How to mother a daughter when you have food issues

Crispy Potato Chips in Row on Yellow Background

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

By Jennifer Furner

Modern advice for mothering a daughter includes not weighing yourself in front of her. I read an article once where a mother weighed herself every day until one day her young daughter got on the scale, and then she thought, what have I done?

The first three years of my daughter’s life, when she followed me everywhere, including to the bathroom, she saw me weigh myself regularly. My digital scale was a bit tricky; I had to wake it up by touching it with my foot, wait for it to calibrate, and then I could step on it for weight. Once Amelia was old enough to stand, she loved the novelty of the scale, smacking it to awaken the glowing numbers and laughing to herself. As she got older, I kept reminding her of the instructions for operation: touch it, wait, okay, now you can get on.

I don’t think scales are inherently bad. I think they’re useful tools. Once, I was gaining weight inexplicably; it turned out I was growing a tumor on my ovary. The weight gain was a red flag I found by stepping on the scale regularly. I use the scale as a line of defense to know when something is wrong.

Something is wrong now. I know because the scale tells me so. I’m nearly at the weight I was when I was pregnant; I’ve surpassed the weight I was when I had my tumor. There’s no fetus in my stomach, nor is there cancer. Just enlarged fat cells brought about by too many empty calories.

I’ve always been the kind of person who eats her feelings. And I’ve always been an anxious person, so there have always been plenty of feelings to feed. My specific feelings really enjoy cake and cookies and ice cream, but also pizza and tacos and anything I can get at a drive-through window.

And 2020 keeps triggering my anxiety. If it’s not Covid, then it’s police brutality. If it’s not police brutality, then it’s the presidential election. If it’s not the presidential election, it’s putting an anti-choice judge on the Supreme Court or brushfires or hurricanes or the economy failing or people dying because they won’t wear a small piece of cloth over their nose and mouth. It’s just one hit after another.

And I’ve been eating it all.

I’ve gained the Quarantine Fifteen. And then some.

More modern advice for mothering a daughter includes not talking about her body, ever, unless it’s about telling her how it works. I shouldn’t point out when my daughter is losing or gaining weight. I shouldn’t compliment or shame her body in any way. I can say she’s strong or healthy or glowing, but not skinny, and I definitely can’t say she’s fat.

Though she’s four years old now, Amelia is still rather affectionate. She always wants to sit in my lap and get carried everywhere. When I pick up her 40-plus-pound body, I say, “You are so big!” to imply accomplishment. When she sticks her arms up in the arm and declares she’s “so big,” her father and I clap and laugh. Being big is a good thing.

And yet she must be getting mixed messages. When she asks me to play on her swing set, I say that I can’t: I’m too big. When she tries to pick me up, I discourage her: I’m too big. Being big isn’t always a good thing.

Because we’re in a pandemic, her parents are her only playmates. Amelia, an only child, is constantly trying to fit her too big parents into her small world.

For what it’s worth, even at a healthy weight, I would be too big for her swing set, too big for her to carry. But I’m not at a healthy weight. I’m too big.

My daughter watches me get dressed. I don’t hide my body from her. When I look in the mirror, I keep my comments to myself. I don’t say I’m fat. I don’t say I’m big. I don’t want her to connect those two words together. So I don’t say anything.

And yet I feel it all the time. I feel the weight in the soreness of my lower back when I wake up in the morning. I feel it when it creeps over the waistband of my jeans and poofs out my shirt. I feel it when my clothes encase me like a sausage.

I don’t say it, but I know it: I’m fat.

More modern advice for mothering a daughter includes not going on diets. I should buy and cook healthy food, but also teach her how to make a cake even if it has six sticks of butter. It’s about balance. Eat mostly good food but treating ourselves every now and again.

I keep telling myself that if I ate two good meals in a day, I could splurge a little on the third meal. I don’t need dessert after every meal. But even that simple regimen takes too much effort in this pandemic life.

My coworker, frustrated with her plateaued weight loss, laments behind her cotton face mask: “I just want to be fat and happy.” And that’s what I want, too. It’s hard to find balance in a world that is so unbalanced, that is suffering so much and receiving no breaks. There are few things I can take genuine pleasure in, and one of those is eating.

But what message does that send my daughter?

I don’t want her to be afraid of food. If she finds pleasure in food, why should she deny it?

And yet I know that can quickly turn into an unhealthy relationship, where food becomes a comfort, when there are healthier ways of dealing with stress.

Modern advice for mothering a daughter is great for a mother who is in control of her eating and her body. But what about those mothers who aren’t?

Not weighing myself in front of her regularly, not commenting on her or my body size, and not going on diets is wise in general. But this isn’t an average year, an average life. Isn’t it just as important to show that it’s okay to not be perfect all the time? Isn’t it just as important to admit that sometimes we make mistakes, that sometimes we stray down the wrong path and are unsure of how to find our way back?

By keeping my mouth shut about my eating habits and my expanding body, I feel a bit like I am lying to my daughter about how to take care of herself, about how hard it can be sometimes to take care of herself.

My advice for mothering a daughter includes teaching my own that her worth is not determined by the size of her body, that bodies change during different seasons of life, and that’s okay. Sometimes our body will be bigger than we’d like, and if we want to work on making it a little bit smaller, or if we want to let it be bigger for the moment, both are valid choices. Whether our bodies are bigger than we’d like or not, we are still the same person on the inside—whatever the number on the scale.

Jennifer Furner is a part-time librarian, a part-time writer, a full-time mom, and a full-time ruminator. She is writing her second memoir while searching for a home for her first. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with her loving husband and her mischievous daughter. Check her out via twitter (@JenniferFurner) or on her website (

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