Mother’s Day is coming up, which is a holiday we all know to be fraught with complicated feelings no matter what role we fill. But this week, I really wanted to kill my mom.
I should issue the trigger warning that I’m going to talk about disordered eating and emotionally manipulative/abusive relationships in this column, so if those are triggering topics for you, please accept my warning.
As I have mentioned before in this space, I’m very happily planning my wedding next year and am making some (fairly nonchalant, often interrupted by candy and baked goods) efforts toward improving my health and becoming more fit before the big day. Mostly I feel like this is endurance training; while I don’t feel pride in my body, I feel happy with it, and if I never changed sizes again I wouldn’t lament it. My efforts to get fit revolve around the understanding that weddings are hectic, draining, and take a lot out of you – and any children that follow this commitment to one another will also follow suit. I basically just want more energy, and to be able to sustain activity for longer.
This is a huge, huge thing for me, because I was not raised to love my body; I was raised very specifically to hate it. I had stomach surgery as a result of chronic, health-impairing obesity. (Please note that I’m making the distinction that my obesity was health-impairing; not that anyone else’s body type or weight is reflective of their health status.) My mother had me on yo-yo diets of every type, description, and extremity from the age of 9. (My pediatrician told her to cut down the unhealthy snacks and she put me on the grapefruit diet for two weeks until I started throwing up.)
My mother is a registered nurse. She knows better. But she doesn’t feel better. She has wrestled with her weight and body type for as long as she can remember, and so the moment I showed signs of not being, apparently, a six-foot-tall willowy ballerina who weighed less than the family dog, she started manipulating not only my body, my diet, and my activities, but my self-perception as well. And, being a nine-year-old, I didn’t know any better than to let her; didn’t have the tools or the understanding to stop her.
Fast forward to college, when my weight has become perilous to my health, and my eating is so disordered that I’m passing out on the classroom floor from malnourishment; professors are bringing me buckets of apples from their backyard trees and begging me to steal from the school cafeteria if it’s a matter of money. One of the requirements my surgeon put to me before going through with surgery was that I had to see a therapist. So, I did. And this therapist listened to me dissect the years of my mother constantly throwing barbs at my body type, constantly declaring that the entire family was “going on a diet” because of how unhappy she was with her body and how unhappy I ought to have been with mine, ridiculing everything from the clothes I wore to the way I cut my hair as being “unflattering” and never, ever letting an opportunity go by when in my presence to click her tongue at the food on my plate and judge, judge, judge.
I felt like I was going completely crazy, and I felt like I was going to drown in how much anger I felt toward her, because by that point I had also watched a college roommate very nearly die from complications with anorexia and bulimia and had read enough about cultural manipulation and internalized misogyny to understand that hating the body that carried me around this planet was not the way I was supposed to feel, and it would kill me if I kept it up.
And this therapist heard all of that, held it in her arms, and then reminded me as gently as she possibly could that my mother was not my physician, that my mother was probably very sick, and that I could not base my reality on the delusions of a person who is sick, no matter how much I loved her, no matter how much she otherwise loved me. And she does – the therapist made sure I heard that clearly – she does love you, badly but deeply.
So I worked on it. I worked on separating the delusions I’d been steeped in from the realities presented to me by physicians, scientists, and an accepting health-at-all-sizes feminist culture. God, those years were vital. And I kept my mother at arm’s length. Then later on, I met this dude and decided I wanted to marry him, and for the first time in my entire life, my mother approved of me. She was enthusiastic, and – wielding many of the skills I value about her, like type-A organization and the ability to see the big picture and organize quickly – she was on board entirely for helping me plan this wedding. And I really appreciated it, partially because I am alone in a big new city without any friends around to help with this stuff, and partially because my entire life I have been hungry for her affection and acceptance and she was offering it to me, now, on this shiny silver platter.
And I love shiny silver platters.
So, I let my guard down. It took a lot of courage for me to go dress shopping alone, because despite all the work I’ve done I am still insecure about my body when it’s under the microscope, as it is when you’re in your underwear in front of a stranger trying to shimmy into a slinky dress, and it took even more courage for me to send those photos to my mother and say, “These are the dresses I want.” I spent hours sweating in a dressing room with a woman I’d never met before, who showed me so much love and encouragement, gently guiding me to dress styles that were flattering to my figure and brought out my best assets, after a few discouraging attempts in dresses that didn’t make me feel as good.
My mother responded by sending me photos of dresses she hoped I would agree would be “more flattering” to my figure, since I “didn’t seem to have taken into consideration” my body type when trying on dresses and making decisions. These emails sent me into a panic, of course, of self-loathing and anxiety about eating and then emotionally shoving as many M&M blondies as I could fit down my throat without choking. Because that’s how I do.
But wait a second. I am a grown-ass woman. I have worked hard for my little bit of emotionally grounded earth, and dammit, I planted beautiful things there that I wanted to grow and nurture; beautiful things like self-confidence, wisdom, energetic activity and mindfulness of health. I’m a woman who is planning a new life with another person who also has had struggles, and who sometimes looks to me for wisdom or confidence in his health choices. And I am a woman who wants to have children of her own one day, and to hell with the idea that I am going to pass on this demon that has infested my self-image and self-worth for 26 years.
I drafted five or six different responses to my mother, trying to find a way to tell her that this kind of talk isn’t welcome in my life anymore, without destroying the good things that have sprung up lately. I circled through the old hoops of apologetically asking her to leave me alone, getting angry, pouting. I thought about not engaging the topic at all because, Damn her! She should get this by now! I shouldn’t have to be the bigger person! But then that therapist comes back to me, and I remember understanding, even for a brief moment: my mother is sick. She has an eating disorder that she is projecting on to me. She taught me to live that way, but I have broken free. Sure, it would feel good for a split second to just give it to her – or withhold it from her – but in the end, wouldn’t I only be punishing myself? I’d still be festering in the same anger, the same hurt.
My mister-to-be finally helped me draft the letter I did send her, which was, above all, honest and fair. Fair because she hadn’t been fair to me; honest because she didn’t know how to be honest with herself. In it, I found the dignity I’d been feeling deprived of, and tried to extend it to her as much as I could, too. I don’t know how she’ll respond. She might choose to be defensive – though I’ve taken pains not to put her on the defensive – or she might feel angry, because I’m walking too close to the very sensitive line she’s drawn in the sand around receiving criticism of any kind.
But after I wrote that email, I went and had a great, healthy, delicious lunch (Greek-style shrimp). I ate until I was satisfied. And then I ate a few bites more, because the food was so good. And then, I went browsing on the web for samples of the kind of lace I’d like part of my dress to be made of. Later on, I’m going to sign up for a fitness class that sounds genuinely fun to me. I’m going to tell myself I’m beautiful, just like I saw written on the sidewalk this morning. And on Sunday, on Mother’s Day? I’m going to feel grateful that I have a mother who cares as much as she does, withholding for one day the dozens of resentments and wish-I-could-change elements that are forever attached to our relationship, and I’m going to feel grateful that one mental health professional, one day a few years ago, taught me that sometimes we have to be the mother we’ve needed for ourselves.