglittles and @yummytoddlerfood, both of which discuss BLW as an option that works for many, but not all, families, and are careful to pair it with lots of anti-diet messaging.
But I’d be wary of any account that frames BLW (or any other feeding strategy) as the one right way to do this incredibly difficult, time-consuming and personalized task. Letting my older child experiment with self-feeding was, ultimately, a crucial tool in helping her learn to eat by mouth. But so were storebought baby food pouches—those often maligned symbol of “bad food” and “lazy parenting”—because they were the first “meal” she could entirely, successfully, self-feed.
Q: How should I handle it when people congratulate me for being pregnant? Because I'm not. And… this happens to me all the time.
It happens to me all the time, too. And if I’m being honest, I have only once felt like I nailed my reply. So I’m going to start by telling you the story of Terrible Norm.
Terrible Norm is the guy we hired to fix our well when it broke in the middle of the pandemic, leaving us without running water for a week. All of the bigger well companies in our area were swamped to the point of not returning calls, but Terrible Norm called back and showed up. That is the only nice thing I have to say about him, because when I say “show up,” I mean he drove his car straight onto our lawn (overshooting the driveway by about ten feet and narrowly missing running over my then-three-year-old playing on the grass). Then he got out, scowled at me, and said, “Bun in the oven, huh?”
“Nope,” I said. “Are you here to look at the well?”
“Really, no bun?” Terrible Norm said. “Because…” and he made a sort of circular gesture around his own midsection.
My kids, our babysitter, and I stared at him. We were all stunned by the invasiveness of his assumption on top of the invasiveness of his arrival on top of the stress of a house with no water in 90 degree heat. We hadn’t flushed a toilet all day and this man felt entitled to know the contents of my uterus. “No,” I said. “I’m just fat. And you need to stop talking about my body right now.”
Here’s the thing. It was the perfect response and it did absolutely nothing to derail Terrible Norm. It was the perfect response because it was better than when this used to happen in my 20s, and I would somehow end up apologizing. I’m sorry my body has confused you. Yes, it’s shaped this way, but for the wrong reasons. It was the perfect response because it was what I wanted my kids to hear me say. It was the perfect response because I made it clear that my body wasn’t up for discussion.
But it didn’t stop him from asking nosey follow-up questions, or making an offensive comment to my babysitter about her age, or later telling my husband that I seemed “crazy and uptight.” (Dan’s response: “Actually we’re both uptight.”1) And it sure didn’t get my well fixed faster.
There is no perfect response to this question because it’s a stupid question that is really just a terrible assumption. Even when it comes from a more well-meaning person than the misogynist (also racist, as we learned over the course of that week!) I hired to fix my well. I’ve been assumed pregnant when I wasn’t by sweet old ladies in the grocery store, by nurses in doctor’s offices, by my friends’ kids, and by waiters (at least that time it resulted in my being whisked to the head of a buffet line at a wedding since I was obviously “eating for two”). In all of these incidents, the person making the assumption did so with a kind of delight; they thought they were about to be let into my great news. That makes it all the more difficult to just state the obvious: My body is none of your business.
When I was thin, I was mistaken for pregnant when my stage four endometriosis flared up. There were several months where we weren’t sure if I could get pregnant at all, so it was even more painful for random strangers to assume it was happening. Mistaken for pregnant is also a special hell for folks who have experienced miscarriage, stillbirth, abortion, or infant death. In many ways, it feels easier now that I’m mistaken for pregnant simply because I’m the kind of fat person that carries it all in my midsection. But it’s still uncomfortable. When I respond, “I’m just fat,” people who are not Terrible Norm are quickly mortified, and eager to assure me that I’m not fat, I’m beautiful. I find myself going in circles trying to explain that fat isn’t an insult, nor does it exist in opposition to beauty. “You’ll get your body back,” one woman reassured me after piecing together that I wasn’t pregnant but did have a five month old at the time. “I haven’t lost it,” is what I wish I’d said.
But what Terrible Norm taught me is that the perfect response has nothing to do with the person making the stupid assumption. Because we owe them nothing. We don’t have to make them feel better about their mistake. We don’t have to take the discomfort out of this moment that’s only happening because they crossed a line. We can be rude. We don’t have to apologize. We can be annoyed. We don’t have to explain our bodies.
In thinking about your question, I’m reminded of this excellent advice from Ragen Chastain on dealing with trolls: “We can choose how to react to our mistreatment based on what is best for us,” she says. “Our choices to center ourselves in these interactions are completely valid.” The perfect response to someone else’s shitty assumption is whatever you need it to be.
Dan will want me to note that he also spent the better part of five days dealing with Terrible Norm and performing significant manual labor on our well repair. He definitely got the worst deal (I took the kids to a hotel), but we can all agree that guys like Terrible Norm are a white man’s management problem.