Dear bento box moms: Sorry I thought you were crazy

Dear parents who make amazingly creative school lunches,

I owe you an apology: I’m sorry. I had you all wrong.

I thought you were crazy. Now I think I’m becoming one of you.

You know who you are: You assemble bento box masterpieces and shape sandwiches to look like Snoopy or SpongeBob. You draw museum-quality art on napkins and write secret messages on banana skins.

Wow, I thought, someone has too much time on their hands. It seemed like competitive parenting run amok: the goal being not to raise happy, healthy children but to Instagram the evidence of your superiority. It’s not enough to pack a healthy lunch, we have to get all creative doing it? Cue massive eye roll.

Like I said: I was wrong.

You never think you’re going to be THAT mom… until you are. I’ll never be that mom who floods her Facebook feed with baby photos, you think, the one who gives in to a candy-aisle tantrum, who embarrasses her teen in front of his friends. Sure, you won’t: And then you get to that crossroads, and things aren’t quite as simple as they seemed.

This fall I send my oldest to kindergarten. I’ll be packing his lunches for the first time in our lives; I got a taste of the task during summer camp.

I’m THAT mom. He’s excited; I am faking excitement while freaking out inside. He’s going to learn things in kindergarten, without me. And yes, I realize that is the whole point of education. He's itching to learn how to read and write, and loves to stump me with arithmetic questions.

Hold hands when you cross the street, and be still my heart: On the way to his first day of preschool with daddy, fall 2013.

But he’s going to learn things that hurt him, too. He’s going to learn what it feels like to be left out by other kids, to be treated unfairly by a teacher, to be teased. Everyone does at some point, right? It’s part of growing up. Someone might tell him that his beloved Barney is for babies, not almost-5-year-olds. Someone might tell him the truth about Santa (please, not in kindergarten). 

I think of him, skinny legs poking out of his baggy shorts, sitting down to eat in that huge elementary school cafeteria, and I have to take a deep breath to steady myself. As much as I want to sit next to him and protect him from everything bad that could ever happen, I understand that’s frowned upon/impossible. I’ll settle for making him smile when he opens his lunch. That’s my tangible connection to him during the school day.

I want to show him that I love him, that I will always love him, that I believe in him; to remind him to stay strong and brave and true to himself; to tell him to hang in there and remember that when times get tough, he just needs to try his best.

That’s a lot of emotional baggage to pack into a Captain America lunchbox.

I just want to give him a sign that I'm still with him in that big world. So I found myself putting a Batman sandwich-cutter in my Amazon shopping cart. And a couple of those bento-style lunch containers. And maybe I’ll just look at some cute lunch ideas on Pinterest… maybe a few more… hey, how did it get to be 2 a.m.?

OK, let's be realistic, I'm never going to pull this off. But maybe a smiley face?

I know this is silly. Wheat bread cut into cartoon shapes are not proof of love. Artfully arranged bologna roll-ups will not shield my child from heartbreak. My kid knows I love him, even if I send him to school with a bag of Cheetos and an orange soda (actually, that would go down in history as his Best. Lunch. Ever.)

But now I see that we’re all a little crazy when it comes to our children. We're all THAT mom, in some way or another. So, bento box moms, sorry I gave you a hard time. I realize now that your lunch creativity isn't about competition at all: it's about love. And loving our kids, whatever way we try to show it, is the one thing all parents have in common.

Now, will you please show me how to sculpt a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle out of cucumbers and cheese cubes?