When my son Matthew was two weeks old, my husband returned to work, my mother flew back home, and I was on my own with a colicky baby who screamed for hours. I paced the living room singing softly to Matthew, caressing his little bald head. Nothing I did seemed to help.
As if it sensed my distress, the pantry beckoned. As if on cue, I answered, and a feeding frenzy commenced. “Please, Matthew,” I whispered in between mouthfuls, “don’t grow up to be like this. Please.”
My husband Mike knew I struggled with my weight, but he had no idea how completely food ran my life, how quickly I succumbed to the power of a cookie, how often I binged alone in my car. My binge eating was a secret affair.
When Matthew was a few years older, I attended Overeaters Anonymous meetings without telling Mike. I couldn’t find a group that felt comfortable for me, so I sought out workshops on mindful eating and found a women’s support group. Then I got myself into individual counseling.
It would be years before I understood why I binged—to stuff down the anger I had been taught as a little girl was unacceptable to voice. At least that’s how it started. Then bingeing became my default and I turned to it when I was sad, bored, stressed, even happy.
Sometimes bingeing was a crutch to get me through hard times. When Matthew was 11, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The hospital where he received his care had a bakery cafe in the lobby, and their doughnuts and pastries were life savers. When Mike wasn’t looking, I also bought a jumbo oatmeal cookie and hid it in my purse. If I came down to the cafe by myself, I might stuff a chocolate bar in my mouth before heading back up. It’s how I survived the ordeal, giving me the strength to help Matthew survive, too.
I binged in secret, confident Matthew and my younger son Stephen never witnessed my transgressions from our otherwise healthy family meals. Although I couldn’t always control my eating, I knew I had to protect them from my destructive behaviors and the damaging messages around eating and body image that permeate society. I didn’t plan my approach; it was more like a visceral response to dangers that lurk.
Here are the steps I took:
I avoided using the word “diet,” except in the context of a “healthy diet.” When I cheated, I never said aloud that I was “bad,” although I felt it. I didn’t want my sons to grow up believing any food was inherently good or bad; I wanted them to see moderation as the goal.
I never complained about my weight or body flaws in front of my sons, nor did I pass judgment about people’s body sizes or shapes. On the rare occasion I asked Mike if an outfit made me look fat, I made sure my sons weren’t around.
I didn’t allow fashion magazines that glorify stick-figure models in my home. In fact, when Matthew entered puberty, I bought him a book illustrated with many types of bodies. Fat, skinny, tall, short, wheelchair-bound. Perky or voluptuous or sagging breasts. Little penises, big penises. White and black and brown, old and young, every body beautiful in their own way.
About ten years into our marriage, I finally disclosed my bingeing to Mike, but I still never talked to Matthew and Stephen. As they grew and began to make their own food choices, I observed them saying no to second helpings and I noticed that cookies and snacks stayed in our pantry. When Matthew began to date, he brought home girlfriends of all sizes. Maybe I should have told my sons about my eating disorder when they were young. I don’t like family secrets, but maybe mine worked.
My boys didn’t know about my problems with food until they were adults. I’d completed a memoir about my challenging motherhood and wanted them to see what I wrote. With a big gulp, I gave them each the manuscript. I don’t recall a specific conversation, but they both expressed concern and support about my binge eating. To my relief, neither had suspected a thing.
Deep in manuscript revisions a few years later, I asked Matthew, 33, what messages I’d passed on about eating when he was little. Without missing a beat, he said, “You told me to listen to my body.”
My heart leaped with joy. I made mistakes as a mother—we all do—but passing down my eating disorder wasn’t one of them. As I had whispered to Matthew so many years ago, he didn’t grow up to be like this.