Confronting Fat Phobia

I don’t want my daughter to inherit what I used to call “food issues”. I now know those food issues are more honestly called Fat Phobia. Despite all the thinking and reading I have done about body acceptance/neutrality over the last five years or so, I’ve only started working to eradicate my deep, visceral fear of gaining weight and getting fat. 

I used to think I could side-step the fat phobia work by refocusing my mental energy on intuitive eating, or exercise for muscle tone, or by repeating a mantra with a clenched fake smile: “This is just how my body is, and that’s A-OK.” 

The Fake It Til You Make It approach hasn’t worked. It turns out, shame and fear aren’t very effective for transformation. Looking at the problem honestly is crucial, and I’ve avoided that step for decades. I recognize now, finally, that I don’t just fear becoming fat. I fear fat people. 

My fat phobia doesn’t just impact me and now my daughter. It bleeds into the world and stains my interactions and relationships with people of all sizes. The way I silently compare myself to other women. My envy of slim people. The fear that sizzles on my skin when I see a person with a large body.

This is the ugly root of diet culture, isn’t it? We’re not talking about this. I am certainly not admitting out loud to anyone that I’m afraid of fat – my own or anyone else’s. No, no, I’m concerned for my HEALTH, you see. I want to be HEALTHY. I want to live a long, disease free life. I don’t want to get diabetes or heart disease or cancer. The health anxiety is real, too. It’s all pureed together with my fat phobia, orthorexia, classism, racism, ableism, internalized sexism. All of it. 

In the last 10 years or so, two of my friends have confronted me about my fat phobia and how it has hurt them, and impacted our relationship. 

“It feels like you think that if you just talk enough crap about your own weight, or complain enough about your body, or talk enough about your diet to me, that your fat phobia will somehow rub off on me and I’ll start dieting and lose weight. That’s not how it works. And it sucks that you would think that.” 

Another friend said; “I do think you care about me, but it’s obvious that my body repulses you, and you pity me.”

Both of these comments occurred in context, not out of the blue. Neither friend just blurted out “You are an asshole and a bad friend”, though they would have been correct if they had. Both times, I sputtered for any kind of response. I admitted that they were right and apologized, and both times they offered me more grace than I deserved. Miraculously, I am still friends with these amazing humans. I’m humbled and thankful that they would confront me with the truth and give me an opportunity to repent and repair. But even with the fresh smack of being confronted with my own ugliness, I’m still working on my fat phobia ten years later. 

This is my continual, daily work. If I don’t tackle my fat phobia, I will reinforce society’s utter disdain for fat people to my daughter. 

This morning, I read an essay by Kimberly Dark called Taking the Shame Out of Fat Shaming. She describes an incident in which a 5 year old called her fat. Her reply:

“Hey, Taylor, did you just call me fat?” And he turned to me, with a little bit of fear on his face because, whoa, this isn’t how it’s supposed to go. I was also speaking at full volume, for the other diners to hear. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being called fat, because it’s not bad to be fat. But you know what? Some people think that’s an insult word, so maybe you shouldn’t go calling someone fat. Better wait until you hear people call themselves fat. Then you know they’re OK with it, and then you can use that word too. Otherwise, you might hurt someone’s feelings. You’re not hurting my feelings, though. Fat is just one of the ways bodies can be. So what?”

It’s not bad to be fat. Fat is just one way bodies can be. So what?

I used to think that if I could just get out ahead of the judgement I was sure others were silently rendering against me and call myself fat, or to talk endlessly of dieting or my great intentions for weight loss, I could prevent other people from judging my body or the food on my plate. Beat them at their own game. “You don’t need to worry that I don’t know I’m fat. I know! I’m working on it! Of course, I hate being this way and will eat the requisite kale and run the prescribed miles to make amends.” I wasn’t taking the shame out of fat-shaming. I was fat-shaming myself.

Radical self-love that spills out into the world and extends to all people in all bodies is the goal. (I haven’t yet read The Body is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor, but it’s next on my list. Check out this excerpt from her book.) Radical self-love sounds amazing! Freedom and compassion! Yay! It is true for me, and maybe for you, that the judgement and fear we knit up into our own body image are thrown back into the world as judgement and fear of other people’s bodies. 

Photo by Monstera on Pexels.com

This is the whole sticky bit of “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” If you don’t have a lot of love for yourself, do you have any love for your neighbor? We are showing our neighbors exactly as much love as we love ourselves, which is to say, not much. We don’t have enough compassion for our bodies to have compassion for anyone else’s. And hey, devoting loads of time and energy to worrying about how I look and what I eat or weigh is sucking up time and energy I could be devoting to literally anything else. 

Of course, I cannot find the quote now, but there’s a famous soundbite floating around out there that reminds us that diets are a tool of the patriarchy. “If we can just keep women obsessed with becoming smaller, they won’t have any time or energy left to overthrow the patriarchy!” There are dozens of essays on diet culture and capitalism, diet culture and the patriarchy, diet culture and racism. These aren’t new ideas, but they have taken some time to reorder my understanding of the world. For most of my life, the equation has been fat = bad, small = good. Even as I type that, I realize it is bullshit.   

And yet. 

I read it, I try to internalize it, and then the thorny vines of fear wrap around my ankles and drag me back down into a pit where I poke my love handles and twitch nervously as I stare down the date of my next routine colonoscopy (every three years for we, the high-risk group for colon cancer). And I think of my friends who have had really big improvements to their quality of life (not needing insulin for Type 2 Diabetes, big reduction in knee and back pain, greater mobility, lower blood pressure) from losing weight. I don’t have any of those conditions, but am constantly bombarded with the urgency to “maintain a healthy weight” to cure or prevent everything from snoring to dementia. 

So here I am, jackhammering away at my fat phobia in a world obsessed with size. A world where people make billions of dollars convincing us that the key to happiness and health is a small body. These days, I feel less fear and more conflict. I can confidently flip my middle finger to the Large Bodies are Bad and Harmful messaging (while trying to give grace to the messengers), but still break out into hives every time I fail to zip a favorite dress. 

If you are looking for answers or some secret sauce, I’m afraid I have neither. Thanks for processing this along with me. We can hold each other up with radical self-and-other love as the goal.

Ovaries

When I’m lying flat, stretched out like a starfish on our king sized bed at night and trying to fall asleep in the cool dim of my bedroom, I imagine I can hear my ovaries crusting over, disintegrating, and blowing in a puff of breeze into the night sky. 

I beg my body for just a little more time. One more month. Maybe three. I’ll do the fertility yoga. I’ll drink the fertili-tea. I’ll get the acupuncture. I’ll take the acrid herbal “uterine health” capsules and pour the rest of my cold brew down the drain. 

At 43, I know that the pregnancy ship has almost certainly sailed. Part of me thinks I could swim out and catch it if I just tried a little harder. I could do the special diet and the supplements of dubious origin. I could lay face down on a table every week and get embroidered with acupuncture needles. I could get up every morning while my family sleeps and do the Yoga for Fertility DVDs. I could take my temperature before rolling out of bed each day and skim my cervix for “egg white consistency” mucus a few times each month. I could probably even get my husband on board with cringy, unsexy, hyper-scheduled sex. I did all of those things and more to conjure forth my daughter. I could do it again.

Photo by Alexander Grigorian on Pexels.com

I don’t really need to entertain this To Do list. The helpfully depressing charts and graphs on every fertility related website all tell me that at 43, I have a 10% chance of conceiving with my own eggs in any given month, and a 50% chance of miscarriage even if I do manage to find one good egg to meet up with one stalwart sperm. IVF at 43 offers similarly low odds of success. My chances are very, very slim. But my grandmother gave birth to her sixth baby when she was 44, so, for the record, geriatric pregnancy is not unprecedented in my family.

I have baby fever, so menopause must be just around the corner. My uterus is clawing at me from the inside in its last sputtering gasps for life, desperate for some assurance of her relevance and evergreen utility. She and I have our toes at the very edge of that fertility cliff, and we both know we’re about to be pushed off. My hormones conspire to wring one more baby out of me in panicky desperation. After years of pregnancy ambivalence, my abdomen cranks into a tight knot as I shove my cart through Target and see the moms with their buzzy broods. A ruffly lemon print onesie inflicts a stab of actual pain in my eyeballs. Every pregnant belly and every mom and baby stroller combo in the neighborhood feels like a personal insult.  

I’ve been almost perfectly content with one child for all six years of her life. The thought of another pregnancy or another screamy, sleepless new baby were not appealing to me at all, even if the idea of a sibling for my one kickass daughter has been pretty tempting. She is a brilliant bright light, and I’d love to give her a partner in crime, and someone to talk smack about her messed up parents with when she’s an adult.  

But another baby? I was pregnant three years ago and miscarried in the first trimester. We weren’t really trying – in that, I was not doing my To Do list of fertility-boosting semi-science or scheduling sex. Somehow, I got pregnant anyway! At 40! And was excited and terrified for about three weeks. When I realized I was miscarrying, I was 70% heartbroken and 30% relieved. I wasn’t most afraid of birth complications or genetic abnormalities or even the increased chance of multiples (I was definitely worried about those things, but vaguely). No, I was saliently terrified that I would gain weight with this second baby and I wouldn’t be able to lose it. When I imagined my post-40 postpartum, I saw the specter of a person who was bigger than I could emotionally or psychologically handle. 

When I lost that pregnancy and I admitted to myself that my fear of weight gain was bigger than my fear of much more dire health risks of “advanced maternal age”; that was my fat-phobic Come To Jesus moment. 

Mentally wrestling with the miscarriage and my warped view of my body and my deep, deep fear of weight gain was the catalyst for my first efforts towards body acceptance. It has not been fast or easy or linear work. I haven’t “arrived”. 

Bet here I am, three years later, ovaries crusting over, exerting real daily effort to appreciate the body that I have no matter what size my stretchy jeans. Today I feel ready to confront that fear of weight gain and just do the whole damn Get Pregnant thing, but it’s too late. If ever you need a cautionary tale for how internalized fat phobia can screw up your actual life, let me be your case study. This body has carried me through a lot, and I’m grateful. The body I have today – my real one, not an imaginary diet-culture-infused smaller one – is pretty great. I wish I had realized that much earlier. 

The Best Laid Birth Plans

My daughter’s birthday is coming up, so I decided to dust off this piece I wrote about her dramatic entry into the world. It’s edited for length and ancient type-os. 


Happy birthday, kiddo of mine. I sure do love being your mom. 

Prologue

Somewhere around the end of my first trimester, I started looking into natural birth classes. I had talked to a lot of friends who had had unmedicated, low or no-intervention births. I had seen “The Business of Being Born“. I had read about Ina May Gaskin. Heck, I had even attended a friend’s home birth. I believe that women’s bodies know how to have a baby, and in many cases, they can do so with very little medical intervention. I liked the idea of a home birth in theory, but my general anxiety prevented me from exploring that path too enthusiastically. 

I chose a midwifery practice with an OB who would attend to any birth that got medically complex. We hired a doula. I researched hospitals with good reputations for supporting natural labor and have low c-section rates, and options like water birth. I wanted to labor at home as long as possible and then go to the hospital when active labor really got going. In order to do that, I knew we needed to educate ourselves about laboring at home and get serious about prep work.

Les and I attended a Bradley Method childbirth class together and loved it. We both felt informed, empowered, supported, and eager to meet our baby. Throughout the 10 week course, we were coached with strategies to keep the pregnancy and delivery low-risk: proper nutrition, exercise, stretching, relaxation and massage practices, and safe ways to get labor going if I went past my due date.

On the very first day of our Bradly class, our instructor handed out sheets of paper and boxes of crayons and invited us to draw our Ideal Labor and Delivery.

Here’s what Les drew for us:

Home as Long as Possible (distressed chihuahua)
Baby doesn’t arrive in transit
Three Pushes and OUT!!! (Medical team behind us that didn’t need to do anything)

We were also encouraged to write a Birth Plan. A Birth Plan is the politely-worded document you hand to your Labor and Delivery nurses when you check in, along with a box of chocolates and a sweet smile. Your Birth Plan outlines your earnest requests for unmedicated labor. Since the vast majority of women expect and want to use pain medication immediately or almost immediately upon getting to the hospital, the Birth Plan is intended to get everyone on the same page about your preferences and your wish to avoid medications and unnecessary restrictions on your labor strategies. 

I want to go on the record that I don’t judge women who want or use pain meds. There is no “right way” to have a baby. I do think that you should have options, and pursue the path that gives YOU the most confidence, peace, and security as you gear up to meet your new family member. For me, that path was to try for a natural, unmedicated labor.

Our Birth Plan was two typed pages, with separate sections for Labor, Delivery, Emergency Care, and Baby Care. It included requests like:

  • Our wishes for a natural birth are respected and drugs will not be offered unless an emergency arises.
  • Jill will be free to walk, change positions, and use the bathroom as needed, including laboring in the shower/tub and use of a birthing ball if available.
  • Jill prefers not to have an IV; she will be allowed to eat and drink during labor, as desired, to maintain energy and hydration.
  • Medical induction will be avoided, including stripping of membranes, amniotomy, Cervadil, and Pitocin.
  • Labor will be allowed to progress at a natural pace.

The Plan went on in that fashion for the full 2 pages. I had given it to our midwife, and she had sent it on to the hospital. I also had a hard-copy in my hospital bag, right next to the bag of fancy chocolate bars to hand out as a thank you to the nurses who would have to put up with my screaming, tub-laboring, eating and drinking and walking to the bathroom-self for who knows how many hours. We were as “prepared” as we were going to be. Now we just had to wait for labor to get going.

About that Plan

I have to say, after the first trimester of non-stop nausea, my pregnancy was not anywhere near as gruesome as I expected. I felt pretty good most of the time. I continued working part time, and even worked on my due date. I never had any Braxton-Hicks or real contractions. My midwife practice recommended you come in for a check up on your due date if you haven’t had any signs of labor yet, so I showed up on my due date hoping they could tell me what was going on in there. They hooked me up for a non-stress test, and I laid back in the Lay-Z-Boy with a stack of magazines and a big bottle of water and chilled out for about 30 minutes with Baby Girl kicking away.

The midwife came in to read the test results, and got a bit of a furrow in her brow. “Baby’s heart rate is not quite what we’d like to see at this stage. It could be we just tested at just the wrong time, so if you have time, you could stay for another test or come back later today to re-test. The heart rate is still technically within the “normal” range, but it is pretty different from the other 4 non-stress tests you’ve had already. You may just want to go to the hospital for an ultrasound, just to be safe.”

*** Somewhere in the distance, I should have heard the bzzzzzzcrunchchompzzzzchompcrunchzzz of our Birth Plan in the paper shredder***

I called the hospital from the parking lot, and they could not get me in until the next day. Ok. Cool. I’m sure everything is fine. The midwife would have told me if I needed to go to the hospital immediately, right?

I went to work the next day, and then drove calmly to the hospital, checked in calmly, and rested in the dark room with the ultrasound tech as she chatted about babies and baby girls. She, of course, said nothing about what she was seeing on the screen. I had to wait for a doctor for that. 

The doctor, who was the on-call OB at the hospital that day, came bounding in a few minutes later with a strained smile on her face. This was her opening line: “Are you ready to meet your baby?!?! We’re going to induce you today!”

I thought she was in the wrong room. 

“I’m sorry, what’s going on?”

“We’re going to induce you today!”

“But what is going on?”

“You have zero fluid left in your amniotic sac. Like, none. Did your water break?”

“I’m pretty sure I would have noticed that.”

“Have you been leaking fluid?”

“I’m pretty sure I would have noticed that, too.”

“Well, in any case, your baby is in distress. You are going to be induced. I have a call in to your OB and I’m just waiting to hear back from him. Call your husband, and ask him to get your stuff together. We’re going to admit you. The nurse will take you down to Labor and Delivery.”

She walked out, and I sat there, stunned and crying alone and still not sure what was going on, or just how much distress my baby was in. I was clearly in a whole lot of distress, but the OB was in and out of the room in under five minutes. 

I called Les. I told him to take his time and do what he needed to do and have dinner and everything, because I was just going to be sitting somewhere waiting for some new plan to unfold. I texted our doula, and told her that the nurses said that “nothing would really get going until the morning”. She thanked me for the heads up, and told me to keep her posted. This is when I found out that the OB who is part of my midwife practice was out of town. They would assign someone on-call. I prayed it was not the bizarre, coldly chipper woman I had just met. (It was not, thank God).

Let’s fast-forward a bit, shall we?

They started the induction at 6:30pm, and started the actual Pitocin around 9:30 that night, so I could “sleep through the early contractions”. If you’ve ever had Pitocin, you are cackling at that suggestion. 

Les slept uncomfortably in the fold out chair next to the bed. I writhed around and prayed most of the night. By morning I was really starting to feel the contractions, but I couldn’t enact our pain coping plan because I was hooked up to a bunch of monitors to keep track of Baby Girl’s heart and my blood pressure, plus the Pitocin drip and an IV of antibiotics that I needed because I had spiked a fever. I was essentially bed-bound, though they did help me get everything on a portable pole so I could walk the halls a bit while the contractions were still walk-throughable. 

Here’s the part where I call my doula to let her know it was time to rock and roll, and find out that she AND her back-up doula are BOTH AT OTHER BIRTHS. Yep. Two other clients went into labor in the 12 hours since I texted her. This is the part where I started to weep.

Les gets the brilliant idea to call our Bradley teacher for help. There were 2 doulas-in-training in our class, one who had just finished up her certification a couple of weeks ago. We knew her. We liked her. We said a prayer that somehow, miraculously, she would have instant access to child care for her own two small children, and would be overjoyed to come to the hospital for God Knows How Long with zero notice. Guess what? She was, and she did. I cried with gratitude. 

And for the next 4 hours or so, I pretty much just cried, screamed, mooed, and begged for help as the Pitocin ramped up and tore through me like lightning. I couldn’t move from the bed where I was tethered to all the machines and monitors. The midwife checked me, and I was only 3 cm dilated. Three centimeters after almost 18 hours of Pitocin. I screamed the kind of scream you scream when you have already exhausted your energy reserves and you have made no progress. The midwife gently suggested that perhaps it was time for an epidural. I hugged her and shrieked YES!!! PLEASE! GIVE ME AN EPIDURAL! She knew, and I knew, that someone had to give me permission to surrender to the fact that My Plan was toast. 

Sweet Relief. I felt nothing from the navel down. They could amp up the Pitocin as much as they wanted, I couldn’t feel a blessed thing. Even Les rubbing my legs felt like a strange, not-quite-sensation. Glorious. Les and I said a prayer of thanks for pain medication. I labored for what felt like a thousand more hours, but it was probably more like 8. 

Here’s what you need to know about those hours of labor. Baby Girl’s heartbeat was ALL OVER THE PLACE. They did not want me to progress too quickly, for fear that that would stress Baby Girl out even more. My bag of waters eventually broke, but, as expected, there was no fluid in it, only meconium. Another sign of Baby Distress. 

The Neonatologist came in to kindly and gently break the news that I could not have immediate skin-to-skin with her, could not nurse her right away, could not let the cord pulse, Les couldn’t cut the cord… the NICU team would take her as soon as she was born, and I would not get to hold her until she was stable. Les could go with her to the NICU if he wanted. Tear the entire “Immediately After Birth” section out of my Birth Plan and set it on fire.  

After what seemed like days, I was finally 10cm and ready to push. How do you push out a baby when you cannot feel your lower half? My midwife used verbal and visual cues to help me focus my energy to the right place. The OB who was assigned to us turned out to be incredible. Totally and completely sent by God. I liked him even better than my regular OB, and he and my midwife were a great team. It was a good thing, too, because after an hour and a half of pushing, they decided that Baby Girl needed to come out RIGHT NOW. 

The OB explained their concern for her heart rate, and how long she was in the birth canal, and suggested a vacuum. Bring it, I said, I want her OUT. Give me all the interventions. The NICU team was standing by in the room with their special baby bed and equipment, Les was holding one of my awkwardly splayed legs, my doula had the other, the OB, Midwife, and at least 3 nurses were down near the Business End. They attached the vacuum to her head and informed me I had 3 contractions to PUSH THIS BABY OUT, or I would need a c-section. 

I had roughly 15 people cheering me on as I pushed. Have you ever been naked in a room with 15 cheering people? Naked with your legs hoisted up to your armpits? That’s delivery. It was a nail biter. The OB told me to push like I was turning myself inside out. On the third push of the third contraction, with a room full of people shouting “YOU CAN DO IT! ONE MORE PUSH!”, I felt her head come out. “ONE MORE PUSH!” yells the doctor. And out came the rest of her. I opened my clenched eyes just in time to see my beautiful, bloody baby stare at me with her huge eyes and start screaming. I collapsed as they whisked her away to the NICU team.

They were able to get her stable right there in the room, and, thank God in Heaven, and let me hold her for a few minutes before they took her to the NICU and got her started on her monitors and IV antibiotics. At the end of 27 hours of anxiety, determination, surrender, and plans being shot to hell, I was overwhelmed with thankfulness for modern medicine, pain medication, interventions, and highly-trained professionals who are compassionate, skilled, and empathic (let’s just forget about that first horrendous on-call OB). We survived. Les was a rock-star. My back-up back-up doula saved my sanity. And our feisty, skinny, wide-eyed little girl was worth every single second. 

Note her Cone-Head from the vacuum.

Body Talk

Several years ago, I read an Instagram post that of course I didn’t save, so I cannot give it proper attribution. But the gist of it was “Don’t talk to your kids about their bodies or about your body except to explain to them how bodies work.” I get the intent behind that idea. Don’t offer any commentary at all – positive or negative – about the way they, or we, or anyone looks. Keep body talk for health and hygiene and basic mechanics. 

But I’m starting to think about Body Talk with my daughter more like talking to her about sex. If I am not proactive, the world is going to fill her up for me. 

Just like with sex, our kids are going to be saturated with messages about their bodies and other people’s bodies. We don’t want to leave a void there – their peers and media and other adults will fill that void. We need to get out ahead of the body conversation.

Photo by Vadim B on Pexels.com

My typical M.O. is to wait for a “teachable moment”, like the one that happened on a rambling walk through the neighborhood this summer. 

My five year old daughter and I encountered one of our neighbor families as we strolled down our street. The three kids were riding their bikes to the park as the dad jogged along behind them. The oldest neighbor girl, Annie, is eleven years old. As my daughter and I walked home, my kiddo turned to me and asked “Mom, why is Annie fat?” 

Obviously, this smashed all my trigger buttons at once. My first impulse was to shriek “She’s not FAT!! We never talk about someone’s body!!”. But I paused just long enough to pull up scripts from some of the women who have written about raising body-neutral kids and tried this instead:

“Why do you say that Annie is fat?”

“Because she has a round tummy and it sticks out under her shirt.”

“Well, Annie is older than you, so her body is going to be bigger than you or your friends’ bodies. And, she’s right around the age where girls start to grow very quickly, and their bodies change from being like a little girl to looking more like a woman. Women are meant to have curvier, softer bodies than little girls.”

“Oh. Ok.”

“It’s OK to talk with me about these kinds of questions, but we should not talk to our friends about other people’s bodies, because it can really hurt people’s feelings.”

“Why?”

“Well, because some people tease people about how they look, or to say unkind things about other people’s bodies. And that hurts people’s feelings. We know that it is never OK to tease someone about how they look. People look different from one another, and that’s a good thing.”

“Right, because if everyone looked the same, we wouldn’t know who is who!”

“Right! Remember that All Bodies are Good Bodies.”

I desperately want us both to really believe that all bodies are good bodies. 

I don’t know how long I can “Fake It Till I Make It” as I teach my daughter body acceptance that I still struggle to absorb myself. My dear friend of over 20 years, Roxanne, and I had a conversation about all of this recently. She’s a momma of four, with one teenager already. They have been having Body Talks for years now. She encouraged me to be more transparent with my kiddo about my own struggles, and how hard it can be to love my own body and how easy it can be to judge other people’s bodies. 

Next time we have a conversation about bodies, I’ll tell my daughter that when I was younger, people teased me about my body. Even now that I’m a grown up, it is still hard for me to love my body. If she’s still listening, I’ll tell her how proud I am of my body for growing her and giving birth to her. I’ll tell her that I’m thankful that my body works well, and I don’t have any real pain or illness. 

I’ll remind her about how she is fearfully and wonderfully made – how we ALL are – no matter how we look or what our bodies do easily or struggle to do at all. 

I’ll tell her how people who want you to buy the things they are selling will tell you that you have to look a certain way to be happy, and I’ll tell her that that is a huge lie. 

My daughter saw me do the iconic Suck and Zip to put on some jeans the other day. I wonder if she has noticed that my body has gotten bigger over the past year. She hasn’t made any comments, but she notices everything. I started riding our stationary bike just about every day a few months ago and she asked me why. I told her it is because we’ve been indoors for so long, I haven’t gotten as much exercise as my body needs. I want to be strong and feel good, so I use the bike. That’s true, of course. Partly true. 

I’m living in the tension of body acceptance and wanting to be smaller. In the slogging murk of wanting to “be healthy” and “lose the pandemic weight” while trying not to give in to disordered eating and compulsive exercise. 

Here’s what I’m trying hard to absorb every day: It’s OK if I gained weight EVEN IF I never lose it. Even if this is just my middle aged, pandemic surviving, macchiato drinking body now. Bodies change. Bodies age. Yes, I do want to keep an eye on my blood pressure. Yes, I will create habits to move my body more because I want to still be moving when my kiddo is in high school and college (older mom problems). I want to get the gold stars at my next physical. And if I can fit back into my favorite dress by spring 2022, that would be great, too. 

Food Talk

My husband and I meal plan in hushed voices in the kitchen while our daughter watches Rescue Riders on her tablet. We’ve just recommitted ourselves to ratchet down our takeout habit and try to cook more actual meals at home, after a year of thrice weekly to-go splurges and a tight rotation of homemade nachos, frozen pizza, and packaged snack buffets for dinner. We’ve both had our annual physicals in the last couple of months, and were both rather shell shocked at the scale and our blood pressure stats. 

“We’ve got to get back on track. We have to set a better example. We are setting her up for failure if she starts to believe that this is the way to eat.”

“We want to be healthy and active and ready for fun with our kiddo for a long long time. We both want to get a handle on our blood pressures.”

“I do not want to buy even bigger pants.”

We whisper these nudges to each other and giggle, and I’m thankful that at least we have some solidarity as we endeavor to shore up our Pandemic snack food diet with some nutrients.

But we don’t want our daughter to overhear our food and diet talk. Even if we’re talking about adding in a lot of vegetables and shaking our dependence on processed food. Even if we’re not talking about calories or “junk food” or restriction. We don’t want her to hear us even talk in code about losing weight, or see either of us rub our bellies unconsciously when we draft up a grocery list. 

Food Talk is very fraught in our house. As with many parenting decisions, our choice to keep meal planning and weight gain conversations out of our daughter’s earshot are a direct reaction to the ways in which the food culture of our families set us up for lifelong struggles.

I grew up in a household where food rules were rigid in some ways and lax in other ways and meal times were often a battle. My mom was always on a diet. My dad made endless commentary on her food choices and how often any of us had dessert. We were a strict Clean Your Plate family, and the kids got little say in what went onto that plate. There were many nights that I sat crying at the table for hours, unwilling to swallow the requisite bites of canned peaches or creamed spinach. Those forced bites did not make me appreciate food, or learn to like things I despised. They just made me angry and resentful of my dad and full of anxiety every time I sat down to eat. I rejoiced every time I got to eat and my dad wasn’t watching. 

My family was rife with diet talk and confusing demands to eat everything served on my plate and also not to eat too much, lest I need a diet. My husband’s family was very different from mine, but had its own food angst. My husband’s mother grew up with extreme food insecurity, and that had reverberations into her own parenting, cooking, and eating expectations. We’re trying hard not to be like our parents in the food arena. It is much easier said than done. 

I have generally tried to shift the food conversation at home away from “junk” food or even healthy food vs. unhealthy food, but to notice and talk about how food makes us feel, and to talk about how much I enjoy eating a wide variety of foods and trying new recipes. It can be hard for a kid to make these connections, because the sugar rush is immediate but the hollow hunger of not eating filling foods happens hours later. It feels good and comforting to eat buttered noodles for dinner five out of seven nights a week. It’s hard for me to deny her the comfort and ease of eating things she loves, even if the list of entrees she loves includes only five items.  

Despite my adult frustration or even embarrassment that my kid is not an adventurous eater, she’s growing and has plenty of energy. How many adults tend to eat the same handful of “go-to” foods or recipes on repeat? I sure do. I spent at least three years in my 20s eating nothing but a rotation of six different Lean Cuisines for lunch at work. Nothing terrible happened. Kids feel, for the most part, just fine eating a steady diet of berries and carbs. 

Photo by Klaus Nielsen on Pexels.com

Author and journalist Virginia Sole-Smith writes about the Division of Responsibility in her book The Eating Instinct (highly recommend). Reading this strategy felt like a radical, risky, thrilling new world. The idea is that you, the adult, determine when, where, and what foods are served for snacks and meals, and the kid decides if she eats what you are offering and how much. 

If you’re thinking “my kid would just never eat anything I serve and would starve to death”, the caveat is that there is at least one thing you know your kiddo will eat at each eating opportunity. Kids determine what they put on their plates, and how much. No bribes, no coaxing. Sole-Smith encourages parents to be consistent, and once the pressure to try new foods is removed, and kids trust that they really can choose and eat as much or as little as they want from the choices you offer, the power struggle over food exploration is removed, and kids are more likely to try and enjoy new dishes.  

We have tried this a couple of times. It’s a bit of a hassle. It is easier to just heat up something on the list of her preferred entrees and make separate adult food. It’s easier to plop her plate of mom-chosen food in front of her. But every time I have tried the family-style buffet of options, my kiddo has surprised me by what she has chosen and how much she happily ate. Not always the “well balanced meal” I would like to see, but different from what I expected. 

Case study: veggie burgers. On a typical night in our house, I would prepare the veggie burgers for Les and me, and make some scrambled eggs and cut raw veggies and some crackers or tortilla chips onto a plate for my daughter. But one night, I put the buns in a basket, the pickles and condiments on the table, a plate of raw veggies, the burgers, and a bowl of mixed salad. She ate a bun, a pile of pickle slices, lots of raw veggies, and even tasted a leaf of red lettuce “just to see what the purple leaf tasted like”. She spit it out, but she tried it. And she ate her fill, and it wasn’t just a bowl of noodles and a yogurt cup. 

Leaning in to trust my kid is hard, because I don’t yet fully trust myself around food. We joke like this, don’t we? “I can’t let any cookies into my house or I will eat them all in one sitting”. Or we worry that if we don’t make dessert contingent upon eating an acceptable amount and array of food, our kids will just eat one green bean and a bagel and then expect a brownie. There are nights our kiddo eats only a few bites of food, even food she really likes, because she “needs to save room for dessert”. 

Here’s a radical idea that we are also testing at my house, at the suggestion of the same Virginia Sole-Smith’s Instagram conversations: Serve dessert alongside the dinner options, rather than at the end as an incentive. We tried it, and choked back comments when she ate the cookie first, but guess what? She went on to finish everything else she had decided to eat for dinner. No saving room. No bribery. Honestly, it made my husband and I both feel all kinds of ways. But why? If we agree that dessert is an option at dinnertime, and the goal is that she eats some typical dinner food, does it matter if she eats the dessert with her dinner rather than after? Especially if it frees her up to focus on the actual meal, rather than avoiding any whiff of fullness while eating the veggie dog and broccoli in front of her?

Is it easier for me to experiment with our family food culture because my kiddo is average size? Probably. Is it a huge pile of privilege to have so much flexibility in what we eat and serve and whether we all eat exactly the same thing? Absolutely. Do I still cringe with embarrassment and make excuses whenever we eat with others (I mean, hypothetically. We haven’t eaten with anyone in over a year) and my kid only eats a roll and a strawberry? Yes. 

On a good day, I can take a big step back and remind myself that I was a ridiculously “picky” kid, and now I happily eat all kinds of things I never would have touched when I was six. And on really great days, I remember that my kid is her own person with her own preferences, and I can toss her a multivitamin and not take it personally that she doesn’t like to eat many of the same things I like. A lot of you probably wouldn’t like most of the staples of my gluten free, mostly vegetarian, tofu-heavy diet. I don’t take that personally. We can still be friends.

Turkey Jerky

Last night, I sat alone in my Subaru Outback in the Trader Joe’s parking lot and wolfed down a CHOMPS Turkey Jerky stick before starting the engine and driving home to my family. That is only remarkable because I have been a vegetarian for 17 of the last 19 years. 

I have also been hungry most of every day of the eight years since I cut gluten out of my diet. I’ve been hungry while I have steadily gained weight. I was fairly content in my meat free life so long as I could tuck into a steaming bowl of pasta or tear my incisors through a crusty hunk of sourdough. I gave myself a two year break from vegetarianism while my mom was sick and I did a lot of eating in my car on my drives back and forth to her house and took up long distance running to keep myself on the rails. I got back on the plant-centric bandwagon when I met my husband, who was eating vegan when we met. We agreed to meet in the middle and keep a vegetarian household when we got married. Even the dog we adopted ate vet-approved home-cooked vegetarian dog food made from quinoa, egg, peas, cheese, and doggie vitamin powder.

Then eight years ago I found myself on a cold gurney counting backwards from 10 as the anesthesiologist knocked me out for my first colonoscopy. My guts were very, very angry, and given the aggressive colon cancer attack my mom fought unsuccessfully in her 50s, the gastroenterologist insisted on a full scope of my large intestines. He discovered that my colon was kinked like a hose in two places, which was clearly causing the alternating constipation/diarrhea I had lived with for years. I had literally tied myself in knots. 

The colonoscopy procedure itself unkinked my struggling plumbing and I felt better immediately. And then a few weeks later, the cramping and bloating and gas returned. I decided to try the elimination diet my PCP had urged me to consider before my colonoscopy and discovered a clear connection between eating wheat and my lingering embarrassing digestive trouble. The longer I abstained from gluten, the better I felt. My cystic acne disappeared, and I stopped having the spontaneous nose bleeds I had chalked up to seasonal allergies. My belly pooch flattened out, and I didn’t need to duck into the bathroom at work multiple times a day to privately relieve the gas ballooning inside me. I felt great, except for the fact that the texture of most gluten free baked goods closely resembles that of a damp kitchen sponge, and are just as filling. 

I eliminated meat from my diet out of a sense of duty to my worldview. I wanted to withdraw my financial support of the hellscape of factory farming. I relieved the cognitive dissonance of crying over news stories about boat-maimed manatees while noshing on a turkey panini. The decision to be vegetarian felt great, even if I really longed to be vegan and really “go all in”. I was too lazy to commit to that, and too addicted to cheese. Vegetarianism felt sustainable. I believed it was something I could maintain for the rest of my life. I allowed myself a couple of passes per year to try a bite of something meaty when offered or to order a fish dish when at a restaurant or wedding whenever the only vegetarian option was eggplant parmesan. I realized quickly that the Vegetarian Police were not going to roll up in their squad cars and publicly humiliate me for a bite of animal flesh. 

Which brings us back to the turkey jerky. 

Intuitive eating is all about learning to recognize our hunger and satiety cues and respond thoughtfully. I have grown so accustomed to living with gnawing hunger, I barely even register the sensation anymore. I’m hungry right now as I type this, despite a hearty portion of gluten free pasta with goat cheese, tomato, and arugula for lunch. I was hungry last night when I shopped for the ingredients for said pasta dish, and I sheepishly grabbed a turkey jerky strip and threw it in the cart. I don’t think there is anything magical about meat protein versus vegetable protein. I’m sure there are plenty of people who are doing just fine on plant based diets. I just don’t love meal planning or cooking enough to be as diligent as I am finding I need to be to feel full on plants. Most of my meals are rice or corn-based starch plus vegetable plus cheese. Sometimes beans or lentils. Sometimes soy or tofu. Occasionally vegetarian meat substitute. I fear that if I really eat every time I am hungry, I will expand to an unacceptable size. For the past eight years, I’ve decided to limit myself to working with the current fandeck of vegetarian, gluten free ingredients, and so I have just accepted the fact that I will almost never feel full. 

Here’s the thing about committing to a food restriction as part of your identity: It is really really complicated to change. Even acquaintances at work know I am vegetarian. Some of my relationships were forged around a shared commitment to a meat free life. My daughter is aghast that anyone would kill and eat an animal, and regularly interrogates people about whether they eat meat, and if so, why they think it is OK to eat animals. She has known that “we don’t eat animals in our family” since she was old enough to inquire about what other people were eating, or why we always steered the shopping cart in a wide arc away from the butcher counter at the grocery store. She has seen her relatives carve slabs of prime rib and pull wishbones out of turkey carcasses and has voluntarily opted out, even when offered a taste of salmon or grilled chicken at grandma’s. She knows that we have to repeat our speciality order at the McDonald’s drive through multiple times to make sure she doesn’t end up with beef: “Cheeseburger Happy Meal, no meat. Just bun and cheese – like a grilled cheese”. “WE DON’T EAT ANIMALS!” she screams from the carseat. 

We don’t. Not often, anyway. But here I am, wondering if a weekly wild-caught salmon dinner or so-called “humanely raised” turkey slices would quiet my roaring stomach. If it’s worth the karmic guilt. If I could really just get my act together and cook all the beans and lentils and tofu. There are turkey slices hanging out in the fridge, daring me to eat with abandon for a little while and see what happens.

Sunday Comment Roundup

You Guyssssssssss!!

Your comments this week about my posts and Instagram questions have been SO GOOD. So good. I am so thankful for each of you. Your willingness to be open and vulnerable about our very personal and often fraught relationships with food and eating and diet culture has been motivating and humbling. I wanted to share some of the comments I received, anonymously, in case you see any of your own twisty, bunchy, scratchy eating-stuff (or calm and balanced approaches!) in any of these experiences.

Here is how some of you replied to my prompt about whether you remember your mom dieting as a kid, and if so, how food was talked about in your home growing up:

  • “I think I always wished they noticed something about me besides that I ate the food in front of me.”
  • “I remember relatives commenting how “the Smith* girls are always clean platers!” *not their real name.
  • “Portion control!”
  • “I don’t remember diet, but remember lots of unhappiness with how mom felt about how she looked. No shorts, no bathing suits.”
  • “We strived for balance in meals, not a lot of soda/packaged snacks; eating together as a family, having treats when out sometimes but later in life when the fat craze was happening, it was about eating more of those to replace other things (we know better now, but didn’t like the rest of America at the time).”
  • “My mom dieted. I specifically remember her using Slim Fast shakes and bars. She was also a dietician…”
  • “Mom once told me she felt accomplished if she went to bed hungry.”
  • “My family went through feast and famine. Grandma or the church would roll up w groceries.”
  • “She started Jazzercise at age 40 and really cut out sugar, fried foods, etc. I feel like she did it correctly!”
  • “I can’t even fit that can of worms in this box.”

I’ve also heard from several of you via calls and text messages with longer stories and examples of your childhood food life and how that has bubbled over into your adult eating habits. And a couple of you called me after my post about my doctor’s appointment to share your experiences with your doctor, or the experiences of a spouse or other family member.

And one of you, after reading my post about my doctor’s appointment, texted me this:

“I’m glad she [my doctor] could show you God’s love for your body today.”

Which reduced me to a blubbering pile of sobs. Whooo-boy. There’s a lot to unpack there. (Thanks, decades of “our bodies are inherently sinful and our “fleshly desires” will pull us into all manner of disobedience” teaching). I’m not even going to touch that today, except to say that it has been a trip to think about all the ways growing up in conservative Protestant churches have shaped my body image and conception of food and eating. Book project?

THANK YOU, friends. I’m grateful for you. Let’s keep talking and thinking and unpacking, shall we?

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I was hoping for at least a little shame.

Lest anyone think I am on the cusp of full, healthy self-acceptance, let me give you a peek at some of the miasmic content of my inner life.

My annual physical was today, except I haven’t been so stellar on the “annual” part. I thought I had, but my official records show that the last time I went in for a well visit was in March of 2018. Whoopsy!

In anticipation of today’ visit, I steeled myself for the “I-have-your-best-interests-at-heart” beat down I was expecting from my primary care doctor when she and I got to the part about my current weight. I imagined her concern about the number on the chart, especially relative to the 2018 number, and rehearsed my response to her prescription for weight loss with some subtle fear/shame drizzled over the top for full effect.

In these mental rehearsals of my doctor’s imaginary scolding, I envisioned that I would stack her comments in a neat crisscross pattern, whip out the Queen of Hearts Zippo lighter given to me by a roommate 15 years ago, and ignite the bonfire of food restriction and punishing exercise I planned to enact immediately.

“Well, I have to do it, you know. For my health. Doctor’s orders.”

Photo by Min An on Pexels.com

Here’s the thing though. She didn’t mention it. Not one syllable about my weight. I have an amazing PCP who is actually not perpetuating weight stigma or diet culture, and there I was, disappointed. We got all the way to the end of the check up and I started to panic. Was I not going to get my hall pass back to orthorexia? How was I going to get the validation I wanted to take extreme measures to shrink my body if my doctor wasn’t going to give it to me?

As the appointment was wrapping up, she asked me if I had any health concerns, and I blurted out “This is the biggest I’ve ever been and I’m kind of freaking out about my weight gain. I don’t feel like my eating habits have changed much. I’m afraid I’m going to gain more weight.”

Do you know what she did? Could you even believe me if I told you?

  • She normalized weight gain during a global pandemic. “Many people have put on weight this year. Stress can really contribute to weight gain, even if your diet hasn’t changed.”
  • She normalized people’s bodies changing over time. “As women slide through those last ten years leading up to menopause, our metabolism changes dramatically. Our bodies technically need fewer calories as we come out of our child bearing years. Many women notice weight changes in their 40s.”
  • She validated my concerns about my health. “We’re going to run blood work, and we’ll look at your thyroid and your blood sugar and other markers. Your previous blood work has always come back fine. If we see something amiss this time, we can make adjustments. If you feel like you want to lose weight, we can talk about that.”
  • She carefully advised against dramatic calorie restriction. “Your body needs fewer calories as you age, but it’s difficult to feel satisfied on a restricted diet. Finding exercise or a sport that you enjoy and ramping up your time moving is a more sustainable approach. Eat food you truly enjoy, and try to avoid eating or drinking things out of boredom, or things you don’t actually enjoy eating.”
  • She didn’t even breathe the letters “BMI”. She didn’t print out handouts about weight loss. She didn’t remind me of risk factors for diabetes or cancer or heart disease. She did show me the fitness app she uses for body-weight-resistance strength training “You don’t need any special equipment! And weight training is good for your bones!”.

My doctor did all the things I know so many people want and need their doctor to say to them. She focused on my actual overall health (bloodwork, how I am feeling in this body of mine, my mental health in this train wreck of a year) rather than one number. From what I have been reading, I know this is not the norm. I am thankful for my very English, very proper, very weight-neutral doctor. I am also thrown for a loop. If I’m not motivated by fear and body shame, I guess I’ll just have to be motivated by the endorphins of exercise and the pleasure of eating what I truly enjoy? I am honestly not sure I know how to do that.

I want to leave Diet Culture for good. I also want “healthy food” to save me.

 This is an excerpt from the essay I wrote and workshopped in my writing class this summer. It is the foundation essay to the essay collection I hope to finish and publish.

I didn’t know my mother kept a diary. I discovered it in a stack of books perched on the crowded nightstand in the upstairs bedroom of her house. A bedroom she had not been able to reach for months, her body unable to summit the staircase. She had been living entirely on the first floor the year before she died, and she had been dead for over a year when I found the diary. My siblings and I had finally started to clean out the house that she and my dad had built together; sorting 30 years of life into Dumpster, Donate, Sell, Keep. 

My sister sat on the floor in front of a heap of wrinkled clothes she had pulled from mom’s dark brown carved-wood dresser. “I think this is mom’s diary. What should I do with it?” I handed my sister the purple hard-back, but she waved it away without looking up. “Don’t read that, Jill. It’s private.” I wordlessly tossed it onto the bed beside me and moved on to the rest of the stack. When my sister dragged a white garbage bag full of stained t-shirts and snagged hosiery to the dumpster, I lurched for the book and sat down on the floor with my back against her bed. The blood throbbed in my ears as I cracked open the spine and leafed through the entries. The daughter reading her mom’s diary, hands sweaty, expecting to find notes about her marriage or my dad’s illness and death, or my meddling grandparents, or me or my siblings. I expected her diary to look like mine – chronicles of heartbreaks and everything I couldn’t say out loud, with a few private joys woven in to hold it together. Waves of grief, guilt and curiosity trembled through me as I flipped through the pages. There were only twenty or so entries spanning over a decade. None were more than a paragraph long.

Please, God, help me lose some weight. I don’t want to be like this anymore.

Went to Weight Watchers tonight. It feels more doable this time. They’ve changed their program since the last time I tried.

Shortly after she completed her chemo she wrote: 

Well, the Lord works in mysterious ways. All those years asking God to help me lose weight. Looks like the chemo has finally helped with that! Be careful what you wish for.

Nearly every entry was about her weight or her body shame or a new diet she was trying. Prayers scribbled in exhausted script. “Please, God, help me have some self-control. Please, God, help me lose some weight.” My dear mom had suffered so much, and the only griefs spilled into her diary were sorrows over her weight and failed diets. My heart tore wide open and I gulped back a sob. The sharp sting of this breach of her privacy compelled me to run the book out to the rust-orange dumpster and hurl her secrets over the container’s wall into the tangle of broken lawn chairs and mouse-chewed craft supplies. I never told either of my siblings what I had read.

I never thought of my mom as “fat” when I was growing up. She was soft and mom-sized. She shopped for clothes in the plus section but seemed to me to be similar in size to many of her peer moms. She was always on a diet. Weight Watchers, Slim Fast, Bible-based diets, soup and Special K diets. She never really lost any weight. My dad made relentless commentary about what she cooked and ate. 

Do you really think you need seconds?

None of us really need dessert every night, you know.

Is that on your diet?

I saw the pain in her eyes even though she never retorted. “Probably not” she’d sigh. 

My dad was dying, slowly, of Type 1 diabetes, which is the type that has nothing to do with how much you weigh or brought about by what you eat but is rather a ruthless genetic glitch. He had been managing the disease with a strictly sugar-free diet and daily insulin injections since he was five years old. He was also taking lithium for bi-polar disorder, which was still called Manic Depression in the 80s. His life depended upon careful label reading and strict sugar avoidance. He lived on meat, baked potatoes and Diet Coke. He occasionally indulged in strawberries or a swig of beer when his brothers were in town, but only if he was at home where he could check his blood sugar and stab another hit of insulin if needed. 

When I was 14, he was let go from his job as a computer systems analyst because he couldn’t physically sit at a desk all day or type. Diabetic neuropathy in his fingers made it impossible to feel the keys of his keyboard. He was eventually granted permanent disability and stayed home all day for the next nine years, propped up in his brown faux leather recliner at first, and eventually a home hospital bed. By the time I was 18, he had only five modes: sleeping, yelling, laughing, crying, or watching M.A.S.H.

His comments to mom were, I believe, rooted in love and concern for her but mixed with vanity, jealousy over an abandon with food he had never experienced, and full buy-in to patriarchal, capitalist norms about what a woman’s body is allowed to look like. He was a good man, addled by disease and mental illness. He was a good man, who policed my mother’s food intake and bemoaned her inability to return to her svelte pre-baby body.

I’ve gained fifteen pounds since my daughter was born five years ago. Fifteen new pounds since the round-the-clock breastfeeding of a struggling newborn and the bleary nineteen months of sleeplessness that followed as my babe woke every two hours to eat. I had to oblige her. “She’s right at the edge of falling off the growth curve” her pediatrician told me. “You can switch to formula if it’s too much for your body”. I did supplement with formula, but kept drawing her to my breast, over and over, throughout the long nights. The lactation consultant didn’t find anything amiss with my breastmilk, or her latch. “She’s just tiny. She can only hold so much at a time in that tiny tummy”. She all but refused to eat solids, so I felt compelled to keep going despite the crushing exhaustion. She needs it. She’s so small. And also, feeding a hungry human from your body burns a shit ton of calories. I felt free to eat almost anything I wanted. 

The medical establishment concludes that the “typical Western diet”, obesity, and low levels of exercise all increase your risk factor of developing colon cancer. I can’t “get” Type 1 diabetes, but because my dad had Type 1 and my grandmother had Type 2, I am at higher risk for Type 2, which is commonly believed to have a strong link to obesity and visceral fat that pads your organs around the waist. I’m predisposed to at least two lethal diseases whose trigger seems to have at least something to do with what you choose to eat. On the other hand, years of data shouted by the anti-diet, body positivity folks say that diets don’t work, almost always do more harm than good, and that weight has less of a correlation with health than the patriarchy wants you to believe. The conflicting science haunts every grocery list, every meal plan, every daily decision about what to put in my mouth. 

My new fifteen pounds snuck up on me over the last three years because I kept eating whatever I wanted even after I stopped breastfeeding. My husband doesn’t comment on my weight or what I choose to eat, but despair over the soft cushion of my middle keeps me awake at night. I read anti-diet-culture manifestos and try to buy into intuitive eating and body positivity. Every day, I hold up the genuine urgency of accepting my body and setting a better example for my daughter and weigh it against the deep, deep fear of succumbing to the colon cancer that took my 59 year old mother while I still desperately needed her, or the diabetes complications that ultimately took my dad at 51. I want to confidently stake my tent in the anti-diet and body positivity camp, but I never get there. The tangle of fear at my feet trips me. What if the medical establishment is right? What if the unbridled bloom of my belly triggers a deadly disease? What if my lack of self-control leaves my young daughter motherless? What if there is a limit to my husband’s solidarity with my self-acceptance? What if I, like my mother, just don’t want to look like this anymore? If I get a terrible disease that I could have prevented, all eyes will be on my waistline. I want to love my body, but I also want to control it.

I am the unbeliever who lies awake at night, worried that she might be wrong about hell.

Pandemic Puppy

I originally wrote this post in August of 2020, when Daisy was still a baby. A lot of things have gotten easier since then. As of this posting, she only occasionally destroys clothing while you are wearing it.

Our beloved Chihuahua/Rat Terrier mix, Auggie, died in June at the age of at least 15, after a short but brutal decline from brain stem cancer. He hated all but a pawful of people, and that small group of acceptable humans did not include our five year old daughter. Dogs were not really Auggie’s jam, either. He was friendly with exactly one dog in his ten years with us; a little dachshund who lived around the corner from our Roger’s Park apartment. She and Auggie would shyly bump noses and wag tails at each other and he seemed as smitten as an ornery old dog could be. He thought the rest of the dogs in the universe could go jump in a lake. 

We were childless when we adopted Auggie. He was an adult dog with an epilepsy diagnosis and twice daily medication when we brought him home. We joked that he was our fur-baby, which was an eye-roll type joke to our friends, and, privately, not at all a joke to us. He was small and kind of fragile. He needed us. He had been adoptable for months when we saw his enormous upright ears on Petfinder and drove over to Red Door Animal Shelter to pick him up. “Most people are not interested in a dog that they know has any kind of medical issue” the adoption counselor told us. “But this little guy will probably have a pretty normal life once he has the right meds and follow up care.” 

We took him to vet appointments and adjusted his anti-seizure meds. We hired trainers to help us and him with his anxious habits. We worked on creating a zen-like home environment for him. Our needy, anti-social little dog stretched our hearts wide open when we were pretty sure human children were not in the cards for us.  

We loved him for 10 years, my husband especially. He liked to snuggle in between our thighs on the couch and purr-snore his way through our Netflix binges. He loved to sleep on Les’s lap while he graded papers or tapped with furious energy into his laptop to finish his dissertation or surmount the next pinnacle of his latest writing project. Auggie loved to sleep, snuggle with me or Les, and sometimes sniff around the yard for rabbit poop he could gulp down like candy. He didn’t like walks or fetch or toys or kids. In his sunset years, we indulged him with the gift of never having to eliminate outside ever again – he had two generous dog potty pads in the corner of the kitchen and used his “litter box” faithfully to the end. He was a cat in dog’s clothing. 

Auggie Doggie

After he died, I caught puppy fever. Ok, before. It seemed like at least a quarter of the people we knew had gotten a puppy since the shutdown, even people who had never struck me as “dog people”. How hard could it be? And, I mean, have you ever seen a puppy? Don’t you think that puppy licks and galumping sprints through the backyard and snoring couch snuggles could go a long way to heal the big dog-shaped hole in our family? Wouldn’t a puppy give our days structure and focus and our family a group project? Training, walking, housebreaking, playing. Those all sound better than the endless, boundaryless stream of days and weeks and months we have had since last March. It would force us to keep the house clean so the puppy wouldn’t swallow a lego or eat our books. We would eat dinner at the dining room table again, rather than sprawled out on the couch, each with our own device, ignoring one another for a few blissful minutes of mouth-stuffed alone-ish time. (Is that just us? Months of 24-7 togetherness have made “Let’s sit down to a meal together!” seem like overkill).   

It wasn’t just me. Within days of Auggie’s death, our daughter’s doggy love escalated quickly to a dog obsession. Our daily walks around the neighborhood were timed for the maximum likelihood of encountering people walking dogs. She knew every dog in every fenced yard between our house and the park. She unabashedly begged people to let her play with their dogs. “I could come in your yard right now, or I could come after The Sick and play with her in your house!”. She convinced our brand new next door neighbors to let her come to their yard and run and roughhouse with their two young dogs. I watched her squeal with delight as they zoomed past her, ran circles around her, and licked her hands and face. 

“Wouldn’t P do better with a doggy playmate? She’s an only child! She’s so lonely!” My husband, still heartsick over Auggie, leaned ever so slightly towards agreeing. I ran through that narrowly open door and started sending in dog adoption applications all over the region. My heart was set on a puppy, but I knew those were in high demand, and we had always been inclined towards those hard-luck pups who had been on the adoption rolls for a long time. So I applied for some adult dogs, too. I had heard that the pandemic had dramatically increased demand for adoptable dogs, and in fact several of our local rescues either had no dogs available, or had set up a (brilliant) fundraising effort where you could make a nominal donation to get “first dibs” on new dogs as they became available. It felt like the odds were stacked against us, but we were happy in the knowledge that record numbers of dogs were finding homes, and full of empathy for shelter workers (most working tirelessly as volunteers) who were totally unprepared by the deluge of dog demand wrought by thousands of home-bound people eager for companionship and drowning in time away from their routine. I was shocked when I heard back from one of the first and most earnest applications I sent – I had a serious puppy crush on one of the black and white lab/hound mixes on the Safe Haven website.

Would a puppy be more work than an adult dog? Sure. Was I ready for the challenge? I absolutely thought so. My biological clock screamed over my logical brain on this one. You see, I’m 42 and we did not intend to have just one child. This year, my baby-wanting whipped me into a frenzy, but not quite enough to pursue any medical interventions. Just enough to wish it would JUST HAPPEN ALREADY. And stick. After two miscarriages, I radiate pregnancy ambivalence. I want another child. I do not *actually* want to be pregnant or give birth again. At my age, it’s really unlikely to Just Happen. But there was this steady thumping of desire – for baby snuggles and baby coos and baby clothes and baby wearing. For a sibling for our brilliant goofball of a daughter. A desire to mother something. I’ve gone from “mommy” to just “mom” over the span of a couple of harrowing months, and it is jarring. Anyway. A puppy seemed like the next best thing. “Bringing home a puppy is a lot like bringing home a newborn!” the rescue agency adoption coordinator told me over the phone while conducting our screening interview. “Perrrrrfeecccttt” I whispered to myself. 

But holy shit. It is not perfect. For one thing, newborns will, at least 92% of the time, poop and pee in one predictable place: a diaper. Also, newborns don’t ambush and pounce on their older sibling with all their baby energy and shark-like biting power. Newborns don’t chew on your walls or your storage baskets or your hands or your daughter or tear holes in all your shirts while playing tug of war with the clothes you are wearing on your body. Newborns CAN accidentally ingest dangerous objects. They just can’t bite off and swallow chunks of, say, tree trunks or dead animals or toxic toadstools or underpants. Newborns, for the most part, can’t weasel between your legs at the front door and run into traffic. No, this is not like having a newborn. It’s more like having a toddler with really sharp teeth. The only ways in which this puppy is easier than a newborn or a toddler is that 1) the puppy sleeps about 7 hours straight each night before needing a pre-dawn potty break (contrast with my human child, who was 19 months and 21 days old the first time she slept more than three consecutive hours at night) and 2) I am not breast feeding this puppy. 

I am suffering the natural consequences of my selfishness in wanting a puppy when they are in such high demand: the pulsing headache of baby fever drove me to toss all that empathy for hard-to-home dogs out the window to GET A BABY THING. And now that baby thing is destroying our house. 

But P adores her, even when the licking turns to nipping and the nipping begets tears. And Les dotes on her and thinks she is absolutely the right dog for our family. He reminds me that perhaps my expectations were too high for her, and notes that all ages of dogs are in high demand right now. The fact that we were even matched with this pup seems like a sign. I applied for six dogs, and only ever heard back about this pup. And she is really freaking cute. After our 5 am potty break in the yard, she and I lumber bleary eyed back into the house and I sprawl out on the couch to try to get a little more sleep before I start the day. She stretches her sleek black otter-like body over my torso and nestles her face under my chin and we snooze. The endorphins or hormones or whatever this cuddling produces are the fairy dust that sparkle away the angst of the previous day, and the early wake up, and my dread of more holes in more clothing and more emergency vet  X-rays for foreign objects and the exhaustion of a demanding house training routine that seems to be only 40% effective. In those minutes before the day officially begins, she is my fur baby, and we are alone together in quiet and dark, learning together how to recalibrate our family dynamic and commit to the long game. Babies don’t keep. Thank heavens. Now that we’ve had both a puppy and a human newborn, I will tell you that the puppy is harder.*

*Except for the part when I didn’t get any REM sleep for 2 years with the human baby.