Thy wife as a fruitful vine, on the sides of thy house. Thy children as olive plants, round about thy table. (Psalm 128:3)
The Biblical parallel between olive plants and children has always warmed my heart. The famously sturdy branches of olive plants are so much like those strong young limbs that wriggle at mealtimes. The hardiness that’s characteristic of olive plants is typical of healthy and well-nurtured children. The splendor of fruited olive plants and the wholesome beauty of children’s faces both show forth God’s goodness in distinctive ways. And, as the olive plant has been treasured since ancient times, so have mothers always cherished their children.
Yes, I do love the psalmist’s imagery of children as olive plants. It’s the “round about thy table” part that troubles me.
Think about it. When your olive plants are gathered round thy table, it’s usually because they are hungry. And when they are hungry, saith the psalmist, “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season.” (Psalm 145:15) To put it another way, when the little saplings get a rumbling in their trunks, Mother puts on her chef’s hat and starts those pots and pipkins rattling.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve always enjoyed cooking for my family, and giving them their food in due season has been my joy. Over the years, while recipes were being collected and discarded, certain kitchen gadgets employed and others set aside, and cooking methods either retained or rejected, my delight in cooking remained constant. But there was a time when I feared that I was not, to the best of my ability, fulfilling my obligation to provide nourishment for my family.
This was not a concern before my fourth child was born. Until then, I’d been able to spend vast amounts of time in the purchase and preparation of wholesome foods. I bought only organic produce, and used it to make baby foods from scratch. I devised elaborate and surprisingly tasty ways to fix nutritious foods like tofu and broccoli rabe which, in their natural state, were downright unpalatable. I was proud of the care I took to feed my family well, and when, at age three, my daughter Grace asked, “Mommy, what’s a cookie?” my pride knew no bounds.
But pride, as we well know, goes before a fall. My fall came when a health scare detained my son Leo in the hospital for several days after his birth. Distracted with worry and struggling to keep up my breast milk supply by pumping regularly, I wasn’t able to follow my scrupulous meal prep routine. And when he was allowed to come home, Leo, who had been bottlefed for the first few days of his life, cut me to the quick with his seeming indifference towards breastfeeding. I felt as though I were failing both at nourishing my baby and at feeding the rest of my family “properly”. Thankfully, it didn’t take long for Leo to develop what I considered a normal pattern of behavior for a newborn (i.e. breastfeeding every two hours), but even so, the mere presence of a new baby in our family was placing additional constraints on my time, and forcing me to change my ways in the kitchen.
I found myself resorting more and more to the convenience foods that I’d once shunned. I gradually became a little less rigorous about serving perfectly balanced meals. And – let’s be honest, now – once I was keeping Hamburger Helper in the pantry, could I justify spending large amounts of money on exclusively organic produce?
Yes, I was spending less time cooking and more time mothering, and that was undeniably a good thing. (“Cooking and cleaning can wait till tomorrow, ‘Cause babies grow up, we’ve learned to our sorrow…”) But I was also feeling guilty about not doing all that I could be doing for my family.
One day I talked to my friend Charlene about my concerns. Charlene was a leader in my La Leche League group, and a dedicated mother who obviously loved her kids. Although I haven’t seen Charlene I fifteen years, I remember several things about her. I remember that she moved her entire family from one neighborhood into another just so that her children could attend a school with a stronger academic program. I remember that, for her daughter, Charlene sewed a Rainbow Brite costume that required yards of fabric in every color…well, in every color of the rainbow. I remember that Charlene allowed all three of her children – even the one who breastfed until he was 23 months old – to wean themselves. And I remember what Charlene told me:
“The grace we say before meals is so much more important than the meal itself. When we ask God to bless His gifts of food, we are asking Him also to bless our family through those gifts. Don’t stress about the foods you serve. As long as you’re doing the best that you can, with the resources that you’ve been given, God will make up for your shortcomings.”
As the years have passed and our family has been blessed with more children, I’ve come to appreciate the wisdom in Charlene’s simple words. In nourishing my family, I’ve become less fretful and more flexible. In fulfilling the other duties of my vocation as a mother, I’ve become more trusting of God’s providence, and more accepting of my own limitations. And the Hamburger Helper in the pantry doesn’t trouble me as much as it used to.
But maybe that because it’s hidden behind the Campbell’s soup and StoveTop stuffing mix.
Copyright 2011 Celeste Behe