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January 09, 2009

Choosing: the Toy or the Food?

Subway The mother of four carried her stroller, with the youngest girl inside, down the stairs to the subway platform.  The two boys and the oldest girl came with her, staying close like they knew they should.  The boys in the middle looked close in age, but not quite twins, though they wore matching hats and scarves.

I smelled the food before I saw it, when she opened the fast food bag and began passing out its contents.  A hamburger for the oldest girl, some fries for the youngest, bundled tight in that stroller.  The mom handed each boy a toy in a plastic bag before unwrapping her own sandwich and taking a big bite.

The littlest boy's eyes grew wet with tears.  "I'm hungry," he said faintly.  The mother looked at him with no pity.  No compassion.

"I gave you a choice: food, or toy.  You picked toy."

The boys looked at her like they knew not to argue, knew there was no chance of changing their decision, or her mind.  The girls ate happily, while the boys turned the toys in their hands.

I tried to remember later, when I was feeling worried about those hungry boys, that at least one of them held a whole pear in one hand.  They would have something.  Later.

Still, in the moment I judged that woman, even though I would never know what had happened before those subway stairs.  What kind of mother eats while her children swallow tears?  All mothers are easy to judge in the snapshot of a single moment.

Now I think the better question is, how many of us are still choosing the toy over the food?  Even though we feel the hunger pains, even though we're old enough to know better.  Little plastic promises entice us away from what we know we need.  But in the end, they leave us standing hungry on the platform, turning our cheap prize in our hands.  Telling ourselves we chose well, but knowing--we really could have used that food.

An original NYC Moms Blog post.  Jen Lee is the author of Don't Write: A Reluctant Journal, and Solstice: Stories of Light in the Dark.  You can find more of her writing on her website, jenlee.net.

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