Last night at dinner, Nora ate a lot more than she usually does. We were having stuffed shells - one of her favorite foods - and she probably had 5 or 6 shells, along with a piece or two of garlic bread. Towards the end of the meal, she started complaining that her tummy hurt because she was too full. I reminded her that it's her job to fill up her belly when she's hungry, but also to stop eating when her hunger is all gone. She was still chomping on a piece of garlic bread as she complained about her stomachache, so I suggested that she save the rest of the garlic bread for another time. "But I want to eat it!" she exclaimed. I told her that we'd put it in a bag in the fridge with her name on it, so that everyone would know it was hers and nobody else would eat it. Reluctantly, she agreed to save it for later. Less than an hour later, she claimed that she was hungry again and asked to eat it. Not wanting to make it a Thing, I let her have it as her before-bed snack.
I'll admit it: I was pretty freaked out by this series of events. Nora is generally pretty good about self-regulating her food intake, but lately I've noticed her eating more than she really needs of certain favorite foods - mostly cheesy pasta (stuffed shells, tortellini, etc.), breads, and waffles. I know that it's more than she needs because if I tell her that she needs to eat something else (such as a vegetable or piece of fruit) before I heat up more of the food she's asking for, she'll announce that she's not hungry after all and wander off to play, and will not mention being hungry again until close to the next scheduled snack or meal time. And I worry about her because I'm overweight, I struggle with binge eating (especially on carb-heavy foods, just like the ones she's overeating), I have trouble self-regulating my eating, and I don't want her to grow up to struggle with her body and her relationship with food in the same ways that I do.
In sum, I worry that she's learning to overeat by watching me do it. And I'm worried that I'm primarily responsible for messing up her ability to self-regulate her intake of these types of foods.
A few months ago, I read a very enlightening book called Like Mother, Like Daughter: How Women Are Influenced By Their Mothers' Relationship with Food - And How to Break the Pattern. As I was reading it, I was really struck by the author's message on the dangers of yo-yo dieting - both to our own bodies and to our daughters' perceptions of their own and their mothers' bodies. I put the book down and resolved to eat when I was hungry and "trust my body" from that point forward. Sure enough, within a few days, I'd started binge eating again and become convinced that I wasn't strong enough or smart enough to interpret my bodies' signals. I gained several pounds and immediately went on a diet - a diet which went straight to hell after a few days because I got stressed and ate more than I was supposed to and then couldn't get back on track. And so the cycle continued.
I think there was some part of me that thought that as long as Nora didn't know exactly what I was doing to my body, and as long as I continued feeding her well and giving her the "right" messages about eating when hungry and stopping when full, that she would be okay. "Do as I say, not as I do," or something like that. I was careful to weigh myself when she was out of the room, not to enter calories into my tracker in front of her, etc. I don't know why I thought that would work. She's a bright kid! Even if I wasn't announcing my intentions, she could still observe on her own that I was eating only a little bit of food for several days in a row, then eating a whole lot of food for several days after that. She could certainly see which foods I was overeating. And she was apparently learning from all of that, even when I thought I was hiding my own body issues oh-so-well.
So basically, the authors of that book were right.
I really, really, really don't want to pass on my messed-up relationship with food to my children. Until last night, I actually thought that I could teach them regulation, self-control, balance, moderation, and a love of eating without figuring out any of those things for myself. That was naive, and Nora's actions last night have made abundantly clear the necessity of confronting my own demons if I'm ever going to be able to teach her and her brother how to eat well and respect their own bodies.
I've been trying to do that today. Breakfast was a bowl of cereal (plain Cheerios), a small glass of skim milk, and 2/3 of a banana (Nora ate the other 1/3). My morning snack was a handful of blueberries, a couple small wedges of melon, and a glass of water. Lunch was three soy chicken nuggets, a large serving of peas, and half of a baked potato seasoned with black pepper and sea salt. My first afternoon snack (I'm sure there will be another at some point because we eat a very early lunch over here) was a glass of chocolate milk and a package of peanut butter crackers. I've been trying to cut back on soda and add in more water - the rule I made for myself is that I have to have a glass of water between each can of diet coke. I'm on diet coke #3 right now - which for almost 2 PM, is actually really good for me (I'm generally on #4 or #5 by this point). I haven't tracked any calories and I don't intend to. I'm trying really hard to just listen to what my body is telling me, feed it when it's hungry, and make good nutritional choices without sacrificing flavor and the joy of eating.
It's hard! I'm coming off of a few days of overeating, so I'm actually still pretty hungry right now, even though I've eaten what I consider to be a reasonable amount of food so far today. The temptation to (a) ignore the hunger or (b) overfeed the hunger is really strong. I'm realizing that I'm afraid of being hungry - it's not a sensation that I generally respond to in an appropriate manner. I'm planning to go and eat an apple when I'm done writing this - that seems like a good middle ground between starving myself and downing three bowls of cereal, which are my more natural inclinations when encountering hunger at a time that I don't want to be eating. But it's really hard. It's a big, big struggle for me.
The other struggle is with giving myself permission to not be perfect at this. I've been yo-yo dieting for decades at this point. Expecting to immediately be able to turn off those ingrained habits and just start eating "normally" is unrealistic. But I'm a perfectionist and it's so easy to say, "well, crap, I suck at this... might as well just do what I want, then." Especially when what I want is to forget about all of this "treating my body with respect" business and eat a whole bag of Oreos.
But at this point, it's not just about me. It's about Nora, who's emulating me. It's about Isaac, who won't be far behind if I don't get a grip. I'm hoping that I can do for them what I've never been able to do for myself. And yes, I recognize that the self-worth issues tied up in that statement warrant their own soul-searching... but one thing at a time. Baby steps.
And Isaac is waking up from his nap now, so I guess I'd better go get him and eat that apple.