For most of my adult life, I have felt like I needed to protect my parents in the eyes of my adult friends. My parents were not bad parents, but they did start having children quite young – they were married and had my oldest sister in their early 20s, and even by the time I came along as their fourth child (third surviving) six years later, they had not had much of an opportunity to grow up and be functional adults in their own right. They are both highly responsible people, they are socially supportive and make ethical decisions.Both of my parents are highly intelligent, very driven, and well read. However, they remain heavily entrenched in the biases of their youth, I think because neither of them ever really had the opportunity to settle down and get to know themselves as an adult – they went straight from late teens to married and multiple children, mortgage, etc.
For the most part I was set up reasonably well: I was taught how to think critically, to express myself clearly and be able to support any decisions I made with solid logical reasoning (woe betide the child who took an action and couldn’t explain the logic behind it later). Growing up without a television, I learned to love reading, and to occupy myself with other activities – gardening, crafts, cycling, piano, hiking, etc. Although looking back I recognize that with five children and one income, they were managing the household on a shoestring budget, they never made us feel the pressure of poverty, they managed their finances well.
My parents were not terribly affectionate, and don’t really recognize mental illness/emotional issues. My Dad lost his mother when he was 12, and I think it stunted him a bit, not the least because his father headed straight back to the old country to find a replacement wife to raise the five children, instead of looking after them. This left my father, the oldest of the five, to figure out his grief alone. He didn’t get along with his stepmother, and I doubt he was every fully able to grieve his own mother. Dad has some anger issues which have mellowed with age, but still exist. Mostly he controlled them, and does, but they did come out in interesting ways, and we all learned to be careful and read his moods before we acted. My Mother was raised in a very straight laced Anglican household, and as she has spent the last 37 years at home raising her children and running her own business out of the house, she is quite out of touch with current issues and perspective.
I am very introverted and tend to be sensitive to the emotions of those around me – kind of excessively empathetic. I learned very young to read a room and adjust my behaviours accordingly – to be a “good” kid. I have always tended to use food to replace attention/affection and as a source of comfort. I used to raid the storage room for anything I could find and secret it in my room so I could eat when no-one was watching. By the time I was a pre-teen, I was chubby. Unlike my older sisters who had both stayed reasonably lean as they entered puberty, I was round. Looking back at pictures, I look like a normal kid, but at the time my parents, and I by proxy, believed I was fat.
Since that point there has been an ongoing diatribe about my weight from my parents. The things that stand out most in my memory are the forced marches – literally being pushed down the road by my Dad while bawling my eyes out. I remember realizing even while I was crying that it would be mortifying, both for my parents and for me, if anyone saw me so upset, and trying to get myself under control. My memories around this stuff are pretty fuzzy – I don’t know if that it because I’ve tried to push them aside so often that they’ve grown fuzzy, or if there was just enough going on that I didn’t form clear memories. My older sister told me a few years ago that she remembers Mum witholding food from me at dinner time to prevent me from overeating. Mostly I just remember being constantly told that I was too fat, and thus not good enough. And I remember withdrawing. Looking through the photos from my childhood now, there’s a funny trend in the photos of my birthdays – up until I was 11 or so, they portray a gleeful child ready to make the first cut into her cake. At my 12th birthday, there’s just a photo of me looking at the cake with misgivings.
For me, especially without the influence of television or much in the way of social media, it was not society that influenced my sense of self worth or how my body fit into the norm, it was my parents. And I didn’t measure up to their standard. And in my adolescent head, it was clearly my fault and there was something wrong with me. In my early teens, as I got more interested in the social aspect of school and started paying attention to my peers, I recognized that bodies like that of a 16 year old Britney Spears were the ideal for the boys I liked. I started walking the 6 Km to school and eating as little as I could manage, and when I was 14 I lost ~40lbs and got my weight down to 132lbs – a “normal” “healthy” weight according to the standards as I understood them. I only stopped trying to lose weight when my hair started to fall out. I was semi amenorrheic, but I had achieved something that garnered approval from my parents. Given the amount of stress I put on my mid-pubertal body, I wonder to this day if that act, the malnutrition through puberty, had an effect on my current infertility. My parents were gloriously proud of me for having gotten my weight into a range they deemed healthy, and apparently blissfully unaware of the negative behaviours I was engaging in to get to that point.
I wasn’t able to maintain the habits that allowed my body to stay at that weight. As my own interest in health and wellness increased, I realized the potential damage I was doing to myself. I remember one teacher in high school trying to take me aside and talk to me, and rebuffing her – something I feel bad for now, because in retrospect I realize she was trying to help. As I formed positive social connections, and started to like myself for who I am, I placed less emphasis on my physical appearance. With that transition, I gradually started putting weight back on. I also started taking the pill, which messed with my hormones and caused some weight gain as well. Over the next several years, after a couple of nasty knee injuries that prevented me from being as active as I would have liked, I gained all the weight I had lost back and more. Mum and Dad have never been shy about telling me what they think about my weight, and how unacceptable it is.
In my early 20s, after years of disordered eating habits, I started to make focused effort to gain control over my tendency to binge and starve myself, and to work on the mental processes that led to those behaviours. I made a few overtures to discuss my teenage eating habits with my parents, and they denied that I had ever been anorexic. I supposed there are a couple of reasons why – they saw the results and liked them, and recognizing that the weight loss was the result of something so unhealthy didn’t fit with their world view. Also, my parents, despite both being within health weight ranges, don’t have the best body image or eating habits of their own, which made my disordered eating look less unreasonable. After the first few denials I stopped trying to talk to them about what had been, and focussed on what I needed to do for myself. Over the last decade, I learned to set clear boundaries of what I would discuss with them, when. I limit my face to face contact with my parents to tightly controlled short periods of time, ideally with a buffer zone, and always with an exit strategy if conversation topics verge into dangerous territory. Mostly I just talk to them on the phone, where it is easy to end the conversation. And I had honestly started to believe that they had stopped placing so much of my value in their eyes on my weight.
On April 21st, I met with a plastic surgeon. Because of my chronic neck and shoulder pain, I am lucky enough that a breast reduction surgery is covered by the medical system. Sometime later this year, my 36H breasts will be operated on, and I’ll hopefully be down to a much more manageable size – apparently upwards of 2 lbs of tissue will be removed from each side. That evening Mum called wanting an update and details. I went over the plan, and the basic risks associated with the procedure. I was in the middle of completing an assignment and wasn’t really focussed on the phone call. Her first question: “Will you being hefty have an impact on the surgery?” I told her I wasn’t going to dignify that with a response, that I’d already gone over the risks with her as the surgeon had with me. I should interject here that I had been very worried about the reaction of the Surgeon to my weight, and had been gratified that they looked at me as a whole, not just my BMI, when they determined if they were willing to operate on me or not. So Mum’s comments were… poorly timed, to say the least. once she huffed about her question being completely legitimate in her view, she followed it up with “Well you know you won’t be able to breast feed.” …
“That’s kind of a moot point for me, Mum.”
“Well, you never know!”
“Mum, if [My Husband] and I can accept that we won’t have kids, you and Dad need to accept that too.”
“No, you never know!”
“Ok, fine Mum, I need to get back to my assignment.”
End of conversation. Leave it to my mother to hit the two biggest sore spots in my world head on.
The next week I got a message from her asking if I was still mad. I called her back and pointed out that it wasn’t about being mad, it was about having set clear boundaries with her regarding her need to talk to me about my weight, and her continually breaching them. She tried to write it off, first as a health thing – which I pointed out was bullshit, I am very healthy, then as a Mum thing – which I pointed out was not respecting my boundaries, and again, was a load of crap. After a few minutes of back and forth I snapped and pointed out that her constant badgering me about my weight had led to my lousy body image and eating disorder, and she went completely on the defensive –
“you didn’t have an eating disorder, I put food on the table and you ate it, you were fine!”
“Eating two apples and a salad without dressing a day is not normal, Mum.”
“I have no problem with that, you weren’t doing that, …. denial, denial, denial…”
I gave up, acknowledged that we clearly didn’t remember it the same way, and pointed out that that didn’t matter anyways, what mattered is that I had told her explicitly that she was not welcome to comment on my body, and she was not respecting my boundaries, and that if she continued to disrespect them, I wouldn’t be interacting with her. The conversation digressed into idle chit chat and ended.
That evening I got an email:
“Somedays I feel like a really crappy mum. This is one of them.
I’m sorry to have hurt your feelings and said things that are not mine to say.
I’m sorry if you had a rough childhood and felt unsupported and unloved.
I’m sorry I was and likely still am an amateur at the job of parenting.”
My mother is the reigning queen of the guilt trip. I had had a few glasses of wine by the time I got that email, and didn’t think calling her right away was a good plan, so I left it until the next day. Basically, I called her, told her that it wasn’t about having a rough childhood, it was simply that I needed her to respect my clear boundaries, and reiterated what they were. I left it at that and have not spoken to her since.
In some ways, it is a relief that this happened. I had started to convince myself that my perception of the events of my preteen and teenage years were overwrought and clouded by my puberty struck brain. It is valuable to know that I don’t misremember what Mum is like, and I suppose it is good to know that it hasn’t changed much.
So this goes back to the need to protect my parents. I don’t think they’re terrible. I love them. I know that they love me, and that even in a really misguided and bizarre way, their ongoing badgering about weight comes from a place of caring. I also had honestly started to believe that they had changed, and I don’t think it’s fair to expect people to be judged for their previous actions for the rest of their lives. So for years I have avoided talking about that aspect of my relationship with my parents, choosing instead to focus on the positive, or just not talk about them at all. I felt that this allowed them to make their own impressions and let the chips fall as they may. I don’t know that I feel more like talking about this publicly than I did before, but I feel less like I need to hide it for their sakes.
I am pleased that this whole thing hasn’t sent me back into a tailspin of depression. I am sad that I recognize some ongoing toxicity in my relationship with my parents that doesn’t seem likely to change.