Weighty Issues

My passion for learning new things has always given me a yen for documentary films. I’ve found several captivating documentaries over the years on HBO and I discovered another this past week when I watched The Weight of the Nation. This much-buzzed-about documentary focuses on the reality of weight in our nation, what has caused the obesity epidemic and what that can be done to combat it. The film shared tremendous insight into the disastrous lifestyle changes the U.S. has undergone over the past few decades, adopting an ever more sedentary lifestyle and a diet that has become ever more abundant, processed and heavily marketed.

This film spoke to me on many levels: as a woman who has battled with her own weight and as a parent. I’ve struggled with maintaining a steady weight since childhood so I’m always looking for perpecitve on all that I have tied up in the issue. Eating is a complex thing. We need to do it for energy, but it goes way beyond mere sustenance as we also eat for pleasure, comfort or just out of boredom.  As a child, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to understand this complexity. For many years I would beat myself up and think what’s wrong with me, why can’t I beat this? I would constantly tell myself what I could and couldn’t eat and if I ate something I wasn’t supposed to, I would mentally rake myself over the coals thinking where’s your self control? you’re an embarrassment, etc.

Thankfully as an adult a nutritionist finally challenged me on the benefit of beating myself up. “Does beating yourself up over this yield any positive results?” she asked,  “Are you losing weight as a result or feeling any better about yourself afterwards?” The answer of course was “no.” Anyone who has struggled with their weight is probably accustomed to this guilt trip but the truth is, if beating yourself worked, we’d all be thin.

Like any parent reflecting on something that’s brought her misery, I don’t want my children to go through what I went through. My husband has been naturally thin his entire life and I’ve prayed many nights that my children will inherit his metabolism (which they seem to have done thus far). My husband and I try hard to be conscientious about eating healthy food and we do a pretty good job for ourselves but there is room for improvement with the kids, a fact that hit home after watching the documentary. I sat there the next morning watching my children eat their breakfast—mini pancakes, toaster waffles and cereal—and wondering if I was doing right by them. We’ve certainly set our kids up with some good habits, we talk to our children about getting vitamins and minerals and we never have them clean their plates the way I was told to as a child; they’re only required to make a good dent in their fruits and vegetables. They also drink far less juice than they used to, we split juice intake to 50% water, 50% juice both to promote healthy teeth and to avoid excess calories.

But alas, we’re not perfect. The challenges we face in feeding our children are common and myriad. Frankly getting the kids to eat anything can be a challenge (instead of their food palate expanding it appears to be contracting). They’re more likely to eat fish sticks, chicken nuggets, popcorn shrimp or mac n’ cheese than whatever lean protein my husband and I are having.  Vegetables are our one non-negotiable, they can have input into which vegetable they prefer—peas, carrots, sweet potatoes, broccoli—but they have to have something.  Snacks are a bit easier—it’s simple enough to give them an apple of banana– but there are plenty of pitfalls here too, like the “gummy” snacks from the store that aren’t labeled as candy, but may as well be. Our youngest son goes to a daycare that is near a great bakery and we go there once a week to let the kids buy treats. They enjoy it, but is it an innocent treat, or am I reinforcing a behavior of making unhealthy choices?

As a parent there are so many questions that we face every day: are our children getting the love and attention they need from us, are their basic needs being met, are we teaching them the right things, are we preparing them for the future? The question of what we feed them hits on all of these issues. I already understood that on some subconscious level, but watching such a powerful expose brought it to the forefront of my mind.

I am definitely rethinking what my husband and I feed our children and it’s clear we need to make some changes. Nothing radical, but we’re going to work to be more mindful of what we’re feeding the kids and why. Are we feeding them what they need, or just feeding them what they want? The point isn’t to beat ourselves up over it, as I said, we know that doesn’t work. I see this as an opportunity for us to reflect, recalibrate and feel more in control about the decisions we make about food for our children and for ourselves.

It’s heavy to think about, isn’t it?

You Don’t Love Me

My son and I did some growing this past week. He did something I didn’t approve of and I could only get him to stop by threatening to take away a privilege if he didn’t. He got very upset, which caught me a little off-guard. It didn’t begin as a contentious conversation: I had spoken calmly and explained why we were having the conversation, what had happened, what needed to change going forward and why. He looked at with tears brimming at the edges of his eyes and said, “Mom, I feel like when you correct me you are saying you don’t love me.” Whoa, I thought, I did not see that coming. I could understand him getting upset that he might lose his toys or, getting upset that we were having a tense discussion but  thinking I didn’t love him? What was that about?

I took a deep breath.  I was suddenly reminded of something that had happened when I was eight years old. I had done something wrong and my punishment was to be spanked (spanking was commonplace when I was growing up) by my father. I recall getting called into my parents’ bedroom after my mom had debriefed my father on the situation. I reluctantly walked into their room and my dad was sitting in a chair by the side table. He looked like he was exhausted from work and disappointed that he now had to deal with an unruly child instead of getting to relax. I was normally a very timid child but something came over me that day and I told my father I hated him before he could even saying a word or lay a hand on me. He was shocked. “Why would you say that?” he asked to which I replied, “I know you enjoy spanking us.” Honestly, I’m not sure I even believed what I was saying, but since it was my parents’ choice to spank my sisters and I, I figured they must get some joy out of it. My father took me on his lap and said, “I don’t take any joy at all in spanking you. Do you know why your Mother and I do this?” I shook my head. He went on to explain, “We do this because we are trying to teach you a lesson. You broke a rule today, right?” I nodded my head. “And you know that if you do that it’s not acceptable, right?” I nodded my head again. “Well, your Mother and I have to do something about it, otherwise, what’s to stop you from doing it again?” This made the light bulb go on for me.  It was the first time I really understood why spankings in our house took place. It was a seminal conversation between my father and I and it changed our relationship going forward. I still ended up getting a spanking, but it was only a light tap on the behind. Honestly, that was the last time I can remember my dad spanking me. Maybe it’s simply my retroactive interpretation, but I think he knew the importance of making sure I understood what was expected of me and what would happen if I didn’t meet those expectations, it was clear we needed to communicate about what was happening and why.

Coming out of my reverie, I took another breath and told my son, “Honey, one of my jobs is to teach you things. I do this because I do care. I love you and I want you to be the best person you can be. If I didn’t care, I would let you do whatever you want whenever you wanted.” He got a big grin on his face similar to the look I must have had when the light bulb came on for me with my father. “Mom,” he said, “I love you.” “I love you too,” I said.

In the end I felt lucky to have had the opportunity for my son and I to better understand each other.

Happy Mother’s Day!

What Did You Say?

I am constantly struck by the things my six-year-old son says. It started with sayings that just seemed a little old for him to be using like an indignant What the heck? or Come on! said in the tone of an athlete being wrongly accused of a foul.  My reaction is always the same:  “What did you say?” I ask, thinking where did he learn this? Of course, I do have some idea. The next most likely explanation is that our son’s new phrases are things he’s overheard either from my husband and I or from the older children he spends time with since he started elementary school. His new sayings are harmless for the most part and provide an opportunity for my husband and me to ensure that he actually understands the meaning of the words he says. We also work to explain how others may interpret what he’s saying. Honestly, we’re never sure how much is sinking in but we figure he’ll better understand what we’re teaching him over time (and repeating ourselves more than we’d like).

The other day my son and I were walking together and he suddenly said crap. I just about fell over. Crap was considered a bad word when I was growing up. If I had said it as a child, a good soaping of the mouth, a spanking or some other form of punishment would have ensued. It was considered foul language. Funny, when we think of what acceptable language is now versus back then.  After I collected myself (which probably took a good five seconds or so) I said, “What did you say?” My son looked at me with a quizzical expression and repeated “Crap?” We talked about why this wasn’t okay to say from a parent’s prospective. I told him that his father and I want people to take him seriously when he has something to say and not to dismiss his words, and that if he used bad words like crap, people were likely to do just that. Truthfully I don’t know that I’ll ever think its okay for a six-year-old to use this kind of language, no matter what society thinks is acceptable. It might be old-fashioned, but I really want my children to understand the power of their words, how they influence the way people see them and determine whether or not people will take them seriously.

It reminds me that even as an adult I need to be mindful of my words and recognize their power and influence, not only with my children, but with my spouse, friends and co-workers.  It’s sometimes easy to forget or think that whatever we want to say is acceptable because we’re adults but really it comes down to respect, respect for others and for yourself.

It occurred to me just how true this is when I was talking to a woman whose son is in the same soccer class as mine last week. She noticed that my son was upset over losing the game (her son was on the winning team) “It looks like the coach is having a sportsmanship talk with him,” she said. “He’s used to winning, he still struggles with losing,” I said, putting my foot in it before I could even think about how that sounded. What did I just say? I thought. This woman must think I’m the braggart parent of the year—my son is used to winning, who says that? How embarrassing!  Of course, we’re all guilty of saying things we regret. Upon reflection I should have just said, “he doesn’t like to lose.” Most people don’t—it’s not that big a deal.  It reminded me to think before I speak. I sometimes say things I didn’t mean or intend, but if I can think about my words before I say them, I’ll probably get them right the first time.

Miscommunication

Our oldest son came home from school this past week with a copy of the beloved children’s book Where the Wild Things Are in tow. There was a sticky note attached to the book that let us know that our son needed to practice reading it because he would be doing a reading for citizens of a nursing home the following week.  My husband and I assumed that this meant he would be reading to an individual. We only found out afterwards that he had in fact read it to the larger group.  By wrongly assuming we had all the facts, we had missed out on our child doing his first solo performance. We felt awful! Though admittedly, I was far more disappointed in missing out on seeing how my son did than our son was.

The incident made me think about how I communicate, not only with the teacher at the school, but also with my children and my spouse. I learned an insightful lesson early in my career from my then boss who told me: when you assume you make an *ss out of u (you) and me. It’s all right there in the word itself, making the very concept of assumptions a tricky business. If I’d kept my boss’ golden rule in mind, maybe I would have asked my son the right questions and not missed his performance.

The incident got me thinking about other times I’ve wrongly assumed things. When our children were young for example, I assumed my husband and I would always magically be on the same page, that he would read my mind and automatically know the help I needed. He isn’t a mind reader though and he in turn assumed that if I need help, I would just ask. I also assumed that my efforts to be super-woman: perfect mother, working professional, housecleaner, cook, coordinator, etc—I was making everyone happy. In truth, I was taking too much on and no one was benefitting. When I finally took a closer look at how out of balance everything was, I saw the danger of this assumption.

My husband and I assumed we knew the whole story with the book reading. We should have spoken with the teacher and clarified what our son was participating in. It would have ensured that we didn’t miss out on this special event. I have to admit that it’s disappointing to know I’m still capable of these seemingly obvious mistakes as a mom, but I also realize I’m human, and that there is always the opportunity to grow.  I know I’m getting better at avoiding these situations, but realize situations like this will still come up from time to time. It would be wrong to assume anything else.