Green Mountain at Fox Run is a spa, healthy eating and fitness center in Vermont that I’ve wanted to go to for many years now. I recently started following them on Twitter and discovered they are holding a writing contest in honor of Mother-Daughter Month (May). The rules are:
simply write a post on your blog about how your relationship with food and/or your body image has shaped your child’s. Alternatively, you could write about how your mom’s relationship with food and her body affected your attitude about the same.
Simply? A blog post? I could write a book about these topics (and maybe someday I will). There’s so much to say on this topic. But I’m going to give it a shot.
When I was growing up, our family was all about the food. Food was a big connector for our little family (I was an only child). We took long driving trips, traveling from New Jersey to Florida every summer, and there were favorite food markers along the way: Morrison’s cafeterias, which seemed very fancy in my eyes (suited and white-gloved waiters would carry your trays to the table!), Krispy Kreme hot doughnut stops in North Carolina (before they spread everywhere, these were Very Special places), and of course, the ubiquitous roadside Stuckey’s (gas station/gift shop/fast food). Our family was especially fond of Stuckey’s because my father made his living by selling souvenir spoons, pennants, keychains and other memorabilia to the gift shops. So we’d stop at every one to make a sales call, and to check out their sausage biscuits and pecan rolls.
My father was a traveling salesman. Which meant that when we weren’t traveling with him on summer vacations, he wasn’t at home. It was just my mother and me, and it took me decades to realize this, but she was lonely. She was, by all measures, acting as a single parent 80% of the time. I think for her, it “wasn’t worth it” to cook for just the two of us, so most of the time we chose our dinners from the frozen foods aisle at the A & P. Macaroni and cheese or chicken pot pie for me, salisbury steak or fried chicken for her. We’d stack towers of frozen meals in our cart and at dinner time, heat them up, and eat on TV trays while watching I Love Lucy.
My mother also worked in the office of the elementary school that I attended, so we kept the same hours. After school, we’d sit at the kitchen table for Snack: a glass of milk and a plate of Hostess cupcakes, Oreo cookies, Ring Dings or miniature apple pies. My mother was not big on “health food” and has considered whole wheat bread and brown rice somewhat offensive. When I was young, she’d always ask me, “Vegetables or tofu?” and I’d always opt for the tofu. (cold, plain, with a splash of soy sauce) I think she believed that these “healthy foods” interchangeable and if I ate one, I didn’t need the other. At any rate, salad was iceberg lettuce with her homemade “French dressing” – a combo of mayonnaise and ketchup. I was probably better off with the tofu.
To her credit, my mother never dieted in my memory, except when she was medically ordered to after her quadruple bypass surgery, but I was in my late 20s by then. She never criticized her own body or spoke about wishing to be thinner. When I look back on photos of her, she was neither slim nor heavy, but just right. I was also pretty “average” but when I was an adolescent, I started getting mixed messages. I remember her remarking, “Those pants are getting pretty tight, aren’t they?” or slapping my rear end when I walked by. After we’d just sat down to a Snack of milk and Mallomars. That was when I first started to “diet” (or try to; I had no clue what I was doing) and “exercise.” (my father and uncle set up my banana-seat and high-rise handle bar bike on a stationary rack in the basement)
But if I could name the biggest legacy from my mother, it would be the messages that food=comfort, food=reward, food=solace and talking about food was more important and easier than talking about just about anything else.
Then I had two daughters. Even though I had managed to incorporate healthier food into my own life (real home cooking, a bout of vegetarianism), I seemed to regress when it came to my children. I found that I wanted to comfort them the way that I’d been comforted. Of course I introduced them to the standard kids’ dinner of macaroni and cheese (and felt better because it was “all natural” and had a certain bunny on the box). I took them to McDonald’s because the giant hamster tube and the free plastic toys gave me a few minutes of peace and rest. I sent them to preschool with microwaveable Spaghettios and Lunchables. I gave them cookies when they were good, and when I wanted them to be good. I potty trained them with M & Ms. (I swear! all my friends were doing it too!) I did it because it was easy, because they liked it, and because I was a stressed young mother in graduate school who couldn’t deal with going to the farmers’ market or making food from scratch.
Meanwhile, I was eating the leftover chicken nuggets off their plates, eating the cookies we made together, bonding over brownies and lemon bars. I started gaining weight with my first pregnancy and kept on going.
Then I was the one on diets, going to Weight Watchers, hating my body, not knowing what to do. And they were watching, for pretty much all of their growing-up years. They would be able to tell you more clearly what they learned from me, but I can tell you that the food=comfort and reward was handed to them like a gold baton. With a little dose of “I hate my body” thrown in for bad measure.
I can’t say it hasn’t affected them. I know it has. I know that it has pained them to see my self-disgust, the way I hid myself in giant pajama-like outfits, the ugliness that I felt I was. I know how much better it would have been if I’d been big AND thought I was hot (but I didn’t). Or capable (but I wasn’t).
So maybe we can add a nice big dose of guilt remorse to that pot. (just remembered, that in Buddhism, remorse is a healthy response to previous mistaken action, that spurs us to reflect and do better. Guilt is just about fear and beating up on oneself. I’m remorseful, not guilty!!)
But I have hope that it’s never too late. In January of this year, I was diagnosed with diabetes. Suddenly, I woke up. I realized that it just wasn’t about what size I was wearing, it was going to be about what hospital room I was in if I didn’t turn things around and soon.
I woke up. I started listening to messages that have been floating around for decades but that I didn’t really understand. And I’m getting that it isn’t JUST about “move more, eat less” but that it’s really about compassion for oneself, patience, nurturing in ways that don’t have to do with food. I’ve lost 28 pounds since January and am in a normal BMI range for the first time since either of them were born. I intend to stay that way. I trained for and ran a 5k race a few weeks ago. I was shocked when, after I lost weight, parts of my body resumed their appearance of twenty years ago. I had thought that shape of my face, that my muscular legs, were gone forever. I thought that I was just getting “old.” But it wasn’t “old” at all, it was simply “overweight.”
I intend to continue on a healthy path – emotionally, spiritually and physically – so that I will be around for a long time, to see THEIR children grow up. I intend to stop beating myself up for the many years of unhealthy living and wrong messages. I intend to live the new story that love is love, and food is food, and that there is plenty of both to go around.