My son had a bit of a meltdown tonight at bedtime. If you were to ask him this was because he was hungry and mean Mommy wouldn’t let him have more food. I have a slightly different version, which recalls that an hour earlier he was sitting at the dinner table in front of plentiful dishes of food whining that I was making him eat food he didn’t want. Despite his protests, that particular battle of wills was won by the parent brigade and he eventually ate a reasonable helping of dinner, although missing out on dessert due to the time it took to eat and the general drama involved.
Needless to say, the bedtime recurrence of drama was not actually about an empty stomach and was actually about petulance that his Daddy and I are taking a harder line on whining and general stubbornness.
Still…. when my four-year-old — consummate expert that he is in the art of conjuring big-glistening-tears to roll down soft-quivering-cheeks — peered through thick, wet eyelashes to moan “but I’m so hungry!”… IT GOT TO ME. I defy any mother to hear her child cry about hunger (real or imagined) and remain unmoved.
It was genuinely hard for me not to cave. My mind flitted downstairs to the kitchen, where a variety of quick, filling, and reasonably nutritious snacks were there for the taking. I started to mentally flicking through them. What could I offer that he would accept and then could eat quickly so as not to overly delay teeth-brushing?
But I stopped myself. Food was not what my son needed from me – boundaries were. He needs me to teach him important life skills like self-control, and good manners, and operating within a recognized and consistent routine. These skills will allow him to develop into a balanced adult who is able to form positive relationships and see himself as competent to organize his life and to meet his needs in appropriate ways.
In my social work training the theories of humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow where a central theoretical framework, particularly his “hierarchy of needs.” This theory identifies five primary levels of human need – physiological, safety, social, esteem, and self-actualization – and posits that these needs must be met in ascending order. In other words, physiological needs (like food, water, and shelter) are the foundation on which others must build. These needs must be met first before the psyche can spare attention for needs that are further up the list.
On Maslow’s hierarchy, the needs I am focusing on with my son at the moment are overlapping the third and fourth levels. The relational skills I am trying to teach him are important for his ability to meet his own social needs, and the lessons about his responsibility to control his decisions within a known routine are important to his development of a sense of mastery and self-esteem.
In the midst of tonight’s bedtime battle, however, a contrast of needs struck me with staggering force. When his shaking little voice spoke those three little words — “I’m so hungry” — I suddenly understood my own privilege in a way I hadn’t quite experienced before.
What would it be like for this conversation to actually be about food?
What would it be to see tears rolling down my son’s face, and to know that they were genuine, that his little belly really was grumbling, and to know there was no food in my kitchen to fill it.
Even the thought makes my hands start shaking and stings the corner of my eyes with hot tears. I really don’t think I can even imagine what that must be like.
But I know far too many women know that feeling all too well. I have met some of them. Some I have seen across the gulf of charity – handing them some money, or a bag of food at the food pantry. Some of them I have met in the course of research – sitting in their living rooms or in local libraries, talking about their struggles so that I could try to give them voice in reports that might gain the ear of a decision-maker. I have seen them as people. I have seen them as mothers. I have seen them as equals.
But I have never before understood my own privilege in contrast to their stories in quite the way that I did tonight.
I do not imagine that this realization makes any difference whatever for the hundreds of thousands of mothers who are putting their children to bed hungry tonight. If they had the time to read these musings they would probably sound irrelevant… I hope not offensive. But those mothers are doing much more important things than reading my blog. They are using all of their resources, and ingenuity, and over-taxed energy to meet their children’s basic needs, because those have to come first.
I don’t offer these musings for them. I offer them for the rest of us, especially those for whom it is so easy to discount the reality of privilege. Privilege is not a political idea or a word on a pyramid-shaped chart that social work students have to learn in their theory class.
Privilege is knowing it’s really about something else when your son tells you he is hungry.