Saturday, September 1, 2012

You, Me, and My Mother—Getting More Personal

Acknowledging (not blaming) your influences

Her recent diagnosis of cancer brings me to this slightly different post than you’re used to reading from me. I hope you find it useful—I believe you will—so please read on.

I rarely give credit to my mother, although to say she has had a major impact on me would be a silly understatement. More often, my inner circle hears my complaints—my failure to accept her as she is, to live up to my unrealistic ideal, and my frustration in her difficulty over the years to see me as my own person. You know, the usual mother/daughter crap. I can be uber-rational, she primarily utilizes the right side of her brain—the “act on how you feel, not what you know side”. We are a challenging combination at times. That said, the profound positive influence she’s had on me and on the work I do is worthy of this post.

The Early Years

I grew up on mayo sandwiches, Frosted Flakes and Fruit Loops. I loved canned mushrooms—right from the can—and those olive-green asparagus tips-and peas too. What a weird kid, no?
I ate Swanson TV dinners—those foil-contained frozen meals, most notably turkey, stuffing, gravy and mashed potatoes with a tiny side of super sweet food-coloring-infused red dessert—which I would eat occasionally for dinner on a folding “snack table” right in front of the TV.  It was the 60s of course, and my mother’s 1950s housewife generation saw convenience as key. Canned food was better than fresh in that era—or so it seemed from my youth’s perspective, just as infant formula trumped breast milk. After all, it was “scientifically formulated”, so it had to be better. Processed food was the new black back then. Everyone had to have it.

As my mother engaged in various diets over the years, I took to baked fish and steamed, fat free vegetables just as easily. I joined her in grapefruit eating with dry toast and coffee for breakfast (the Scarsdale Diet, it was called) in my teen years, but was equally entitled to enjoy her fabulous baked goods for desserts. My first real introduction to balance, perhaps?

My mother encouraged and allowed me full reign in the kitchen—something I've simply taken for granted—until working with so many individuals for whom this was not the case. The kitchen could get messy, and that was all right. She would call me from work and ask if I can start making the fried chicken cutlets (no, not during the Scarsdale grapefruit diet phase, of course!) and I would confidently hop to it.

I learned to be comfortable around all types of food, with cooking and without rigidity in the kitchen. I can't remember seeing a written recipe in my childhood home, but I knew from an early age how to make a chicken soup, and a kugel and chicken cacciatore, to name a few. These days, I do like the structure of a recipe to start with, then play with it from there.

Defending weight

My mother was, and remains, a beautiful plus-size woman. And like many of you living above society’s acceptable BMI have experienced, she had her share of size prejudice and condescension at times. In spite of my average to slim size, I think I always identified with her struggle. I silently sided with the overweight underdog, until I found my passion verbalizing my reactions to such injustice, and finding ways to guide and support those struggling with their eating behaviors and their weight.

Combine this with my mother being the most compassionate individual I know. Really. The warmest, most generous heart you'll ever encounter lives in her. Yes, readers, she deserves any credit due me for the work I do—for my passionate acceptance regardless of size, for the need for balance, for my (sometimes) gentle support you'll hear from me.

Only now can I make sense of what I heard upon returning home from my Freshman college year, 25 pounds higher than I was that September. “You could use to lose about 20 pounds,” I recall her saying. That was more than 30 years ago and it has never left me. At that time, what I heard was “you're not good enough, pretty enough, thin enough...”.

Would it have been better to address my emotional ups and downs as an insecure college student? Or to inquire about how I was eating and if I was taking care of myself? Could she have encouraged some reasonable physical activity, rather than telling me to “hold your stomach in” and “put your shoulders back”? Of course. But no one ever guided her in that way—it just wasn't what she knew. And now I can acknowledge that she only feared that I might follow her path with a lifelong and painful weight struggle. So lifelong, that in spite of her recent diagnosis of cancer, she expressed concern that her weight had increased a bit (following a possible weight drop due to her medical woes). This is what still worries her!

But this time I didn't argue. Okay, I did start to help her see that weight loss is not a smart thing at this point, and that what was most important was her focusing on staying healthy and well fueled. But that doesn't work well with the emotional side I spoke of earlier! Okay, time for me to work on letting it go...

What's the relevance for you and your struggles?

First, if I might encourage it, start to take an accounting of what you do have, the blessing you've been given; try, even if it feels rather late to start this, to see the positives in the people whom you've struggled with. Don't wait until it's too late.

Move from the extremes—even ones that seem so healthy. Black and white thinking has no place in a healthy diet, in this dietitian's opinion. And life is too short to deny yourself the foods you love.

Remember that it's never too late to change. I, for one, was raised on all candy-coated cereals and now have no taste for them. That said, I do love my desserts (have you noticed?) Tastes for food can develop and be nurtured, so to speak. As you know, I've become quite the food snob—I love my coffee roasted to perfection and ground fresh daily, and have my favorite oils—walnut; real, not artificially-flavored truffle; and intense and slightly spicy Mediterranean olive oils. From canned mushrooms to this—who would have guessed?

As for weight, as I have learned to listen to my body and its signals—the very message you read throughout this blog—my weight has settled to a very appropriate place for me—without diets or extremes. Letting go of unrealistic goals is essential. And patience is key, along with an awareness that reducing your size does not equate with happiness—even though you may think it holds the key.

That negative stuff you're still carrying, still feeding with your binging or your restricting or both? Time to work it through. Find an eating disorder therapist in your area along with a behavioral RD—we really work hand-in-hand; explore support groups (not OA, please, whose philosophy is a polar opposite to that which you read in this blog) and use your supports.

But start by believing that you're worth it—regardless of your size! Because you are.

If you enjoyed this post please share it or leave a comment. My mother hardly ever reads this blog, but I will encourage her to read this post. So any comments directed to her would be welcome as well.

Thanks for reading!


  1. I wish your mother well and hope she gets healthy soon. Tell her to worry about living, not about weight. :)

    With that said, I have a great ED therapist who I'm not too fond of right now because she is going to refuse to see me if I don't gain a few pounds. I don't really find it necessary for me to gain weight and I'm not really sure I'm going to even try to, so I may be without her very shortly, but I guess that's my problem.

  2. Wishing your mother a speedy return to health.

    I would like to hear more about your relationship with your mother. I'm still having difficulty contending with the fact that my mother's own hate of her "fat" body hinders my eating disorder recovery. Any advice?

    1. Growing up, appearance was so highly valued--by both of my parents. My parents were both beautiful looking and I believe valued their appearances as their greatest assets. That said, unlike intellect or something you can really do something with, good looks are something that can change with time. My mother was always large and ever-struggling to change her appearance to conform to society's beauty standard. My response? I wanted to focus on anything but my appearance--I wanted to be appreciated for my intelligence, yet still yearn(ed) to be seen as beautiful, as that value was deeply instilled. these days, my nails don't get painted and I've chosen to go grey. And on rare occasions the makeup comes on--maybe once or twice a year. perhaps I'm still rebelling?

      At this point, perhaps you can look at your mom's struggle with compassion--how sad that she feels this way about herself. Isn't is better to focus on the assets we do have? I don't know if you can go to this place of not, but maybe this can help.

      In the future, maybe I'll do a post on this, but it is still a difficult subject as I suspect we don't see eye to eye on my childhood and young adult experiences.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. Could you explain why you don't recommend OA please?

    1. Oh, this can be a whole post! But in a nutshell, philosophically we are polar opposites--I do not support their black and white thinking, nor their peer "mentoring" which puts control in the hands of those whom are often most unhealthy minded and uneducated to be providing guidance to others. The 12-step addiction model, appropriately used for alcohol and drug abuse, is inappropriate for eating, which is not an all or nothing activity. I'll stop here.

  4. I think your mom did a fabulous job in raising you! Look at how well you turned out! I was born in the mid 1940's so I know a thing or two about TV dinners and salad with only iceberg lettuce and Kraft French Dressing (was there any other kind back then?). Moms did the very best they knew how, given it was the beginning of the "convenience foods" era which helped women with jobs outside the home get a meal on the table. I can even remember eating Wonder Bread sandwiches with only relish (pickle relish whipped up in mayo--yuk!)and thinking it was delicious! Tell your mom to take care of herself in the most kind and loving way possible and enjoy every minute of it. That might just mean a little cake and ice cream, maybe even some pizza, along the way! She IS beautiful and she can't do anything to change that! Speedy recovery, Mom! :)

  5. My best wishes to your mom. I hope she enjoys many more years of a healthy life.

  6. Lori, Thank you for sharing your personal story with us readers. As one of your patients, when I read such posts it contributes to my understanding of you as a "real person". Our support people often know our most dreadful thoughts and knowing you have "mother/daughter crap" too is refreshing!
    I hope your mom can care for herself as she makes her way through her illness. It is sad how many of us struggle to care for ourselves, our very basic needs, and we are not physically ill. It is an important lesson in perspective, as you said, to be grateful for what we have and to do our best to care for ourselves in ways which just might improve or extend our lives. Maybe we can take guidance from her need to care for herself as we travel through recovery and attempt to do the same. Thank you for another great post - they are always helpful.

  7. Your insight into the mother/daughter relationship that you have and how we can all relate in big or small ways was something I needed a reminder of. Thank you. All of your posts are inspiring and strangely almost always hit on something I'm having a tough time with at that moment. Your mom must be one amazing woman to have a daughter such as yourself. Best of health to both of you and thank you again for the encouragement you always offer here on your blog.

  8. Thank you all for your comments! I will reply to them in depth once I have access to the internet next week, I promise.

  9. I can only imagine the strength that your mother has considering you are a product of her and how she raised you. Not only that, but it confirms that there is so much more to life outside of food and eating and meal plans and gaining or losing weight, there is just living and appreciating what you have. It is quite refreshing, as someone previously mentioned, to hear the "other," more personal side of you. It makes you seem more like a real person and you and your family are in my thoughts during these difficult times.

  10. I hope your mom does very well with her treatment, and has many healthy years ahead of her.

  11. Thanks you all for your well-wishes and for reading and commenting. My mother was brought to tears reading all of your comments. Many, many thanks!