Sarah R. Callender


In Faith, Parenting on June 13, 2013 at 7:02 am

In March, I put a cup of Safeway Select Mandarin Oranges in Buddy’s lunchbox. Ever since, that same little cup of Safeway Select Mandarin Oranges comes back home in his lunchbox, uneaten. I keep sending it. He keeps bringing it back home.

By now, the orange segments have taken roughly sixty round trips on the school bus. They have attended a field trip to explore the tide pools at Lincoln Park. They have gone over to Buddy’s friends’ houses. Spent hours and hours in his dark (and likely stinky) locker. Been jiggled as Buddy jogs to the bus stop. It’s now more like Safeway Select Mandarin Orange Puree with Some Kind of Frothy Top Layer. The frothiness might suggest fermentation.

Each day after school, I say, “Buddy, you have got to eat the fruit in your lunch!”

Each day he replies, “Mom, I don’t really like those oranges.”

“I know! Eat ’em anyway!”

“OK,” he says, racing outside, carrying the homemade ninja accessories he makes when I’m not looking. “I’ll try!”

“YOU NEED TO TRY HARDER!” I yell at no one.

That’s when I catch a glimpse of a big housefly ramming its stalwart body against the plate glass picture window. It always irritates me when a fly does that over and over and over, as if somehow, if it just keeps trying, it will be able to bust through the glass. I want to redirect it. Gently tell it to knock it off because it is so depressing to see an insect or a mother doing the same stupid thing over and over, always getting the same, frustrating results. Plus, it sounds like it hurts. Thunk–buzz–thunk!–buzzzz–THUNK!–buzz.

So it got me thinking about school lunches and how we can’t control what our kids eat when they are elsewhere. We can only make accessible the ingredients for a semi-healthy lunch (and understand that when Sweetie packs a container of pickles, she’s just giving them to her friend, Madeline), then hope they actually eat the semi-healthy things.

I realized that what we pack in our kids’ lunches is a metaphor for what we (i.e. earnest yet deeply flawed parent-people) try to do each day: fill up our kids’ internal lunch boxes with all sorts of good stuff–love, compassion, gratitude, humility, the ability to laugh at oneself, a decent work ethic, the peace that passes understanding–with the hope that when our kids are out in the world, flying solo, they will use that fuel to thrive and love and do good.

But sometimes our kids are going to ignore the good stuff we’ve placed in and around them. They are going to make dumb choices. They are going to do unkind and impatient things. I know this because I make dumb choices and do unkind and impatient things, even though I am a grownup, even though my parents lovingly stuffed me with all sorts of good things.

But I am the hopeful sort. I am the housefly, body-butting the window over and over. Each day, I have hope that if I keep sending my kid off to school with Good Stuff, then that Good Stuff will be at his fingertips . . . should he decide he’s in the mood to consume it. I just wish he would EAT THOSE PULVERIZED ORANGES SO I WOULD FEEL BETTER.

This seems like a good time to point out that sometimes, when I pack a thermos of hot Chicken and Stars soup in the kids’ lunches, the thermos explodes and Buddy or Sweetie comes home with a backpack that reeks of salty broth, with rubbery pasta stars glued to the homework folder. The lunchbox needs to be soaked and washed, and the kid is limp with hunger.

That’s a bummer. It’s also a metaphor. Sometimes we (earnest yet deeply flawed parent-people) present our kids with things that are, in the end, messy and unhelpful. We hardly ever mean to; we just pass on what we think is a good idea, or we pass on things without thinking much at all. And then, because of steam and pressure and maybe the lid wasn’t on quite right, ka-BOOM!!!! Chicken and Stars everywhere.

This also seems like a good time to mention that sometimes you come across a parent who packs this in her kids’ school lunches.

Bento 1 Bento4


(These were from Parenting magazine’s 20 Easy Bento Box Lunches. They don’t look Easy to me, but maybe I just don’t have the proper tools or carrots or patience).

Looking at these photos, you might think, I have never once made a roaring lion out of my kid’s mac n’ cheese. I’m a failure! Or you might say, “Show me a mom-made lunch with farm animals made out of rice mounds, cheese, and raisins, and I’ll show you a mom with too much time on her hands.” Or maybe you’re thinking, “Cool. This mom’s Love Language is Bento Box Lunches! 

J.D. Salinger once said, “All mothers are slightly insane.” I believe that’s true. Insanity just looks different in different mom-people. Sometimes it looks like a mom shouting about mandarin oranges. Other times it looks like a bento box stuffed with carrot tulips and PB&J florettes. We really are all slightly insane.

I think part of the insanity might result from this answerless question: What’s the best way to love my kid (surround him with good and healthy things, both fruit and life skills) and, at the same time, start shoving him out of the nest? How do we parent within that tension?

Remember that scene in James and the Giant Peach, where the massive peach (that had been successfully floating on the sea) was getting munched by hungry sharks? And how Spider spun hundreds of ropey threads, and James and the other creatures lassoed seagulls, and the seagulls lifted the peach and its passengers up into the air?

giant peach

I love the idea of that scene, the idea of a huge, dripping orb of peach being lifted from the salty water. Saved. Rescued. Protected. I like the idea of staying near my kids, in case they need to be saved, rescued, protected.

But it’s good to start snipping a few of those silky threads. To start relieving a few gulls of their peach burden. The Cloud Men are up there, remember? We don’t want to get too high.

I should stop shouting about mandarin oranges and trust the process of parenting. I should snip a few ropey threads, maybe five or six each year, so that Buddy and Sweetie will figure out how to soar safely, with hardly any help from me.

But gosh, isn’t hard not to want to throw our kids into a vat of kale-blueberry-pomegranate-quinoa-Compassion-Humility-Peace-Generosity-Kindness-God and yell, “EAT! Eat it ALL! Clean your plate, kids! Lick your plates clean!”?

I think it is. Nearly impossible, really.

Photos compliments of Parenting magazine and Flickr’s benimnetz.

  1. I was a mom in the days when single-serve packaging was just being developed. My god, the joy of throwing in a series of packages–a cheese stick, a carrot bag, a cookie bag, an apple– was enormous, after years of having to take five minutes to make a peanut butter sandwich!

    And any mom who makes a bento box lunch like that is insane. Imagine how scary it would be for the kid to open his lunch box and find something like that! Evidence that your mom is obsessed!


    • Hahaha. Right, as if there’s not enough day-to-day evidence of a mother’s obsessiveness!

      I LOVE the series-of-packaged-items lunches. The environment doesn’t, but I do. Thanks, Diana!

  2. But I will say: it’s time to eat the oranges yourself and put something else in there instead.

  3. My battle with school lunches ended Tuesday when my youngest “buddy” graduated from high school. Our battles usually involved nutritious, multigrained bread. The good news is that his older brother, home from college, now requests the before mentioned bread, probably because he is so happy to have someone else make his food again and I am not serving him take out pizza. I love your fly against the window metaphor. Thank you for putting into words what I feel but can’t as eloquently describe!


    • Such a lovely comment, Lorna. Thank you! I am quite familiar with the Bread Battle. So good to know that they come full circle once they get to college . . . even if it is only because they are starved for mom’s cooking.

  4. This is brilliant, Sarah. I too have a mixed reaction to the Martha Stewartization of lunchboxes. I’m torn between admiration and the certainty that their creators are arrogant people.

    • “the Martha Stewartization” . . . I LOVE that! I’m going to use that one, but I will always give you credit, Jan.

      As for the creators of such lunchboxes, is it arrogance or is it fear that drives them to make rice-mound sheep and giraffe carrots? I wonder . . .

      Thanks so much for weighing in. XO!

  5. Mother wisdom at its best! A mom of 20 and 22 year olds, I now laugh at things that were the issue of the day: like in high school my son insisted on wearing flops for an entire year. Yeah, we live in the Rocky Mountains where we have 9 months of winter. Child Protective Services didn’t call, so all was well. My kids are amazing and flexible adults…and I credit our community for helping us raise them. Pick your battles. When all is said and done, it was the nightly back scratches and prayers, the laughter and good old fashioned loving that made all the difference.

    • Thanks, Donna, for chiming in with your wisdom. I LOVE the last sentence especially . . . so true. And yes, it’s so important to choose our battles, though it makes my feet cold just reading about your son!

      Good work, mama!

  6. I really love the larger question that you pose — at what point do we start letting go and let our kids make their own decisions? I’m already starting to feel anxious about this idea with my twin 7-month-olds. They have just started crawling, moving beyond the “I’m totally dependent on you for everything, Mommy!” phase to the “Hey Mommy, get out of my way, I’m trying to get to that Elmo doll over there!” The decisions they are making at this point are the most basic — should I keep sitting here, or should I reach for that thing over there and possibly knock my head against the wall next to it? And I struggle with trying to protect them from bumping their heads, sometimes having to force myself to hold back let them go for it and just see what happens. I’m trying to remind myself that if I don’t let them have these small experiences they will not learn that bumping your head hurts! I try really hard not to think about all the choices they’ll have to make once they are “out there” — the real world! Oh God, I think I need a Xanax… 🙂

    • Ha! Yes, isn’t it hard not to bubble-wrap them each day? I have a friend (she’s got three older kids) and when her youngest was a preschooler, we noticed the little girl was intentionally thunking her head on a metal pole. Someone else asked, “Should she be doing that?” Her mom replied, “She’ll stop doing it once she realizes it hurts.”

      That’s a good mama, I think!

      But yes, Xanax. Or Riesling/Sav Blanc/Rose . . .

      Hooray for crawling twin babies, Julie! So happy for you.

  7. Oh Sarah. Again. You found the words. Again.

    I despair often at not offering enough servings of Love and Patience and Kindness and Peace That Passes Understanding, to say nothing of kale and beets. I have let myself off the Apple-In-the-Form-Of-A-Unicorn hook, but may still get hung up on Mom-As-Provider-of-All-Good hook.

    Most of me trusts that there is a better Provider than I, the great Lunch-Monitor In The Sky, who offers everlasting oranges and the other fruits, spiritual or otherwise, that I may not have enough of to share.

    Most of me.

    I suppose snipping strings requires trusting that Lunch Monitor isn’t out on a smoke break.

    • So true. Man, I love that “lunch monitor on a smoke break” line.

      When Ben Towne, the preschool-aged son of one of our pastors, died of a terrible form of cancer, his lovely mom wrote a blog post where she said, “Apparently, God has been out on a smoke break.” That must be exactly what it feels like when you’re a pastor and your son dies of terrible cancer. Now they have created The Ben Towne Foundation, and their sole mission is to end pediatric cancer . . . and if any couple can do it, it’s those two . . . so some might say that He wasn’t out on a smoke break at all. But I bet Ben’s parents still feel abandoned by the smoking Lunch Monitor. Sigh.

      I like the image of Unicorn apples . . . and the cursing that would likely take place while you were fashioning those apples into unicorns. XO!

  8. I have been missing your posts and this one is just GREAT! You make me laugh Sarah and I am always reading your posts in your voice, too. That is the best part!

  9. great post of motherly ranting. it felt very familiar. and what kind of guilt trip are those people at parenting magazine trying to impose on us less foodie-type parents? those bento box lunches were insane! (and i’m sure they didn’t hold up to the normal jostling of a kid traveling to school. who knows what they actually look like when they arrive?)

    you’re also lucky your kid actually RETURNS the uneaten fruit. mine would’ve thrown it away in protest ages ago.

    • Ha! I didn’t even think of what the bento boxes would look like after a ride in the backpack. That lion’s mane would have been a disaster!

      Thanks so much for the comment, Valerie. And I know . . . not sure why they don’t just toss the uneaten stuff. My daughter has said she’s scared to throw stuff away because she doesn’t ever know what is “recycle” and what is “compost” and apparently the 5th grade Green Team monitors (who stand beside the various disposal cans) are intimidating. 🙂

  10. […] THIS is awesome.  It’s super long, but I identified with every single part of it.  Sarah on Packing Lunches. […]

  11. LOVE this! It really represents how I feel as a mother, even though mine are now over 25. I shared with my daughter who still gets exasperated with my mothering. 🙂

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