As a Chronically Ill Mom, Even Tater Tots Are a Way to Show My Kids Love

A plate of tater tots with a dollop of ketchup.

My Nonnie was a gruff and funny woman who, even at Thanksgiving, put a huge slab of lasagna on our plates as an appetizer. Even with a turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, breaded cauliflower, oil and vinegar salad, pumpkin pie, apple pie, lemon knots, biscotti and pizzelle, we still began the meal with a substantial, labor-intensive slice of lasagna. The effort she put in, love. The enjoyment her kids and grandkids got out of her cooking, love. The way this tradition made us feel continuity and security through the years, the way a matriarch feeds and sustains generations of a family, love. When food symbolizes all that, what happens when you can’t recreate that for your own children?

I’ve been chronically ill almost as long as I’ve had my two children. I collected diagnoses almost every year – fibromyalgia, hypoglycemia, bradycardia, hives, Lyme – and did my best to chart and record patterns to discover what made me feel worse, and what made me feel better so I could still care for my two boys as a stay-at-home mom as well as possible. The work my husband does takes him out of town nearly every week, so I am the one on-call, as it were, and need to be reliably available. But a great deal of chronic illness is unpredictable. I would buy fresh green beans at the farmers’ market and a roast at the grocery store feeling hopeful about our dinner…and then collapse on the couch for hours unable to move while the boys watched PBS. I might have gotten yeast and flour and the nice mozzarella planning to make homemade pizza together, only to suffer through a migraine that made even existing in a bright room excruciating. There was the month my right arm wouldn’t work of its own accord, so chopping was impossible. There was the summer where cooking took too long and my blood sugar would plummet long before I finished making lunch, where I had to sit on the kitchen floor sucking down whatever juice box was handy.

A photo of a family, a mom, dad, and two young boys, all dressed up. The mom is wearing a red dress, the father is wearing a suit and tie, and the two boys are in white button-down shirts and black pants.

During this era there were dinners of Easy Mac and frozen chicken nuggets and drive-thru chicken nuggets. A far cry from what the boys and I should have been eating, a far cry from what my grandmother would have considered acceptable. Our food was a collection of calories that would keep us full enough to not be hungry, but didn’t do much more. But this, the Standard American Diet, began to make up at least half of their positive food memories of our time together. I felt ashamed at this, and relieved because the one benefit of eating fast and processed food is convenience when I didn’t have any energy to spare.

A few things shifted. I realized through one of my food diaries that dairy made the pain and fatigue of my fibromyalgia worse. Lasagna had long become a pipe dream since my grandmother’s passing because I didn’t have the energy to make it, and now it was banished completely because I had no easy substitutions for ricotta or mozzarella. But, removing dairy made me feel immeasurably better, not “cured”, but better.

My health problems seemed to be limited to me, for a while. Then I noticed that my oldest was getting strange symptoms that doctors had no answers for: hand numbness and oral allergies and nausea and headaches and mood swings. The food diary came out again. I have no idea what exactly he inherited from me, but it is exacerbated by dyes and preservatives-Red 40, BHT, TBHQ and DATEM being the worst offenders. These are all banned in Europe, but are consistently used in American products from bread and muffins, to cereal and crackers, to almost all fast and convenience foods. I wanted him to have a chance at feeling immeasurably better, too. Since restricting these additives does not seem like something the United States government will do anytime soon, as they are cheap and give certain foods almost indefinite shelf life, I have to find other ways to nourish my kids.

Although I love to cook fresh foods, While my illnesses are too variable for it to be practical to cook everything from scratch, I can usually gather the energy to research ingredients online in short bursts to make a list of acceptable substitutions, and in a longer burst actually go grocery shopping at someplace like Whole Foods to get things my son will love.

And my son, my brown-haired, brown-eyed eleven-year-old goofball is happier again. He spends fewer days in a funk and more dinners asking me what my favorite gaming system is, or if I could be any animal in the reptile family who would I be and why. He doesn’t have to sleep off a headache, or push himself to be polite at school when all of his nerves are on fire. The only times he wakes up with a stomachache now are if he accidentally ate a cookie full of preservatives at a friend’s birthday party the night before. My mom heart is so happy for him.

I can’t do what my grandmother did, but I can still show my love through food the way she did. The effort I put in, love. The enjoyment my kids get out of the things I can make and the things I can bring home, love. The way we can still have versions of the food we got used to even when we have to cut out so much, that feeling of continuity and security, love. Nourishment even when chronic illness and government deregulation are both working against you, love. A bag of Whole Foods preservative-free tater tots in the freezer to be broken out on days when I can’t do very much, love. A kid who knows that his health and happiness are worth the extra hunting and foraging? Love.

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