A couple weeks ago I had a difficult conversation with my mom. I wanted to let her know about the blog I had written and was planning to post about some of the difficult events in my childhood that led to my body image issues and disordered eating patterns. I needed to explain why it was important to share my story and let her know that I love her and I know she was only doing her best. [Edited to add: After Monday’s blog went up I called my mom. I could hear the sadness in her voice. She told me it was beautifully written. She also told me that she was profoundly sad and felt that she had failed me. I assured her that she had not even come close to failing me – she did the best she could with what she knew and I never doubted that her intentions were only the best.]
After I shared what I planned to write she was very quiet. I could tell she was sad – the idea of having hurt me or having been a part of something that was such a source of pain and isolation for me – I know that breaks her heart. She told me that her perspective was a little different. She had been very sick during her pregnancy with me and worried about my health and my weight before I was even born. As she talked about her experience it struck me that her perspective is just as valuable as mine. Her story is as valid as mine. I asked if she would share her thoughts for me to put up as a part 2 to my post. Below is an open letter from my mom to me and I think my story is incomplete without it.
I want to make it very clear that my mother was never derogatory or demeaning. She didn’t call me names. She never used words like “fat” or “ugly”. I think an important part of this message is that ANY kind of constant focus and attention on food, body weight or exercise can cause obessive thoughts or behavior in a child that may follow them for years.
With that, here are some thoughts from my beautiful mother. Thank you mom for being so open. I love you!
(The top picture is probably 8 or 9 years old. The bottom picture was taken last night. We laughed so hard…this picture captured our expressions as my cousin, who was taking the picture, said “I’m going to focus on Betsy [my nickname], the young, pretty one”. The expressions are priceless but I’ll have to disagree with Chris. My mom is definitely the pretty one!)
Elizabeth: Why were you concerned about my weight? I was a really healthy kid.
Mom: I knew that life was socially harder for an overweight child and as your mother, I want to do everything I can to shield you from pain of any kind. I also knew that eventually the excess weight would harm your health. Your health was definitely the secondary reason because you were extremely healthy – you never had ear infections or throat infections like all the other children your age. I also felt responsible for your weight issues because of my difficult pregnancy. As you know, I lost significant weight during my pregnancy and the doctors often warned me to expect a very underweight baby. Instead you were a beautiful, healthy baby! And as your mother, I felt it was my responsibility to keep you healthy and happy.
Elizabeth: Did you ever fear that you were creating or reinforcing insecurities and encouraging me to hide my eating?
Mom: Yes, all the time. I knew that I was failing you all the time. I felt lost. I felt powerless.
Elizabeth: When we talked about this on the phone, you mentioned your own personal pride. That’s not something you’ve ever mentioned before. What role did pride play in the way you addressed my weight?
Mom: I have not really thought about pride influencing my actions until recently when we talked about this weight journey. In reflecting on it, pride influences most of what I do. I take pride in my career and see it as a reflection of my worth. I take pride in my own appearance and always want to look good. I take pride in my family and am genuinely proud of everyone in my family. Specific to you, Betsy [my family calls me Betsy]…I was and still am, extremely proud of you. I talk to people, and always have, about who you are as a person and about your accomplishments – your singing and stage presence from an early age, your volunteering during high school and for Girls on the Run, your accomplishments with languages that brought you to Rome, your care for the poor when we went to Africa, your professional accomplishments in your career since college, your ability to fend for yourself, e.g. while at UNC getting money for food and getting to keep it in the cafeteria refrigerator, and on and on. And pride entered into the equation probably during your high school and college years because I never asked for help or talked to anyone (friends or family) about my concerns about your weight. It wasn’t that I was consciously afraid to ask for help but reflecting back, I think pride must have entered into it. I like people to think I have it all together and to my family, I want to be strong and in control. But it was never about not being proud of you, Betsy. You have always been such an achiever and such a beautiful soul from the beginning!
Elizabeth: If you could go back, would you change anything?
Mom: If I could go back….that is a question that fills me with tears! Maybe every mother feels the same way! There are million things I would do differently – and there are a million things that I would repeat.
We were an active family and we had a focus on healthy eating. From my perspective, you and Debi ate pretty much the same way and were equally active. Debi was thin and you were not. So I started to worry when you went to school. If I could go back in time, I would simply let it go and not worry. I do remember talking to your pediatrician about your weight when you were headed to school and he said not to worry because you were very healthy. I would just take his advice and let it go.
I would just let go of the worry and enjoy you without concern for what I perceived would be struggles in the future. There is so much more to this journey…your journey and my journey…that we cannot do it justice with just a few simple answers to a few simple questions. I look forward to sharing more of our stories so that we can help other families and help others to begin talking about these issues and getting help.