When I got pregnant in 2015, it seemed like absolution for everything I had done to my body. Ten years earlier, when I started college, anorexia and exercise bulimia had shriveled my body and social life, and halted my period. A long bout with bulimia nervosa followed, and my persistent desire to become a parent seemed impossibly far off.
With lots of therapy and the support of my friends and now-spouse, I walked the long road of recovery. And my body, as if to say that all was forgiven with no lasting harm was done, readily conceived and carried a child to term.
Before my kid was even born, I was determined to help them relate better to food than I had. I read books and blog posts on nutrition, feeding, and baby-led weaning as a way to compensate for my own lack of eating intuition. I bought baby food making gadgets and gizmos to make lots of “healthy” food for my child. My Pinterest board was full of recipes, meal plans, and good intentions.
But despite my best efforts, or probably because of all my frantic scrambling, I found myself with a toddler who is, in a word, picky.
More than one friend told me that parenting brings whatever issues you thought you were done with, and magnifies them a thousand times. They were right. But I couldn’t stop the rush of anxiety when my child cried and threw food on the floor, or begged for cookies instead of cauliflower. My need for control and warped ideas of “healthy” and “unhealthy,” long-dormant, came roaring back to the surface. When I found myself unable to control my child’s eating habits, and also facing a perfect storm of other life stressors, I turned back to my old frenemy: Disordered eating.
When I found myself unable to control my child’s eating habits, and also facing a perfect storm of other life stressors, I turned back to my old frenemy: Disordered eating.
I promptly packed myself off back to therapy, this time with an eating disorder specialist. We got the behaviors under control, then went to work excavating the many roots of my eating disorder. All this time, I was dishing up the same grilled cheese and PBJ sandwiches every day for my kid and (usually) managing the anxiety this limited menu triggered in me. And little by little, through learning how to model intuitive, adventurous eating for my child, I learned a few important things for my own recovery as well.
My child is not me, and I am not my child.
No matter how much physical or temperamental resemblance there may be, my kid is neither destined for the same fate as me, nor responsible for correcting my mistakes. They are not here to make me feel better about myself or my parenting. They are their own person, entitled to their own feelings, thoughts, and decisions.
I grew up with the weight of my immigrant parents’ expectations that I would live a life that would make their sacrifices worth it. But I honestly don’t believe my child owes me anything beyond the same respect and kindness I want them to show anyone else.
My child is capable and competent. So am I.
I grew up in a family system that assumed that, as a child, l didn’t know how to take care of myself. Many decisions were made for me, from what I ate, to how I dressed, to how I spent my time. Not surprisingly, I had difficulty making decisions and taking care of myself as an adult.
The Division of Responsibility (DOR), developed by Ellyn Satter, is a helpful framework for balancing power and autonomy in my relationship with my child. From the introduction of solid food through the end of adolescence, parents are responsible for what, when, and where a child eats. The child decides whether and how much to eat. The underlying assumption is even more meaningful: My child knows when he is hungry and knows how to eat.
When I follow the DOR, meal times are much more relaxed, and my kid usually eats more quantity and variety. I don’t have to hover and regulate and control, because no toddler in the history of humanity has ever willingly starved themselves. Kids eat when they’re hungry. I can eat when I’m hungry, too.
Habits and values are better drivers of change than rules and labels.
I’ve spent so much of my life trying to follow rules and recommendations for food. Carbs, calories, grams, meal plans, RDAs… It’s all very tiring to keep track of long term. I’ve learned to let a few basic principles guide our eating rather than a long list of rules.
Dina Rose’s book, It’s Not About the Broccoli, asserts that when habits of proportion, variety, moderation are present, nutrition basically takes care of itself. I’ve also learned to keep food neutral. We are not good or bad people for eating good or bad food. Even the word “healthy” is easily corrupted, so we’ve started using the terms, “growing food,” “fun food,” and “treat food.”
My kid is neither destined for the same fate as me, nor responsible for correcting my mistakes.
Food is not love, and love is not control.
Many Asian cultures greet each other with some variation of the question, “Have you eaten?” or “Are you full?” These simple words capture food’s centrality to Asian American immigrant life. For most of our ancestors, food was scarce and precious, making it a fitting proxy for love.
But in the melange of traditional Asian, immigrant, and colonized evangelical Christian culture that surrounded me as a child, love also got conflated with morality, control, and compliance. And so did food. I was scolded for not cleaning my plate, and praised for not running after the ice cream truck. Certain foods were good, and eating those foods made me a good person.
As a parent myself, I choose not to use food as a substitute for emotional availability. If my kid falls and hurts themselves, they get a hug and a magic, healing kiss, not a lollipop. Food is also not a reward for good behavior or a solution to calm tantrums. (I do offer food when I know we’ve missed a snack and my child is getting hangry.) And I try to keep food value-neutral. Eating is what we do when we’re hungry, and a way to connect with other people through sharing a basic human need. That’s all.
It’s time to parent myself.
I do not blame my parents or Asian American culture for my eating disorder. There is no single deciding factor or definitive moment where — poof — I got an eating disorder. While they weren’t perfect, my parents loved and cared for me as a child to the best of their ability.
It is neither fair nor productive to blame them for anything now that I am responsible for myself and my own family. Instead, I’ve learned how to parent myself in order to be the parent my child needs. Before I can truly give my kid the kindness, acceptance, and affirmation they need to feel safe, I have to extend that kindness, acceptance, and affirmation to myself. I may not have the easiest relationship with food, but I have worked hard to overcome my fears and problematic behaviors. And that makes me uniquely qualified to support my child in their own eating journey.
It is a ton of work to parent differently than the way I was parented, especially when I’m trying not to just swing to the other reactionary extreme. But I’m fortunate not to have to do it alone. The support of my partner, therapist, and parent friends has been critical in my own recovery and parenting journey. There’s help available through NEDA and SAMHSA.