The Mother Factor

by Geneen Roth

Kate and her mother spent years dieting together. They joined Weight Watchers, went on Atkins, tried the Master Cleanse together. They suffered together over the size of their thighs. But six months ago, after Kate came to one of my retreats, she decided that she didn't want to diet anymore, didn't want to punish or deprive herself. She didn't want to bond with her mother through suffering about her weight. Now she's lost 25 pounds – and she's afraid she's going to lose her mother.

"I feel like I have to choose between having the life and the weight I want and having my mom," Kate said.

"It's an impossible choice," I said. "And I don't believe you need to make the choice you think you do." It's not your real mother you need to let go of when you choose a different kind of life. It's the mother in your head.

I hear from many women who tell me that, after a great deal of introspection, they've finally realized what's been keeping them from losing weight. It's the previously unconscious belief that to do so would mean being disloyal to their mothers. If unhappiness about weight has become their strongest mother-daughter bond, choosing another path makes them feel as if they're abandoning their mothers. "I can't be happier than my mother," they say. "If I am, she might not love me anymore." Women whose mothers have died tell me that they struggle with the feeling that if they lose weight, if they allow themselves to have the kind of life their mother wanted but never had, they'll be betraying her memory. I've also heard similar things from women whose mothers have no weight problem at all. They realize that they've stayed heavy because of the unexamined belief that they aren’t suppose to compete with, and certainly shouldn't surpass, their mothers by being attractive.

My mother and I, like Kate and her mother, went on diet pills and lamented about our thighs together. Our weight battle was something important we had in common. And when, at the age of 28, I let go of dieting, I also had to, in a way, let go of my mother. Not the one who was living in a house on Olive Street, its kitchen aglow with yellow-flowered wallpaper. I had to let go of the mother who lived in my mind, the one from a long time before. Because by the time I finally stopped dieting, my mother was happily remarried and no longer struggling with her weight. The mother I was leaving was the one from my childhood, the one with whom I had shared an unhealthy relationship with food, the one who was still installed in my mind.

Back when I was a girl zinging up and down the scale by 10 pounds every few weeks, if I could have articulated the unspoken rules for my relationship with my mother, I would have said it was important that I keep my happiness, my joy, my enthusiasm, contained – and constantly struggling with my weight was the way I accomplished that. Why? Because during the years I was living with my mother, she was unhappy, depressed, and lonely. In my child’s mind, loving my mother and making her happy meant making myself as unhappy as (I imagined) she was.

She never asked me to do that. She never said, “It’s not okay for you to be happy. It’s not okay for you to be thin. It’s not okay for you to be powerful.” Children are so exquisitely empathetic and tuned in to their parents’ inner lives that they will do anything they believe make them happy. And because children also blame themselves for the pain they see and feel around them, they assume that if they change their own feelings or behavior or body size, they can take away their parents’ pain.

But we are no longer children, and if we want a healthy relationship with our bodies, our children, and our parents, it’s important that we question our long-held beliefs. Otherwise they’ll continue playing and replaying themselves in the same form they always have. As long as we believe that we have to make a choice between losing weight and keeping our mothers, we can’t help but choose our mothers. None of us wants to lose the first love we ever experienced, the first face we ever saw.

Challenging old beliefs will likely be illuminating. When I started to feel better about my body and my relationship with food, it was so apparent that my mother was happy for me that I could no longer hang on to my old assumptions. Not all mothers will respond in that way; some may feel threatened or hurt. But you must take this step for your own sake, even if it puts some temporary distance between you and your mother until you reach other common ground.

After Kate told me about her concerns, I recommended that she tell her mother the truth. “But what would I say?” she asked. I suggested three sentences:

“I am afraid that if I lose weight, you won’t love me anymore.” “I am afraid that our closeness is based on struggling together.”
“Is that true, Mom?”

I heard from Kate after she’d had The Conversation. “You won’t believe what happened,” she wrote. “My mother said it broke her heart that I believed that. She said more than anything, she wants me to be happy. She wants me to stop suffering about my weight. And she said the fact that I’ve found a way through this obsession gives her courage and makes her feel that she can do it, too.”

For any of us to live our own lives (and discover the weight our bodies find most natural), we have to question the connections we’re making between staying loyal to our mothers (the mothers in our minds) and the size of our bodies now. The relationships with food and with mother are intricately connected. And it’s possible to have unencumbered relationships with both, even if your mother is no longer alive. It’s never too late to change.

You might consider having the conversation with your mother that Kate had with hers. If not, or if your mother is no longer living, you can still ask yourself what you believe about your weight and your mother’s love. Ask yourself if you believe that having a big, illuminated, joyful life would threaten your mother in any way. Imagine her standing in front of you; imagine yourself as powerful as you know, in your heart, you are. Ask yourself if there’s anything uncomfortable about being this powerful, this gorgeous, in front of your mother. And if there is, know that this discomfort comes from an old belief. When you’re an adult, the size of your body – and your happiness – is up to you, not your mother.

Let yourself be the weight your body wants to be. Be happy. Be illuminated. Isn’t that what any mother truly wants for her child?


If you enjoyed reading this article, I invite you to join me at my next workshop, March 11 and 12, 2016, in Redwood City, California.

No matter how sophisticated, wise, or enlightened you believe you are, how you eat tells all. If you want to understand and change your beliefs about abundance, scarcity, deprivation, relaxation, kindness, and what you deserve to give yourself, the world is on your plate.

End your struggle. In this workshop, you will learn the tools of inquiry, body-sensing, meditation, and Geneen's Eating Guidelines that are the basis of the journey itself. Live the life you truly want.


18 responses to “The Mother Factor

  1. This is the loveliest and most loving and succinct exploration of what has, in the past and perhaps still, been a core and deeply unconscious motivation for me to self-suppress, -oppress, -deny, -repudiate, -compromise, etc, etc, etc! Only now, after years of claiming some freedom and joy and pleasure in my own being can I read and hold this pattern in awareness and so begin to dissolve its power and the wall it creates to a knowing, in my body-soul, the love of the pretty young girl who bore me. Thank you. Deborah

  2. As always, your blog hit the nail on the head. Wow. This is truly life changing stuff. And I have a sneaking suspision that the loyalty-towards-mom-factor also have a big a big impact on my relationshp with money and other things in life. Thank you for opening up for these realisations to happen! You rock, Geneen! 🙂

  3. The tears are sliding down… I had never made this connection. My mother and I excitedly visited the bakery after any “A” on a paper or a test after school! Any reason to celebrate with food was a reason to celebrate. Yet as we both grew older and myself into adulthood m, my mother continually reminded me, “Julie, don’t be like me, if you’re fat, you’ll hate yourself”.
    Wow! I never out this connection together. My mother died when I was 26 and j am now 47. I had struggled with self worth, weight and just being comfortable in my own skin. I first “met” you Genern through IIN as I was a student there two years ago. After going through that schooling, I did learn how to make healthier choices but after time I would slip back into old habits. Going for the sweets (and too many) to celebrate or if some uncomfortable feelings were occurring was my go to!
    I am probabky about 10 pounds more than my body feels best at currently. I see patterns that I have when it comes to eating and the lack of self control once I open a bag. I always wondered why I couldn’t just have a few bites instead of half the bag? I know I have emotional connections with food that need to be broken. Any suggestion?

  4. Thank you for this insightful article, Geneen. This article helped me to uncover and release one of the hidden motivations that has kept me overweight since the age of 9 when we moved and I was alone indoors more with my mother. I never realized how much my struggle with weight had to do with this issue until tears started to roll down my face as I read it and felt it resonate deeply inside. Blessings.

  5. I wish I’d read this forty years ago. My mother has been dead for thirty, and I have mostly abandoned my belief that being close to her means never being happy about my weight or, really, about my life. Even after years of therapy, the thing that finally pushed that belief out of my head was to think for a minute about how much I want my children to be as happy and powerful and gorgeous. I know my mother wanted the same. I also know she blamed herself for my weight problems – wish I had found a way to take that away for her.

    Thanks for your wisdom.

  6. Wow – I never saw a connection between my obsession with weight and my relationship with my Mum. But reading this it’s abundantly clear. She never had a weight issue – but I can totally relate to wanting to keep myself small and limited and unhappy so that I don’t make her feel bad for not shinning herself. She is a very lonely person who never quite learned to fully express herself or find her own true personal power. I’ve always felt discomfort in being powerful or expressing my happiness around her. My mother is still alive but her mind is losing it’s grip on reality, which means having a conversation with her is not possible. But I can take on being fully alive and shinning in her presence while she is still alive. The very idea of that feels incredibly liberating. Thank you so much Geenen, you are a gem. Please keep doing the work you do, it’s making the world better – at least it is making my world better. Love, Emma

  7. Thank you Geneen. This is some deep stuff! My mother was a concert cellist who lost her ability to play when she developed Rheumatoid Arthritis in 1947 when I was five years old. Her unhappiness, anger and sadness infiltrated my whole childhood. It’s time to look at the effects of that again. At 73 I still struggle with weight and body image. Your article is an excellent one for me today. Thank you.

  8. Yes! To all of it. As I sit in the waiting room of a cancer center waiting for my mom to come out from a sonogram I read the article & the comments and feel great comfort in knowing that my experience with my mom and our emeshmant round food, weight, and body obsession is not unique. Nearly 7 years into recovery from drug addiction, my food issues and the insanity around weight is is in full swing & truly exhausting. Part of my addiction to pills was also a facet of my unhealthy relationship with my mom. As I saw it, we shared the taking, borrowing, and bartering of pills as tokens of love. I broke free of that manifestation of the emeshmant and it was very difficult. But the food/weight… THOSE are my core issues. THOSE are the issues that continue to weave the relationship that I do have left with my mom. I know that and feel hopeless that it will ever change. But know that if it doesn’t I will be forever imprisoned my this destructive way of life.

  9. I too relate to this as I practice mindful/intuitive eating behaviors once again at 64years old. My mother died almost 30 yrs ago and I just keep learning more things I can empathize with her now that I wish I could have done when she was still alive. Thank you, Geneen for expressing it so clearly.

  10. My mother is no longer living…the issue that I have (had) with my mother is that she couched her weight comments with this: “I just think you’d be happier if you were thin”. So her desire for me to be happy has always been tied into her wanting me to weigh what she thought I should weigh and it was always less than I weighed. Now, at 54 I just keep getting bigger and unhappier about it. I thought I was happy, until she told me I wasn’t. .

  11. Great piece as usual, but I have one criticism. I doubt Geneen did this intentionally, but when she articulates what her mother did not say as “‘…It’s not okay for you to be thin. It’s not okay for you to be powerful,’” she implies that power comes from being thin. This seems antithetical to the core of Geneen’s message and potentially triggering/harmful to some girls and women.

    Geneen, if you read this, please consider editing this part of the essay. Thanks!

    1. To Sophia: No, it doesn’t…that is, [“imply that power comes form being thin”]. Maybe if you re-read the paragraph enough times, you’ll see it as Geneen intended for it to be understood.

  12. Thank you, and God bless you, Geneen, for reinforcing throughout this empowering and empathic article, that toxic symbiosis is not synonymous with loyalty. Self-caring behaviors and self-loving thoughts are what any healthy mother would want for her child. It is our responsibility and right,as adult children, to learn to be our own best friend–in thought and behavior, regardless of our past. Thank you for being a part of our doing that. Wishing you a delightful holiday season.

  13. Great article, so insightful not just about weight but also in about ambition. My mother is a bulimic, so I became a bulimic (recovered) – she is a miserable and hurtful person – although I have not spoken to her in years, her voice is still inside me criticizing me, competing with me (I am more beautiful than you) she was fond of saying, choosing only to love me when I was hurt, sad and as weak as her. After years of therapy, I received a new kind of “mothering” that helped me see myself differently and understand that my bulimia (and also compulstive eating) was taught to me and not my fault. That was a big relief. I rely on Geneen to make these big connections and for her incredible wisdom about binging. It is not about the food but so much more.

  14. When my mother was dying, 30 years ago, I told her I was going to Weight Watchers because it made her happy to think I was on a diet. If I only weighed what I weighed then! My mother was so obsessed with weight–mine, hers, and my little brother’s–that if I gained five pounds she would punish me by not buying me clothes. I was born on a diet. She pitted my brother and I against each other in weight-loss competitions. I can remember passing out in school because I was eating 400 or 500 calories a day.
    By the time my mother died, I fit into a beautiful black designer dress of hers and wore it to her funeral. I had been so sick and stressed out that the nightly vomiting did the trick, even without Weight Watchers. I knew she would be proud that I looked good at her funeral.
    And now when I look back and photos and think back about what I weighed, I realize I was never really overweight–not what I think of as overweight now.
    My mother has been dead for years, but she is still inside my head telling me to starve myself! And I’ve lost the weight and gained it back so many times that I am really quite obese now. I want it to end. I wish I could talk to her about this. Reading what Geneen says makes me feel like I AM talking to my mother. And from somewhere, I hear a little voice saying, “I’m sorry you thought that. I just want you to be happy.”

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