A lunchbox lesson in letting go

"The day I threw the breast-shaped ice pack into my daughter's preschool lunchbox, I was longing for connection."

Published October 10, 2022 5:30PM (EDT)

Lunch box (Getty Images/Claudia Totir)
Lunch box (Getty Images/Claudia Totir)

The day I threw the breast-shaped ice pack into my daughter's preschool lunchbox, I was longing for connection. It was a warm, early summer day, my son was three weeks old, and I was dizzily adrift in fatigue and bodily fluids. My husband and I were amiable but distant co-workers in a newly intensified household economy. While he wiped breakfast off the floor, I raced to assemble my daughter's lunch, fretting about keeping the contents cool in the heat. My daughter clamored for someone to bring her the crayons, and the baby fussed in his bouncer. My husband watched me from across the room as I fumbled around the freezer for the usual ice pack, came up empty handed, and grabbed the one thing available — the perfectly round, purple-beaded disks I'd used to ease breast pain in those first few heavy, milky postpartum days.

"They'll know!" he laughed.

"No way." I replied.

Of course they'll know, I thought.

In the months since my daughter started at her Montessori school, I'd become somewhat fixated on her lunchbox. When we enrolled, along with information about schedules and what to do in case of illness, the school sent us studiously healthy guidelines about what to pack for lunch: vegetables, fruit, whole grains, protein, and absolutely no packaged snack foods or sweets — in other words what many parents aspire to feed their kids, and what few toddlers actually like to eat. Reading through the list, I couldn't help but think of Alice Waters' descriptions from "The Art of Simple Food" of the elegant school lunches she made for her daughter: "Instead of sweets, I would send along fresh fruit, ripe and irresistible." This was our California cultural inheritance.

Feeling at loose ends emotionally, I threw myself into preparing her food. While she ate breakfast, I stood heavily at the kitchen counter, peeling Tokyo turnips and slicing them into translucent, moon-like disks, thinking of Alice.

I love to cook. I was also overwhelmed with gratitude for the school and filled with an aspirational seriousness of purpose in keeping with their sincerity. Phoebe was born in the early days of the pandemic, and in the months before my son was born, I struggled to adjust to being apart from her for the first time. Feeling at loose ends emotionally, I threw myself into preparing her food. While she ate breakfast, I stood heavily at the kitchen counter, peeling Tokyo turnips and slicing them into translucent, moon-like disks, thinking of Alice. At drop offs I found myself eyeing the dino lunchbox hanging in a neighboring cubby and wondering what it held inside — hoping that I was getting this new thing right.

As we adjusted to our new routine, the lunchbox took on another significance. At our orientation, we were told not to expect much by way of day-to-day communication from the school — no news was good news. This wasn't the sort of place that would be snapping photos for us and texting all day long. Intellectually, I admired their insistence on attending to my child rather than my feelings, but I couldn't help but wish for an endless stream of updates. Occasionally, though, information did reach us via intriguing post-it notes that appeared seemingly at random amid the untouched turnips I unpacked from Phoebe's lunchbox. They contained tantalizing fragments in her teacher's curly shorthand — "Phoebe slept for an hour and ten minutes today," or "congratulations on Phoebe's first day of toileting!" They differed markedly from the more officious digital communications we periodically received. They were tender, interesting.

Phoebe's teacher was a down-to-earth, effortlessly charming woman with slightly older kids. She exuded an alluring parental confidence. She now spent all day with my daughter. It seemed important to know her. The lunchbox communications were delightful, unpredictable, and suggestive of a world I could only orbit from the outside. The day I sent the breast ice pack, my longing to connect with Phoebe's caregivers had reached a new height. Mid-morning, while rocking my fussy baby to sleep, I got an email from her teacher — I'd made her laugh. It was innately intimate to have someone else care for your child, and for a brief moment I felt the surge of connection that I'd been after. Postpartum was an entropic time; she got it. But a few minutes later, alone with my son and my own harried thoughts, I felt lost again in the chaos of hormones, trying to make sense of my new reality.

Reconciling my daughter and son was like day and night. Phoebe was born on a searing hot, bright day. It was a straightforward and, even in the hard moments, an unexpectedly euphoric experience. Tommy came in the middle of the night. The electric tealights my husband set out in solidarity precisely mirrored the stars I saw in my eyes from pain — we both came out of it bruised. Now I was pulled in opposite directions. I was prepared for the frenzy and hard work, but not for the sharpness of the loss I'd feel. I couldn't observe either as closely as I'd once watched my daughter.

For the year and a half after Phoebe was born in June 2020, we were together so intensely that at times it felt like we were the only people on earth. For better and worse, my formative experience of parenthood was one of totally unbounded time. For hours a day I sat, often joyfully, sometimes listlessly, and watched my daughter at play. Now, in addition to school, was the new baby. Suddenly, there were other people in our lives. On the way to the playground after school, Phoebe would shake her head and say, halfway between a question and a command: "No friends, no children!" as in, "Mama, can you guarantee it will just be us?" I couldn't anymore.

In the moments when I was still able to be alone with her, I expected an easy return to our usual rhythm. I insisted on bathing her every evening uninterrupted. But when I paused from washing paint out of her hair and looked into her eyes, she kept coming in and out of focus. I felt like I couldn't see her. I pined for her — a more intense, more romantic longing than I could have imagined. We were like lovers estranged, searching for a lost idyll that couldn't be reclaimed. Meanwhile, I wanted that unbounded time with my son, too. We were often alone together, but time had lost its expansive quality — hedged as it now was by double the laundry, school drop off and pick up, and a toddler tantruming at the precise moment I wanted to stare into his milk-drunk soul.

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On the day of the breast ice pack, I realized that in the thrill of connecting with her caregiver, it was my daughter that I was so desperate to reach. I'd once sat across from her for an entire hour at lunch time, watching her inhale piece after piece of peanut butter toast. Now, I was busy nursing a baby and unable to eat with her much of the time even when she was home. So, I tried to speak to her plainly, in the language of truly simple food. I forgot about Alice and I doubled down on packing what she loved. I bought the delicious sandwich loaves that cost too much from the bakery nearby. I sent fully deconstructed sandwiches, such was her preference. I buttered the bread too thickly, packed big hunks of cheese. Everyday, I sent the tart cherry tomatoes she loved. I gave up on Tokyo turnips. One day, not long after the ice pack incident, I got a note from her teacher asking where we bought our bread. But by then I was just glad Phoebe was devouring it.

In our love story, the thickly buttered bread was a tide over to get us through a rough patch.

Gradually, over the course of a few months, the careening quality of our days — and of my thoughts — subsided. In my perceptions of the world, things began to cohere around the edges again. I got more than two hours of sleep at a time, the baby could occasionally be set down, and once again I could share a meal with my daughter. In our love story, the thickly buttered bread was a tide over to get us through a rough patch.

If the acute sense of loss I'd felt was bound up with the wild emotional swings of the third and fourth trimesters, it was also bound up in the non-stop movement of a two year old. As before in parenthood, I'd made the mistake of fixing my gaze too closely on something that was constantly moving. If Phoebe didn't seem in focus, it's because she wasn't, couldn't possibly be. It was only in the true singularity of the early pandemic that my relationship with my daughter could be so utterly unmediated by the world. Her lunchbox was just our start.

By Sarah Stoller

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