On Parenting: Searching for Meaning in a Bowl of Rice

The rice cereal was so watery that the first few spoonfuls dribbled out of our baby’s mouth and down her gummy chin.

I was already thinking of plunking the bowl into the sink in exasperation. I’d been trying to muster some excitement for our five-month-old baby, Annie’s, first solid food, but, with child number three, sometimes the milestones aren’t quite as thrilling as they once were. On this particular night, feeding Annie rice cereal felt more like a chore than a developmental leap.

We hadn’t gotten the high chair down from the attic yet, so I’d hoisted her Bumpo seat up onto the dining room table and set her in it. My husband, Michael, was still at work, but our older kids, William and Jessie, wandered in from the other room, curious about all the fuss.

“Ew,” William, who’s eight, said when he saw the mess. Jessie, who’s five, started manhandling her little sister into an impromptu rendition of “Pat-a-Cake.” Outside it was growing dark and I knew a long night of baths, pajamas, and coercing the kids into bed lay ahead. I sighed.

Maybe Annie wasn’t ready for solid food. I was probably just rushing her into eating it because I wanted her to grow up faster. Lately I’d found myself yearning to speed her through the Baby Years to get her to School Age. One morning, as she tried to roll off the changing table, I said, “I need you to be five!” She just gurgled up at me, as if to say, “And just how do you expect me to swing that?” Having created full-fledged relationships with our older kids, complete with lucid conversations, chapter books, and jokes I genuinely find funny, I was struggling to meet the needs of our baby.

But then, just as I was about to abandon the feeding, something clicked. Annie started slurping the rice cereal wildly from the shallow rubber spoon. Her blue eyes grew big with excitement, and her bare feet kicked the table. William took the spoon from my hand and arced it toward her with a loud zooming sound, as if flying an airplane into her mouth. She squealed with delight.

“She’s really wolfing it down!” William exclaimed. Jessie stood on the other side of her, gazing adoringly and petting her legs as if she were a soft lamb. “I want to try!” she yelled. For the next fifteen minutes, I felt the warm crush of the big kids beside me as we took turns mini-ladling the liquid rice into Annie’s tiny, slobbering mouth.

Somehow, our dull dinner hour had morphed into a bona fide family event, and I realized that Annie had supplied us with a dose of pure joy that is the highest function of babies everywhere. Sure, five-year-olds can feed themselves, but who gets as happy as a dough-faced baby trying something for the first time?

I’ve never been a big fan of the milestone mania promoted by parenting books and websites. But I knew we would forever remember the night we stood around the dining room table cheering on our smallest member as she discovered something new. The kids might not literally remember it, but the smell and feel of that night — the ordinary details of a family growing up together, of the pieces falling into place — would surely take shape in the recesses of their minds.

And maybe, somewhere in her unconscious, even Annie could tell how much we loved her.