For mom and daughter, alike.
“The best parents are not those who know all the answers, are convinced of the rightness of their way, and never swerve from it. They are the ones who are sufficiently tuned in to their child so they know when something they are doing isn’t working.” ~ Ellyn Satter, Child of Mine
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the difficulty I had been having with my daughter around mealtimes—how she was refusing to eat and then collapsing into fits of unbearable crankiness.
The breaking point came at a café in Manitou Springs. We ordered Opal a grilled cheese and fruit—two of her favorite things—and she refused to have a single bite, in spite of having very little for breakfast. Her dad and I were entangled in a dance of rattled cajoling, and we were both exhausted and irritable. We were begging her to eat.
How did it get to this? I thought. If I saw another mom behaving this way, I’d have thought, Lordy, Mama, lighten up.
I caught Jesse’s eye across the table and mouthed, “We are done with this.” And we were. Just in the declaration, I could feel my lungs expand as if they’d been unzipped.
A few years back, I read a copied chapter from a book called How to Get Your Kid to Eat…But Not Too Much, by Ellyn Satter. Our pediatric nurse gave it to me when I had questions about Opal suddenly turning up her nose at food she’d historically loved. The title didn’t wow me, but I found the article to be riveting.
What I remembered most was how she stressed the importance of clarifying what we have control of and what we don’t with regards to food (and beyond).
So, like an old friend, I looked her up again. I am about halfway into her book Child of Mine: Feeding With Love and Good Sense (better title) and my perspective has done an about-face since those tense days before the lunch at Manitou Springs. I started with a copy from the library, but felt so limited in my inability to underline and make notes in the margins that I ordered a copy from Amazon for $0.16 (plus $3.99 shipping).
Until it arrived, I littered the library pages with post-it notes.
Essentially, Satter’s book speaks to trust, relaxation and letting go of control. You fix a lovely meal, you set it in front of your child and you eat alongside her, no persuading, no negotiating. If she says, no thank you, you oblige and try again at the next designated meal/snack time. No if…thens. No one-bite rules.
Satter says it takes an average of 15-20 times of a child seeing a food on her plate before she’ll take a bite of something new on her own accord! Child of Mine is essentially a guide on how to support your child as they learn to be an intuitive eater.
As I read, I cannot help but to reflect on my own experience.
I also underwent a slow and patient process to learn how to eat intuitively, though I was not a child. For me, it was 2007—I was 30.
I have chosen to offer the following because I feel it is so important to acknowledge that where we came from, what we’ve been through, affects us so much as parents now. And I feel it’s equally important to share. From the age of 15 to 30, I engaged in one form or another of an eating disorder.
For many years, it was bulimia, but during the later years, it was a vacillating cycle of compulsive overeating and restricting my food. I had been hospitalized, gone through extensive therapy, attended Overeaters Anonymous (the eating disorders version of Alcoholics Anonymous) and nothing helped. If anything, all the effort trying to fix this problem became the unwelcome focus of my life.
Food—and anything that was related to food—was a battle I needed to conquer. The cycle went like this: I tried so hard to be good for just one day and inevitably failed, collapsing into the arms of my addiction and then feeling horrible, weak and out-of-control the next morning. It was such a deeply imbedded groove that I couldn’t imagine anything else.
February, 2007. I stumbled upon a review for a book called, Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. I knew then and there that the jig was up. A tiny voice in my head said, Go get that book. Nothing will be the same. And I can tell you now, with nearly seven years of hindsight—and six years of imperfect but sane eating under my belt—that indeed, everything has changed. I won’t get into too much detail here; that is a story for a different day.
But I can report 2007 to be a year that was simultaneously a practice ground, a science lab, a loving-kindness meditation, a terrifying trip through unknown tunnels and chasms. I carried that book with me everywhere, read and re-read the passages like scripture. I stared at the words that were printed above the title, Make Peace With Food, until my eyes were dry.
As it turned out, I was horrified to not be in the clutches of a controlling food regime.
I felt, for weeks—months—at a time, like a cat dropped from a cliff into the water, arms and legs flailing, thinking, I sure as hell hope there’s something down there to break the fall. With permission to eat without restriction, I gained 15 pounds in a handful of months, but lost it again once the novelty of eating without a strict set of rules wore off. Luckily, I have a husband who didn’t bat an eyelash and somehow—somehow—I didn’t give up.
So back to Opal.
My fixation with feeding her well—enough, the right amount of good things—is surely a common experience for all mothers. When my child doesn’t eat, I feel the need to try harder, exert more control/technique/praise/discipline in order to nourish her properly. My history with food certainly makes things more intense.
But it also offers the insight that if I don’t ease up now, I may be loaning her my copy of Intuitive Eating ten years into the future, when she has colossally more baggage to sift through.
I didn’t realize how much of my energy was wrapped up in getting Opal to eat—I was getting headaches before most meals—until I spent a few days, then a few weeks, without controlling. Now, meals feel joyful. We take it easy. We talk about our days.
It’s the mother-daughter version of 2007, the year I learned freedom for myself. Sure, I’d love her to gobble up the delicious stir-fry that’s on her plate. To eat more, in general. I am holding out hope that that’s just what she’ll do, once the newness of eating without a monitoring squad wears off.
So there you have it, my friends. Yet another example of how parenting oneself is not so different from being a parent—there are constant opportunities for refresher courses.
“Your attitude about your child is reflected in the way you feed him. If you are overly responsible or controlling, you will not be able to be trusting. If you have an attitude of curiosity, relaxation and trust, you will watch for his cues and respond to them.” ~ Ellyn Satter, Child of Mine
Like elephant family on Facebook.
Ed: Bryonie Wise