If you share a household (or an office or a dorm room or any common space) with anyone other than yourself, you’ll probably be familiar with the following scene: You come home from a long day of work/studying/saving the world or whatever, and it’s not quite time for dinner, but you’re famished. You just need a snack to tide you over. So. You go to the snack cupboard and survey the offerings: boxes, packets, bags as far as the eye can see and even though none of it is quite what you’re craving and also you’re trying to eat healthy and avoid doing that thing where you take one cookie and walk away but then return 5 separate times to get just one more cookie, you’re starving so your eye lands on a sort-of-good-for-you bag of popcorn. You reach for the bag only to find it crumple in your hands because it’s empty. Rolling your eyes and cursing under your breath, you throw the empty bag in the garbage and reach into the cupboard for the next least offensive snack, a bag of dried mango. The bag feels way too light to contain mangoes or anything at all and that’s because it doesn’t contain anything at all. Box of graham crackers? Hollow and light as a feather.
And now you feel like you’re in some horror film, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but with food instead of bodies, because every package in that communal cupboard is empty, and as your search takes you deeper in you find stray pieces of broken taco chips, pretzel dust and things you can’t quite identify, until you get to the raisins and the stale rice cakes all the way in the back. No one ever wants those, but by now you are faint with hunger and you shovel it all into your mouth and silently curse the perpetrators of this carnage while formulating a foolproof strategy for preventing this situation in the future.
In my household, the only person who is certain to throw out any empty packaging is me. I guess my husband and kids figure there’s safety in numbers because at some point I’ll tire of trying to figure out who the offender of the day is and if a crime is committed without any witnesses, did it ever really happen? I’m probably giving them too much credit when I say the safety in numbers thing. More likely they are not having any thoughts at all other than “get snack in mouth, get further snacks in mouth” and then moving on to whatever the next activity is. Empty orange juice cartons, cracker packages cookie boxes don’t really bother them as much as walking 9 inches over to the garbage. In fact, I have TWO garbage cans in my kitchen, one on either side. But reaching either one of these is simply too draining and someone else (me) will take care of it, as they well know.
This is how it goes in my family and it’s only gotten worse as the kids get older and bring friends home with them. It makes the job of keeping a food inventory next to impossible. But you have to pick your battles so I save my energy for toilet-related issues and screen time fights which means that every time I come across a paper or plastic carcass in the snacks cabinet I simply sigh (and by sigh I mean curse) and throw it out. This means that for the most part, I’ve got it under control and no one has to waste their precious brain space with thoughts of how food is always available in our house.
Except. Except for the time I went to New York alone last month and despite my best efforts to overstock the house before I left, enlisting friends to bring a fresh supper each night, the snack supply ran dry. I only know this because on day 5 of my trip, I started to get desperate messages from the kids, one by one. I’ll admit, on days 1-4, I found it odd that no one called or messaged me at all, given the fact that my kids are in constant communication with me throughout the day, every day. I should be grateful that they like me, I suppose. I was rather enjoying all the head space I was getting when I started to become somewhat suspicious.
“What exactly is going on?”, I asked Phil one night when I called him to check in on how things were going in my absence.
“Oh everything is fine, I’ve got it all under control here. Are you getting some of that much-needed head space we discussed before you left?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied. “Almost too much head space. Almost.”
“You may have noticed that none of the kids have contacted you since you’ve been away.” I could hear him beaming through the phone.
“I told them that on pain of death/screen time revocation they are not to contact you. Good, right?” he asked smugly.
“Yes, very good. Impressive, too.” I was touched that he’d so well understood my need for some breathing room and relieved to know the real reason the kids hadn’t reached out. Phil is great like that.
But on day 5, something so terrible happened that my kids risked it all to contact me, tentatively at first and then loudly and desperately.
The messages all went something along these lines;
‘There is literally nothing to eat here’
‘Dying. Need food.’
‘Mom, we have no snacks, help, what should we do?’
This is how my four kids, ages 10-16, opted to address their problem. They all have access to cash, access to Phil who has cash, they are all old enough to walk to the many food stores that are 8 seconds from our house. But their solution to the snack problem was to message me, 5,000 miles away, and whine about it dramatically. I recently read a news item about microbes being passed from mother to child during vaginal births and how vital these microbes are to their development and well-being. I guess I’d been providing for my kids’ nutritional needs for so long that I’d missed that critical window when the cord should have been cut, when they should have been set free to help themselves and make better decisions. Clearly I was failing them by not making them more self-reliant. And this was going to change the minute I got home.
I ignored their pleas, hoping that in doing so they’d find another, more practical way to solve their problem and gain some valuable life skills along the way.
I got home from the airport, dropped my bags and washed off the airplane/airport/taxi scum. Next I made a beeline for the cabinet where snacks are kept. I expected to find a barren wasteland of snack corpses, stray shards of discolored pretzels, perhaps a disoriented, forlorn ant limping along in search of a tiny crumb. Shockingly, what I found was a well stocked inventory of snacks. My chest puffed up with pride at my little darlings who’d solved their own problem. Maybe I’m a better mom than I gave myself credit for! This is a great moment in my parenting career, I thought, as I reached in to better organize some of the boxes and bags.
My pride was short-lived as it became immediately evident upon making contact with the first bag of pretzels that it was a mirage–what appeared to be plentiful food was, in fact, a bunch of empty packaging. It was like a modern-day Pompei, a snack vignette frozen in time. As I threw empty bag and box after empty bag and box in the garbage and swept away the sandstorms of wafer and pretzel dust that coated the entire bottom shelf, I shook my head in disbelief and realized that I had my work cut out for me if these kids of mine stood a chance of surviving in the real world.