The Mother Factor
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.
Many women at my retreats 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.
If you enjoyed reading this article, I invite you to join me for my next online retreat, November 8-13, 2022.
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 my Eating Guidelines that are the basis of the journey itself. Live the life you truly want.