What happened when my daughter questioned my relationship with food

spoon of coloured candy against hot pink background

This essay is part of Motherwell’s new Parenting and Food column.

By Lizabeth Sjaastad

I’m making a Buddha bowl dinner for my hard-to-satisfy family. The peppers, sweet potatoes, and onions are roasting in olive oil and sea salt and the tofu block, wrapped and draining in a cotton towel, is being flattened by the weight of a cast iron pan. I’m marinating chicken when my husband sends me a text from the family room in the basement. Can you come down here?   

I plop down on the couch next to him and he leans in, whispers, tells me that our 17-year-old daughter told him, while they were on one of their dog walk-and-talks, that I have an unhealthy relationship with food. Maybe she’d said “eating disorder,” not “unhealthy relationship,” and he softened it, I don’t know.

She’d asked me to go with them, now I wonder if I should have, but I know this time talking with her dad fills her up, reduces her anxiety. I can see them maneuvering down the sidewalk, each with a taut leash, my husband in his sun-shading cowboy hat and my daughter lean and strong in her tank top, deep in discussion with treats in hand to keep our two hard-to-handle dogs in line.

She said I critique what I eat, how much I eat, and that I am overly restrictive. She said she waits to find something to eat until I am out of the kitchen. He told me, not her, that he also feels my judgment as he decides what to grab from the cupboard. 

I am gasping from the blow but pretend to be calm by relaxing my face and raising my eyebrows. “Really? What else did she say?”

He’s speaking softly. He doesn’t want her to hear. She didn’t want him to tell me. She thinks I say things like “nutrition-dense food” and “balanced diet” and what I mean is “don’t eat sugar; it’ll make you fat.” She thinks my issues with food are going to give her issues with food.

I crumble inside. I’m ready to fall apart. 

I want to talk with her. My daughter usually welcomes conversations with me and I know how lucky I am that she does. But my husband and I agree maybe it’s better if I say nothing at all for a little while about food. She’s made up her mind. He tried to change it—we’ve been married 25 years and he told her he does not think I have an unhealthy relationship with food.

She and I have had this conversation before a few times, sort of. She’s told me she doesn’t like when I comment on how much sugar she eats. I had agreed to stop, but didn’t, so I apologized, and we had the talk about what constitutes healthy eating again.

She never said she thought I had a problem with food. I assumed she was tired of me telling her what she already knew. No one likes to be told what they already know, particularly when their behavior is in direct conflict with their knowledge. Who tells a smoker that it’s bad for them anymore?

Feeding the family has always been my job. I seek input from them, take inventory, shop, and cook. Before more recent suggestions like that she eat more protein—not another bowl of cereal—I made other decisions in the past. About what mix of tasty nutrition to feed her every day for 17 years, what snacks to have available, and when she was young, what finger food to put on her high chair table. Before that, I made the decision to breastfeed based on scientific evidence connecting it to lower levels of allergies and asthma and higher IQ. And before that, I changed my eating and took vitamins based on expert advice to have a healthy pregnancy. “Your baby in utero eats what you eat!” 

I’m a pescatarian as is my 17-year-old daughter. When she was a non-stop toddler I followed her futilely with a spoonful of food hoping to get her to eat. She’s always been her own person, not easily influenced by others, clear in her choices, analytical and determined. My other two kids have clear and sometimes rigid preferences too, as does my husband, who is also allergic to shellfish and flourishes with more protein in his diet. Pulling together a meal that satisfies all is my daily goal and a rare occurrence.

Do I have an unhealthy relationship with food? I am post-menopausal and fight the battle of my slower metabolism every day, as my waist is significantly larger though my weight hasn’t fluctuated much since college. I don’t binge or fast. I play tennis, stretch, walk the dogs, and do functional strength training. I wear an average size in clothes, and I hate shopping. I really fucking hate shopping. My closet has as many hand-me-downs from friends and thrift store items as it does clothes I bought new. If my clothes get too tight and uncomfortable, as they have been for a long time now, I focus on eating “nutrition dense foods” rather than shopping for new jeans.

Each generation of parents gets a new education, new terminology, and new rules for the next generation to critique. My mother’s parenting peculiarities went beyond her generational idiosyncrasies. She had delusions of persecution, she didn’t trust food and she thought tiny amounts of the wrong food would give her heart disease or diabetes. Her frugality at the grocery meant there was never quite enough food served to feed everyone at the table. I grew up with vacant kitchen cupboards filled only with powdered milk and no-sugar cereals. I thought that was restrictive, so my cupboard now is full options from cereal to pasta, chips to granola, chocolate to raw nuts.

I am breathing through the pain in my chest. I had one job.

I read the books on eating disorders, listened to my friends’ experiences, attended seminars, and have been shrewdly attentive to my kids’ eating habits. I thought I was doing it in the right way. I would catch it early if one of them showed the signs. Now a child of mine feels she might develop an “unhealthy relationship with food” (is it the same as an eating disorder?) because of me? I don’t know how to respond but I must respond, to stop the progression of an inherited unhealthy relationship with food, and to be a better mom.

Or maybe I just stop talking about food for more than a little while. Stop worrying so much about my kids’ nutrition since they are independent, healthy, and capable people. Stop the inner critique of my changing, maturing body and the worry about how waist-tight my pants are. Stop projecting my nutrition guidelines on my family, and recognize that my children pay more attention to my food behaviors than I realize.

My family is educated to make their own decisions, and the conversation with my daughter will happen naturally; she is not me and I am not my mother…and maybe it’s time I just go out and buy some fucking comfortable clothes.

Liz Sjaastad is a sensible person who finds writing more effective than therapy. She is working on a memoir and lives with her husband and three teenage children in St. Paul, Minnesota. You can learn more and contact Liz at lizsjaastad.squarespace.com

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