The other day, while my mom was holding my 7-month-old little girl, she pinched her chubby thighs and, in a cutesy voice, said, "You have legs just like Hillary Clinton. We're gonna have to put you in pantsuits!" They both laughed. Suddenly, the perspective in my living room became distorted, like in a Hitchcock zoom, as I was gripped by the fear—and very real possibility—that my daughter could end up just as fucked up as I am as a result of exposure to my mother.
Moms aren't perfect—it's a concept of which I'm intimately aware since becoming a mother myself. Still, I'm very conscious of the mistakes my mom made in raising me and have vowed to not repeat them with my daughter. Specifically, I never want my daughter to feel bad about her weight or have an unhealthy relationship with food as a result of the things I say to her. It's extremely important to me and I'm sure it will prove to be difficult, as it's such an insidious problem, lurking in the corners of one's psyche, making cameos in everyday situations in ways that may not even be immediately recognizable. But how can I break this cycle when my mother is still around, guilting me to get back on the elliptical?
I really believe that having a daughter is part of my karmic journey. If that sounds really asshole-ish it's because Madonna said it in a 1998 interview in Vanity Fair about giving birth to Lourdes. Still! I relate to that! Raising a little girl presents me with the opportunity to heal some female troubles from my own childhood by giving my daughter certain assurances I'd wish I'd received, while also providing me with a taste of the shit I put my own mom through. I anticipate that the experience will result in a better understanding of my mother as a person, and I've already developed a deeper appreciation of, empathy for and closeness to her thus far.
Part of that, though, is that I've been able to forgive her—something that's taken a great deal of time (and therapy)—for inadvertently making my brain a veritable toilet swirl of vain, fat-hating, food-craving, yo-yo dieting, irrational self-criticism. I'm sure my mother didn't mean to traumatize me or my sister with her own disordered eating, expressed disgust of fat people, forcing us to diet as children, and verbally criticizing us for not being thin enough. And I'm sure she'd deny it. Her account of the past tends to be different than how things really happened. Her selective memory of our childhood is as golden as the bottomless glass of white wine that has no doubt clouded her perspective. But it happened.
Mostly, it was the mixed messages that were so troubling. Junk food was not allowed at our house (my mother hid our school lunch snacks from us, figuring we had no self-control around food), except for at family parties, which presented a smorgasbord of crap. But when we'd go to town on the celebratory Doritos or cake she'd warn us to not eat too much or we'd turn into Gina Catalano. She was some girl my mother grew up with that was apparently very overweight. But for me and my sister, who'd never met her, Gina Catalano was a mythical figure—a boogie man meant to scare us into dropping that potato chip back into the bowl lest we become the unloved, unattractive, obese neighbor girl that people made fun of. Was that so much worse than growing up to be the mom who embarrasses her children by mowing the lawn in her strapless bikini and curlers while smoking a Parliment Light 100? If she were really trying to save us from being the victims of cruel schoolyard taunts, she failed on that front.
Weirdly, we were bribed and rewarded with food. We would get giant Slurpees for going to the piano lessons we hated or some form of fast food breakfast for attending swimming lessons, or a cheeseburger and fries for a good report card. It was like she was constantly dangling a carrot on a stick in front of us, except instead of a carrot, it was a cheese-filled hot dog. It was an incredibly bizarre parenting technique for someone who once admonished her 11-year-old daughter on Easter Sunday for wearing white tights because they made her legs look thick. (To this day, I have never again gone near a pair of white tights.) Which was it? Were we supposed to enjoy food or be afraid of it?
The dichotomy was particularly confounded for my sister, to an embarrassing degree. One time my mother, father and I were picking her up from some after school activity. While we were waiting for her in the parking lot, my mom let rip one of her signature SBDs. It lingered long enough that by the time my sister got in the car, she sniffed and then started crying.
She became desperate as she screeched in an accusatory manner, "You guys got Burger King!? WITHOUT ME!?" mistaking the smell for fast food. She was so devastated that she would be left out of a meal like that. It felt like a punishment.
My father turned around slowly and said, "Mommy farted. And you thought it smelled delicious!"
The thing is, I'm not really that troubled by my mother giving my daughter junk food as rewards or treats or whatever. Grandparents are supposed to spoil their grandkids like that. Instead, it's the comments that are problematic. Even when said in jest—like the thing about Hillary Clinton's legs—certain words can have a lifelong negative effect. I dread that one day my mother will say something like, "Christina Aguilera is chunky," in front of my daughter. It's one thing when strangers say terrible things about women's bodies. I know I can't protect my child from that. But it's another to have a seed planted in a young brain that could infer a comment like that to mean that someone who is supposed to love you unconditionally actually has conditions and worse yet, you aren't meeting them. Those thoughts hurt. I know firsthand. And I don't want my daughter to ever hurt like that. It would be like it was happening to me all over again!
It's very complicated to want to foster a relationship between your mother and daughter while also wanting to protect your daughter from some of the crazy. I don't really know how to do that yet. I actually like having my mom around. She's a huge help and she can be a lot of fun and she's very good with my daughter. And though I've fretted over not engaging in some of her same mistakes, there are considerably more traditions and principles I've learned from my mother that I think bear repeating with my daughter, like reading her bedtime stories seven nights a week, taking her to every amusement park on the Northeastern seaboard, and diligently saving for her college education.
Maybe I should let my mom off the hook a little bit, because it could very well be that in 32 years, my daughter has the same fears about my influence on her kids. Maybe I should stop thinking about how to break the cycle, and instead, try to fix it.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.