Archive for May 11th, 2012

Food

I’ve long procrastinated writing a post like the one I’m now writing because (1) it’s probably too personal and ‘too personal’ is not something I like to indulge in in such a public forum; and (2) even if it’s not too personal, it is intensely painful. As for the former, a lot has changed since I began talking about pregnancy and labor so I fear I’ve already crossed the ‘too personal’ line and it would be silly to take a step back now. Well, ok, that’s not really true. Some things will always be too personal, but I guess I just feel like this isn’t one of them anymore. It feels, dare I say? important. This brings me to my second former hesitation: the pain. It is going to hurt to write and it’s going to hurt for me to read, but I feel the need to get it out of me and into the blogosphere so that I can address it in a way that makes me feel more confident about how to raise my little girl.

You see, Dear Reader, as much as I wanted to have this little girl more than anything, a very particular concern and fear kept me up late at night during pregnancy and is one of the things I think of often when I look at her. I worry about her future relationship with food. I want her to grow strong and healthy and I want her to love food and feel good about her body all at the same time. And this task seems incredibly daunting.

One of my very first memories of worrying about my own body came when I was in elementary school and my pediatrician asked me, as he was pushing on my belly, “Do you like cookies and cake?” Now, I ask you, what kind of ridiculous question is that? He may as well have asked if I liked to breathe. I was a child, for crying out loud. A human child. I remember feeling that a good little girl would say, “No,” but that he had already pegged me as a bad child. Shortly after this, I was at a McDonald’s in Green Bay with my grandma, her second husband and my step-cousin, who was my age and very slim. As I munched away at my deliciously crisp fries, my grandma said to me, “Why can’t you be more like Shaun and not eat all of your fries?” I teared up and quietly cried. These two critiques have obviously stayed with me almost three decades later. What did I learn? I learned that people would prefer it if I ate less. When I look back at pictures of myself in elementary school, middle school and high school, I’m always surprised that I rarely see an overweight girl. I had been under the impression, at the time, that I was embarrassingly large. It took me awhile to do anything about this, but I sure showed them. My senior year in high school, I pretty much stopped eating. Ok, not completely, but I severely restricted my diet and exercised as much as I could. I would run for hours, skip lunch and declare myself full after a few bites of dinner. I had always skipped breakfast, so skipping lunch and then running at the Shell at night or walking home from school really shed the pounds quickly. Eventually, my parents made me see counselors and doctors. One counselor told me I looked good and asked me for diet tips. A nurse told my mom that some kids like chocolate, some don’t. Presumably, this meant my mom shouldn’t worry about the fact that I wasn’t eating anything. This did not, however, seem to allay my mom’s concerns. By April or May of my senior year, I was down to just over 100 pounds. I needed to sleep a lot. I couldn’t concentrate in class. I remember thinking that I may not be fat, but if I started to eat again, I certainly would be. I never threw up and I never took pills. I didn’t even chew gum. I was intensely aware of everything that I put into my body. One time, my mom begged me to eat a piece of bread. Wanting not to upset her, I took it. She found it later in the toilet as my attempt to flush it had failed. She sighed. I could see the pain in her face, and it hurt me, but I was determined not to be fat. People just don’t like you if you’re fat. Not even your own grandmother.

Finally, my parents took me to a doctor whom I credit with saving all of our lives. He listened to my parents, he listened to me. He was the doctor for lots of the women athletes at the UW. He instructed my parents to get me into the eating disorder clinic immediately, telling them that I was anorexic (but for the fact I amazingly never missed a period). He had kind eyes and a kind voice. I think of him often.

I’m not entirely sure what snapped me out of my incredibly restrictive ways. I think part of it was that I felt terrible seeing my mom cry. My mom hardly ever cries and seeing her weep in front of a team of doctors broke my heart. I hated the counseling sessions and felt guilty that I had put my parents in a position where they felt so bad about their parenting that my dad was lashing out at even the smartest, kindest counselor. I think a lot of it was that I was just tired. It was so much work not to eat. For whatever reason, I just started eating again. Slowly at first and I insisted on measuring everything. I ran more to make up for the food, but it was clear I was gaining weight and becoming stronger. Life was much more fun this way. And then I went to college. And who had time to run all over the place when there were new friends to meet and alcohol to try (yes, I never drank before college) and classes to go to and just fun to be had. College was fun. And restrictive eating just did not work when I was more interested in fun. I gained my weight back. And then some. But then sophomore year I lost the extra weight and, as far as I can tell from pictures, things were pretty even-keeled in college. Sure, I worried about my weight all the time, but I didn’t do much about it. I exercised regularly — walking miles a day to get to and from classes was probably enough in itself, but I also worked for SAFEwalk, which had me traipsing all over campus at night — and ate pretty well, considering I was in college.

Since being in my 30s, I’ve gained a ton of weight. I’m way bigger than I’d like to be, or I should be, and I am trying to change that. I’d like to change it before Molly is old enough to notice, but I don’t know if that will happen. What I want more than anything is for Molly not to feel scared of food, not to feel judged by her food choices and not to feel like food rules her life. After my experience with an eating disorder, I was more sensitive than ever to criticism of fat or obese people. I have long thought that the ‘obesity problem’ in America is directly related to our obsession with thin. I think any time you put out an extreme ideal, you will get an extreme opposite. With eating and food, I think this is extremely likely. As is commonly stated, everyone needs to eat; no one can give up eating and survive. Because of this, treating someone’s issues with eating and food is that much more complicated than treating issues with drugs or alcohol or other self-harms. Anyway, so as I said, I have long-worried about how to raise a daughter to feel good about food, to be healthy and to feel confident in her body. What I have found the least helpful is the ridiculous advice ‘eat to live, don’t live to eat.’ To me, that sentiment expresses the problem we so clearly have with food. Why on earth should it be one or the other? Food is a wonderful part of life and to pretend that it isn’t is nonsense and, frankly, a lie. If it weren’t so great and special, there would not be so many amazing restaurants the world over, meal-time would not be an important ritual in every culture and there would not be this universal interest in food. It’s just a great part of life and pretending it’s inconsequential is silly and a mistake. At the same time, a total obsession with food is clearly a problem. It restricts one. An obsession with food is probably something that both the anorexic and the overeater have in common: they both are constantly thinking about what they have, haven’t or are going to put into their mouths. This makes me breathtakingly sad.

Terry, my loving aunt, gave me Ellyn Satter’s book, ‘Child of Mine’ at the shower Aaron’s mom threw for us (she also gave me a totally amazing Kate Spade diaper bag, but that’s a topic for a different day). Terry said that she had found the book really helpful when my beautifully wonderful cousin Maggie was young. The subtitle of the book is ‘Feeding with Love and Good Sense.’ As soon as I opened the book and read a few lines, I started to cry. Satter’s book has been THE answer to me as to how I want to mother Molly with regard to eating. It doesn’t hurt my love of the book that Satter is a Madisonian. Satter’s premise is that parents are responsible for providing the when and what of food, and the child is responsible with what of those choices and how much of them she will eat. Here is an excerpt that brings me to tears every time I reread it:

I am absolutely opposed to putting children on weight-reduction diets. In my view, no person has the right to impose food restriction on another, even if that person is your child. Withholding food profoundly interferes with a child’s autonomy, and you will both pay the price for that interference. Your restricted child will grow up feeling angry with you; he will feel bad about himself, and he will depend on you to provide controls on his eating and will be unable to tap into those controls within himself.

You will be pressured from the outside to do something about your large or small child. ‘He doesn’t look like he ever missed a meal,’ family and friends will say, or ‘what a little peanut! Don’t you ever feed that child?’ Of course they intend to be funny or clever, but for a parent who is at all sensitive about a child’s size or shape, such comments can be hurtful. Particularly with a fat child, outsiders feel duty-bound to express their opinions. This bit of cultural weirdness is given periodic encouragement by public health pronouncements. The Centers for Disease Control and other government agencies warn us that child obesity is our number one health concern and we register the opinion that the reasons child – and adults as well – are fat are (1) too much food and (2) too little activity. Such announcements are likely to make the most enlightened parent withhold second helpings or declare trips to the ice cream shop – every child’s basic entitlement – as off limits.

One cannot argue with the statistics and with the self-evident assessment of the problem as disruption in enegery balance. However, we still need to answer a fundamental question. Why are children eating too much? Children are excellent regulators. They know how much they need to eat, and they are highly likely to grow in predictable fashion. Even when food is very good, children get filled up on it and eat only as much as they are hungry for.

It seems to me that a good bit of the problem lies in the solution. That problem, and the solution, are food restriction. Most health professionals today have gotten the message that ‘diets don’t work’ and will not ostensibly put your child on a ‘diet.’ They are afraid that restricting a child’s food intake will precipitate eating disorders later in life. … I talked with a very sad mother the other day who was reflecting on how upsetting it had been for her chubby 8-year-old son to be admonished at every checkup to restrict his dietary fat to keep himself ‘healthy.’ The boy knew it wasn’t ‘health’ that was being talked about but ‘weight,’ and he had learned to feel bad about his ever-chubbier size and shape. Outside restrictions can take the form of anything from behavioral modification to labeling foods as good, bad, or indifferent. It’s the attitude that makes the difference. If the intent of an approach to feeding is to reduce the child’s weight, it is outside control and it is destructive.

Satter’s approach makes me cry because it is exactly what I wanted to hear: advice that resonates with me. Her theory make sense to me. I read it as: stop being so damn weird about food, provide your child with good food (and fun treats), trust that she will eat what she needs, and back the hell off when she eats more or less than you think she should. Obviously, with Molly only ten-weeks old, it’s too early for me to know how it will be for us when Mollymonster sits at the dining room table and refuses food, or eats more than we were prepared for. But with this book and its sound advice, I feel significantly more prepared for that time that will inevitably be here sooner than I think.

Thanks to my mom and dad for trying their hardest. Thanks Terry. Thanks Ellyn.


May 2012
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