When I first had Alma, I was stunned by the amount of unsolicited advice I received from people. Heck, before we’d even conceived her: the moment people discovered I was struggling to get pregnant, they were telling me about supplements to try, apps to track my ovulation, how I needed to be exercising more or less, how I needed to lose weight, and, my favorite, how it wasn’t normal for a woman in her mid twenties to be having so much trouble with fertility, so I should really see a doctor about it. LIKE I HADN’T.
And, of course, there was even more once I had her: how I really should try harder to breastfeed, how dare I give her fast food (or even let her eat off children’s menus at sit-down restaurants), how she should be wearing a jacket, how a cleaner house would make happier kids, how to better deal with temper tantrums, etc.
Then Ollie came along, and with him, a bevy of health issues. Any judgment masked as advice I received for Alma paled in comparison. Now everybody was telling me, in explicit detail, how I had caused my son’s illness: either by my failure to provide him with adequate healthy bacteria because I had a c-section rather than vaginal birth, for not making all his baby food from scratch, for not buying my jarred baby food from Whole Foods, for failing to feed him enough vegetables, for failing to feed him exclusively whole grains, for feeding him grains at all, for feeding him animal products, for giving him antibiotics, for using antibiotic hand soap that one year of his life before everyone was told to stop using it, for having an unhappy marriage and thereby causing him emotional distress that resulted in psychosomatic symptoms, for getting divorced.
So when Ollie’s doctor informed me that we needed to put Ollie on a FODMAP elimination diet because all the skin prick tests and blood tests for allergies had failed turned anything up, I was prepared for the barrage of “help” I’d receive. I told myself I could handle it– I’d gotten this far and been fine. I had one goal: get Oliver through this elimination diet as quickly and smoothly as possible.
As Dr. Wang explained it, the elimination diet involved cutting about 50% of the foods Ollie normally ate– things like bread, apples, milk, and so on– then, after roughly six weeks of this super-limited diet, reintroducing the foods one by one to figure out which were making him bloat to the point of looking five-months pregnant, then to have the most heinous-smelling diarrhea known to man. (Think the BRAT diet, except that Ollie would only be allowed to have unripe bananas and rice, because applesauce, toast, and overripe bananas were verboten.) Dr. Wang promised that it would not be the entire food list that Ollie would ultimately need to avoid, although, the way things had been going with Ollie’s bowels lately, I wasn’t totally convinced.
Judgment started practically the moment I entered the grocery store, as a twenty-something rolled her eyes at me for bringing my children to the store with me. Or maybe it was because Ollie was sitting in the berth of the cart, playing on my phone, and she objected to the amount of screen time I was allowing him or that a child who was too old for the cart’s child seat wasn’t walking on his own. Who knows.
Let me tell you, if you are trying to live thriftily, the FODMAPS diet is NOT the way to go. Any food substitute inevitably costs significantly more– like gluten-free bread cost roughly $5 a loaf, whereas the regular bread cost less than $2. Lactose-free yogurt cost $2 a carton, when I could get three or four for that much of the store brand regular yogurt. And don’t get me started on gluten-free crackers. He could have peanut butter, thankfully, except not at school, since they were nut-free. No beans, which, miraculously, both of my kids usually ate and were one of my in-a-pinch cheap meals. So we would have… canned tuna?
I was peering at one of these overpriced loaves of bread in the freezer aisle, muttering about the cost– I’d already bought groceries that week– when a woman about my parents’ age said, “I don’t know why anyone bothers with that nonsense.”
“It’s for my son.”
She shook her head tutted– actually tutted!– at me. “Back when I was growing up, our parents just fed us plain, normal sliced bread, and we turned out fine. I hardly ever got sick. Could go three years without missing a single day of school.”
I noted that her cart only contained Lean Cuisines, a case of Diet Coke, and a giant red plastic tub of Maxwell House coffee, but refrained from making the comment I wanted to– Did you eat only pre-packaged food growing up, too? Instead, I smiled and gave a shrug. “Well, this is what his doctor recommended.” Then promptly turned around and walked away.
Oliver was still fully enraptured with his game, but Alma frowned and crumpled her brow. “That lady was rude.”
“It was. She meant well. BUT, it’s better not to tell people what to do if they don’t ask for your advice.”
“She should try sharing a bathroom with Ollie.”
Oliver’s face snapped towards her. “HEY!”
“Well, it’s true.”
“YOUR POOPS ARE WAY STINKIER!”
Everybody in the freezer aisle turned and stared. Oliver was now standing in the cart. Ah, yes. This is exactly what my afternoon needed. “Oliver. Sit down, or you’re going to have to get out of the cart and walk.”
“Yeah, right,” Alma said, glaring at her brother, then pointedly rolling her eyes and crossing her arms across her chest.
She rolled her eyes and heaved a sigh. Before she could open her mouth to form the words, though, Oliver whacked her over the head.
They proceeded to bicker like that until I threatened to take away their television and phone privileges for a week, which, let’s be honest, was probably more of a punishment for me. I’m sure, given how they were looking at me, all the other customers were pretty keen on my being punished, though. You win some, you lose some. (Although, I guess I didn’t really win much in this case.)
* * *
A few days into the diet, my stepmother, Sharon, called to invite us over for Memorial Day to grill. I’d managed to pull together some semblance of meals that the kids would be willing to eat– tacos with corn tortillas instead of wheat, Puffins with rice milk, grapes and strawberries for snacks– although neither was too fond of the plain baked chicken I’d offered that evening. Miraculously, as the doctor had promised, Ollie was already starting to feel better. He missed his normal snackfoods, but I promised him we’d find him something comparable.
So I was giving Sharon the rundown on all the things Ollie could and couldn’t eat, and she said something along the lines of, “Gosh, that sounds so complicated.”
“Yeah. I’ll email you a list. That might be easier than you trying to remember. Or I can just bring things for him to eat.”
“No, no, no. We’ll handle it. Just send us the list. How are you managing with it?”
“I don’t know. We just got groceries, which was a treat. The doctor gave us a referral to a dietician. I have no clue when we’ll get to see her, though, just because scheduling has been such a mess for me lately with subbing and everything… I don’t know. We may just see if we can go it on our own.”
“You know,” she said, “Dawn has her nutrition degree. The only difference between her and a registered dietician is that she didn’t take those certification exams.”
“I mean, I think it’s best if we go to a professional if we do consult anyone.” Of course, there were a multitude of reasons why I would never want to speak to my stepsister about Ollie’s diet, beyond her lack of any formal certification: for one, she completed the nutrition degree fifteen years ago. If that weren’t enough, I think the number of drugs she’d done over the years probably erased a large part of what she otherwise would have remembered from back then. And, to be honest, I’d probably heard all her advice before, because she’d given it, unbidden, many times over the years.
“Well, I’m just saying, if you don’t have time to make it to the nutritionist, she’s a good resource.”
“Ok. Thanks, Sharon. I’ll keep that in mind.”
I was interrupted by Alma calling for me. “I’m on the phone with your grandmother,” I yelled back.
“Oliver’s standing on the counter!”
“No’m nah!” came the muffled reply.
I heaved myself up from the couch where I’d been seated and yelled, “Oliver! I told you no snacks. You should have eaten your dinner.”
No reply. I sighed.
“Well, I’ll let you go. Tell the kids I love them,” Sharon said.
“Of course.” To my son, I called out,“You better not be on the counter when I get in there!”
To his credit, by the time I’d reached the kitchen, he was seated on the counter, not standing. Unfortunately, a bag of FODMAP-filled Goldfish crackers lay beside him, its contents spilled across the counter. Oliver was stuffing fistfuls of the contraband into his mouth, a trail of crumbs down the front of his shirt. Some flecks had even managed to make it into his blonde curls.
When he made eye contact with me, he dropped the remaining crackers in his hand. His eye grew wide, then he mugged his most charming grin.
Ugh. He wouldn’t be grinning for long. None of us would.
* * *
Variations of that same incident occurred three more times. When I called the doctor’s office to see if they had any advice, they just directed me to the nutritionist. I did make an appointment with her, but that would be in three weeks– halfway through the elimination diet, if I could get Ollie to consistently eliminate anything, which seemed impossible. So I called the doctor’s office AGAIN, at which point, the nurse on call said, “You’re just going to have to get him to stop eating those foods. Get everything out of the house.”
Then Alma went on a hunger strike because she suddenly hated all the things that Oscar COULD eat: Udi’s bread tasted funny. She didn’t like barbecue chicken, just chicken with honey mustard. Tuna was disgusting. She missed having bananas for breakfast. Why couldn’t we have regular ice cream?
We were in the middle of one of these dinner-time standoffs when there was a knock on the front door. Alma had pushed her plate forcefully away from her and settled back in her chair with her arms folded across her chest. “I’m not hungry.”
Then the doorbell rang.
“You have to eat something,” I said. “And this is what we have. No snacks later if you don’t eat anything now.”
I started to head to the door, but Oliver announced, “I’m not hungry either!” He took a chunk of roasted potato from his plate and dropped it back on the pan. Alma gave a curt nod, and did the same. Oliver flung another one to the pan, but it bounced off and onto the table.
The next thing I knew, potato chunks were rolling all over as Alma overturned her plate.
“Fine,” I replied. (Okay: yelled.) “Then don’t eat!”
My attention snapped towards the new voice. Kristy stood in the kitchen entryway, a person who could only be Monica right behind her. “Sorry. I let myself in.”
Ugh. She was going to take room measurements tonight. I’d totally forgotten. My heart pounded in my throat and my hands shook.
“Kristy!” the kids exclaimed, their mutiny instantly forgotten. They jumped up from their chairs and ran over to greet her.
I took a deep breath and tried to speak as evenly as possible. “Totally okay. Just having dinner.” I knew Kristy wouldn’t judge me, but I could see Monica studying me with an expression that could only be described as calculating.
I hadn’t technically met Monica yet, only seen a couple pictures. I knew from talking to Kristy, she had settled into some semblance of a relationship with the girl, although she insisted it was just temporary because of the work situation. I also knew that Monica wasn’t super pleased with the move, so I could guess she’d tagged along on this trip to… I don’t know, scope out the competition? If a straight woman with two wild mongoose children was competition.
But, however much Kristy denied her feelings for Monica, she looked genuinely happy when she said, “Oh! This is Monica!” One hand gently touched the back of Monica’s upper arm, her eyes sparkling. The sly look disappeared from Monica’s face, replaced by a wide smile. She was even prettier than in her pictures: long, black waves that could have come out of a Pantene commercial, heart-shaped face with large eyes and lush lips and a tiny, up-turned nose– one of those people who looked far too beautiful sans makeup to be fair.
She held out a hand. “It’s so great to finally meet you.”
“Same,” I replied, trying to not let my frustration with the kids enter my tone too much. “Sorry, things are a bit crazy right now.” I followed her gaze as she looked at the mess of my kitchen table.
She furrowed her brow in what looked like genuine concern. “Kristy mentioned the diet thing. Oh!” She held a reusable shopping bag towards me. “Actually, I brought these for you to try out.”
I glanced at Kristy who smiled and shrugged.
“I’m a BioNom rep. Kristy mentioned that you guys were avoiding FODMAPs, and we actually have a lot of products that are FODMAP-free. So this is some protein powder and vitamin gummies and these really great probiotics for kids. The probiotics are really great. I used to have some tum issues, and I take the adult ones and–” She cut one hand across the air. “No problems now.”
“Oh. Thanks.” The bag dangled between us and I took it. There was no way I could convince either kid to drink protein powder, I looked inside and saw two TUBS of the stuff, plus the supplements. But I should try to get on her good side, for Kristy’s sake, so no handing it back with some excuse.
“There’s chocolate and vanilla,” Monica added. “I wasn’t sure which you prefer. Sweetened with stevia. But, like, you just put it in the blender with some ice and whatever milk alternative you like, and it’s just like a milkshake, I swear.”
Both kids perked up at the word milkshake. “I want that!” Alma cried out.
Kristy set a hand one each kid’s shoulder, with the magnanimous disposition of a parent from a fifties sitcom. “How about you eat this great meal your mom put together for you, and we can try this out for dessert?”
The kids scuttled back to their seats and started eating food directly off the table. Monica looped an arm through Kristy’s and leaned against her, looking deeply satisfied.
Of course it seemed so easy to everyone else. I could scream.
Instead, I just sighed and pulled out the blender.
© 2019 Kat Setzer. This page has no affiliation with Ann M. Martin, Scholastic, or any other entity involved with the Baby-Sitters Club Series. Original photos © 2019 LoloStock from Adobe Stock Images.