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How Having a Daughter Changed My Relationship with Food Forever

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My daughter just turned 2, and she's the most incredible thing that's ever happened to me. It's so cliché, but the minute my daughter was placed in my arms I just instinctively knew that we were in this together and I was going to do whatever I could to provide her with the best of everything. But, turns out that wanting to give her the best was an anxiety trigger. Even as she thrived, I couldn't help but obsess and stress over everything she was—and was not—doing: Were the noises she made in her sleep normal? Was the rocker she loved hanging out in destined to give her a flat head? Was the straw sippy cup going to delay her speech? And then the biggest one: Was she eating enough?

For me, food is a dirty "f-bomb"—after the other doozy—"fat." You see, food/dieting/weight has always been at the center of my world. Growing up, the message was that overeating would lead to becoming fat—and being fat was a terrible fate. Problem is, I always struggled with my weight. My mom gently tried to control how much I weighed by serving me fewer carbs than the rest of the family during dinner or casually suggesting that I skip dessert. When by junior high the baby fat hadn't budged, my pediatrician put me on a diet. And as my mom diligently tried to keep me on track, I began to resent her for it. After all, what child wants to eat a side salad instead of fries or snack on tasteless apple chips instead of chips?

The diet didn't work. As I got older, my weight consumed me. I couldn't fit into any of the "trendy" clothes at the mall or enjoy a normal teenage social life because I was so obsessed with my diet. I'd stress-eat, overeat, and fixate on every meal hours before it was served. I could never stop thinking about my body.

And with every setback, I took it out on my mom.

You see, my mom has been thin for my entire life. And it's not because it came naturally. Our genes are rich with slow metabolism, so it takes everyone in my family a lot of hard work to get to a healthy weight—and stay there. My mom has told me many times over the years how being overweight affected her as a teen. When she finally lost the weight in her early 20s, it was done with sheer willpower and discipline: She went on one of the earliest versions of Weight Watchers where she basically ate "rabbit food" (lettuce and tuna straight from the can—without even a drop of mayo). She's kept the weight off and been slender ever since.

For me, the scale has bounced up and down since I was a child, and I'm almost 40. And now that I have a daughter, it's hit me like a ton of bricks what was going on every single time my mom suggested I skip a snack or get in more exercise.

Guilt. Overpowering, soul-crushing, anxiety-inducing guilt.

Let me explain. My daughter hasn't been the greatest eater ever since we introduced her to finger foods when she was 8 months old. She decided early on that she liked french fries and sweets, and they've been the building blocks of her diet ever since. We often cut up cucumbers and peppers to look like "french fries" to trick her into getting some more nutrients. She'll eat certain fruits, but getting her to try anything new is virtually impossible. Over the holidays, my husband and I hosted Hanukkah and New Year's Eve parties at our home—which meant our kitchen was overflowing with junk. My daughter was in heaven, pushing aside the balanced dinners I prepared for her and demanding a doughnut. I found myself giving in, rationalizing that it was better that she consume the calories rather than eat nothing at all, while reminding myself that her spot on the growth chart predicted she'd be tall and thin (two words you could not use to describe me) so it was all okay.

But in weak moments, I wonder if I'm a terrible mom for avoiding her tantrums by not pushing fruits, veggies, and whole grains. I feel guilty that give in to her demands for doughnuts. Am I setting her up for a lifetime of weight/body image problems I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy? Tears have filled my eyes just thinking about my daughter experiencing any shame over her body and food. (See: 10 Ways Parents Can Screw Up Your Healthy Living Goals)

And as I stress-ate a cookie, I realized that I finally understood my mother—and her desire to shield me from struggling with my weight the way she did—in a way I never had before. My guilt over feeding my daughter sweets certainly feeds into my own issues, my own body image hang-ups, and my own wish that I could redo some key parts of my own life in a "thin" body. And now I see that my mother must have experienced similar emotions raising me. 

The truth is, if you had a mom who was at all fearful of you (or her) gaining weight—even if it was with the best of intentions—it likely had a negative impact on your psyche. "It's common for mothers to project her own beliefs and/or insecurities about weight onto her daughters," says Mike Dow, Ph.D.,  psychotherapist, and author of The Brain Fog Fix. "If a mother has learned to create value for the way that she looks or in staying thin, then a daughter who's overweight can feel like a reflection of her, affecting the mother's self-worth." 

The second major issue? Anxiety. Just like my mom worried that my weight would affect the quality of my life—and the way I worry about any of that trickling down to my own daughter—that idea of "wanting the best" translates into fear around food, eating, and body image." Excessive concern about a daughter being teased by other kids is received by the child as 'Mom doesn't accept me or love me for who I am,'" explains Dow. "When self-esteem is affected in this way, it only makes a daughter struggling with her weight or body image make unhealthy decisions around food—not healthier ones." (Recent research confirms the impact of weight-related comments on girls: Women whose parents commented on their weight when they were growing up are actually more prone to being overweight—and less satisfied with their weight—as adults.)

I know that even if my daughter is a "perfect" weight the rest of her life, it doesn't mean she'll automatically love her body or have a healthy relationship with food. I just don't want to contribute to or exacerbate any issues she may or may not have. So if her weight and body image become a source of stress, how can I be there for her in a positive way?
 
For starters, I shouldn't use the word 'diet' around her. "The word sends a powerful message that body size and shape is within her control if only she eats the right kinds and amounts of food," says Wendy Newman, L.C.S.W., a psychotherapist based in Montclair, NJ. "And food should never be used as a reward or offered as comfort because it sets up a false notion that food can soothe strong emotions."
 
If the day comes when I do see my daughter struggling, I know that I won't be able to stand by without at least trying to help. According to Newman, there are ways to do that without triggering shame. "If given the challenge of a daughter saying, 'Mommy, I feel like I'm getting fat,' resist saying things like, 'Well maybe you can cut out the sweet snacks for a few weeks,' she explains. "A better response would be 'That's probably very normal for your body at this age. Every body changes and grows at a different rate.'" I'll be filing that response away for a rainy day in case I ever need it.
 
Today, my relationship with my mother is stronger and closer than ever. Now that I'm a mom, I lean on her for advice and support and to share in the beautiful chaos that is being a parent. I still struggle with my weight and my body image and the constant chatter over food in my head, but it's not a part of the relationship I have with her. I am, however, trying to be mindful of how my issues might affect my daughter down the road—so ultimately they won't affect her. (In fact, this year I'm determined to conquer my irrational, raging fear of the scale for good.)
 
I can't shield my daughter from the overpowering messages that society sends about food and being "plus size" if you're over a size 6. But I can give her positive messages at home—and cross my fingers that our biggest battles will be over curfews and dating rather than diets and snacks.
 

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