Family History, Food, and Mental Health

For me, being overweight is closely linked to my complex relationship with my mom, and gaining weight, for me, is an indicator of declining MENTAL health and a loss of control. Everyone’s relationship with food and weight is different, and I sincerely hope that everyone is happy and appreciates the body they live in. I’m only talking about me here. Because writing is how I work things out for myself.

When I was a little girl, I ate breakfast, lunch, dinner, and sometimes a snack or dessert, if I wanted it, and I stayed actively engaged in something I enjoyed most of the day, every weekday. I spent those days with my grandparents, and I thrived with that structure. Going out together to run errands, going to school (except for summer), playing outside, reading, watching programs on television either with them, or that I selected and they approved, and eating food prepared at home from varied, healthy choices in appropriate portions at consistent times was what every day was like for me. And if I didn’t want to clean my plate or have a snack or dessert that day…I didn’t have to eat it. I did have to try things, and eat enough ‘real food’ (protein, fruits, vegetables, and milk…what my grandparents knew to be ‘healthy’ at the time), and of course, I tended to eat more of things I liked, and I got ‘treats,’ but they never allowed me to eat an entire box of cookies, or forego eating dinner for pizza, and they certainly never manipulated me to eat beyond what satisfied my hunger. And my mom always felt like that was too structured, and at the same time, too indulgent. I’ve never been able to understand her logic, but I know that’s what it was/is.

When my grandparents passed away, I was a middle schooler, and left up to my own devices when it came to eating and activity most of the time. I tried to recreate that structure and stability and comfort balance for myself, but as a kid? I failed a lot. It’s easier to nuke some pizza rolls than it is to cook a pot roast with three vegetables for dinner when you’re thirteen and you’ve been at school all day. My toddler brother would more readily eat microwaved chicken nuggets than a veggie laden casserole anyway, and my dad worked nights and my mom worked all the time, usually from about 7 a.m. to around 7-8 p.m. because she liked feeling ‘needed’ at work. Did we have more money with Dad working the off shift and Mom working 4 hours of overtime a day? Sure. Was that better for me and my brother than Dad and Mom (both or either one) working ‘regular’ hours and having a caring, non-exhausted and aggravated adult in the house? Debatable.
I ate like shit as a middle school and high school kid, for the most part, and I fed the same crap to my kid brother, because I was in charge of that after school every day. Processed, convenience food and the stress of being a primary caregiver to a toddler/preschooler from ages 12-17, on top of trying be the good student at school I wanted to be wore on me. I was tired and irritable, and I knew it was unhealthy based on how I felt and what I read in health textbooks, so I tried to compensate for that by just not eating anything all day until the nutritionally deficient, high calorie dinner I ate every day (my dad actually ate this way most days to maintain somewhat of a ‘healthy’ weight and it worked for him…and he still eats this way, by and large). I never ate breakfast once from 7th grade through meeting J. Really. I don’t think I ate a school lunch at all from 7th through 11th grade. Not one. I’d go through the line, sometimes, if my stomach was growling, buying a junk food item like a pack of cheese or peanut butter crackers or chips or an ice cream for $.50 instead of actual lunch, but I mostly didn’t do that either. My parents never asked me why I never asked for lunch money, even though they never packed me a lunch. (My grandmother often DID pack me lunch in elementary school, and I happily bought lunch on days school was having something I liked). Maybe they assumed I was packing my own. ???
Anyway, by high school, I’d had enough cataloged hours in the kitchen with my grandmother banked in my memory and a semester of middle school home ec under my belt, so I started to actually cook dinner sometimes when AP homework wasn’t weighing me down too much. On those days, my brother and I would eat together and then he’d get ready to go to bed. My mom would come home (often with more work under her arm), send my brother to bed and then tell me she didn’t want to eat dinner alone with mopey eyes.

table for two

So for several years, I ate nothing all day and then two dinners; one at 5-6 with my brother, and another one at 8:30-9, right before I went to bed, with my mom. The only physical activity I got was walking home from school every day the weather allowed (which was a couple of miles, but it beat the bus and at least probably kept my cholesterol and heart/blood pressure numbers in a good range based on how I was eating) and working on the weekends on my feet making fancy coffee drinks. My senior year of high school, I had actually formed a friendship alliance with 3-5 other students and really did eat lunch sometimes. And I started to put on weight. And I kept putting on weight through college and my early work life, being minimally active and eating nothing until my dinner with my brother and my second dinner later with my mom. Dinners that came mostly from pre-packaged convenience food mixed together in a casserole, but at least it wasn’t only cookies and pizza rolls, right?


When I met J, I weighed about what I do now and I looked about how I do now, give or take about 5 pounds. I put on weight early in our relationship because early dates are a lot of eating out, until I told J (truthfully) that I liked to cook, but it was weird to cook an elaborate meal for just one person; my cooking tutors were always cooking for a family or a classroom, and it was hard to scale it down. There’s no such thing as pot roast for one, really. And I was working in an office that rewarded employees with food fairly often, and ‘reward’ food is never really good for you. It’s donuts. And bagels with cream cheese. And cookies and cake and fast food/chain restaurant gift cards and burgers and hot dogs on the grill in the parking lot. So we started with grocery store dates. And a little weight came off. And then J proposed, so, like the cliched bride to be I was, I started taking Looking Good in My Wedding Dress seriously, and I lost a little more weight (I probably weighed 2-3 pounds less on my wedding day than I do now…but if you asked a personal trainer or a beauty magazine editor or maybe even a medical professional…they’d have called me overweight then, as they would now). But I was happy with myself then. My mom criticized my weight loss efforts. Because she likes to use food to control me. See, besides the double dinner years, when my mom wasn’t working (namely weekends and holidays), she went overboard with cooking. And she expected me to eat multiple helpings of whatever she made, and if I didn’t, she’d passive aggressively ask, ‘Don’t you like it?’ with a very heavily implied, ‘Don’t you love me?’ underneath. I overate at every single meal I ate with my mom since I was thirteen.

I had put on weight from eating convenience food and easily pinpointed depression after we lost our first pregnancy, so by the time I got pregnant with The Boy, I was the heaviest I’d ever been (before pregnancy weight, obviously…which was more). I got back to my pre-pregnancy weight fairly easily after The Boy was born, but I stayed there, and that was about 30 pounds more than I felt my best at (which was about the weight I was in my semester away at college…I know it’s a stereotype that people put ON weight away from home at first, but I lost…I was in control of my own eating amounts and choices and structure, and not forgoing meals to make up for other ones, and walking to several classes around campus every day). J has never called my weight out as a concern in any way (because he knows I’m physically healthy). But sometimes he notices that when my weight gets up to a certain point/my body gets looking a certain way, I seem unhappy. And it’s because of the loss of control. I felt the loss of control when The Boy stopped napping and was nearing the start of preschool. J was supportive.
‘OK. We’ll eat better. We’ll eat at home more. I’ll watch The Boy every evening so you can exercise.’ I lost all 30 pounds in 4 months and kept it off for nearly 6 years. During that time, I’d put some boundaries in place with my mom. I wouldn’t get seconds. I usually wouldn’t eat dessert. She never said words, but her facial expressions and tone of voice and body language showed me she was unhappy and resentful about it. We really only ate 1 meal a week with her, though, and J was always with me to fortify those boundaries, even though my mom painted him as a villain for doing it.

Mom: Oh, come on. You want a BROWNIE…
Me: No, Mom. I’m full. I don’t want it.
Mom: <puts brownie on my plate>
J: She said she didn’t want that.

Mom <to her coworkers; other relatives>: He doesn’t let her EAT! (PATENTLY false)

But because J was backing me up, and we didn’t see Mom often, because she was a workaholic every day she worked, it was fairly easy to maintain the boundaries.

And then my mom retired. She invites me to restaurants to eat lunch with her while The Boy was in school often, and when I turned her down, I’d get, ‘Fine. I guess you don’t want to go…’ so I’d feel bad and cave for sure the next time. Or sometimes that time. Even if I’d just eaten. And she cooks meals like the one pictured below weekly (not an exaggeration) that she expects us to attend and she still expects everyone to eat giant portions of everything she makes. “It’s just your dad and me. We don’t want a lot of leftovers…” She’s never considered just making less food.


She doesn’t make many vegetables or ‘light’ dishes. She serves salad…that she pre portions and dresses with hard cooked eggs and cheese and full fat creamy dressings…to be ‘healthy.’ She makes multiple desserts. She gets openly irritated with J and The Boy for only eating a healthy portion of the food she makes and turning down desserts. But she’s happy that for the past couple of years, I usually cave again. And I know she’s emotionally manipulating me. I KNOW she is. But it’s still hard for me to tell her no. Since my mom’s retired, I’ve put 20 of the 30 pounds I worked so hard to lose 8 years ago back on. Now, it’s time to take back control. So I can be healthy in all the ways I need, including my mental health, and body positive without feeling like a hypocrite.

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