Do As I Say, Not As I Do:
Parents in Recovery
“Mommy, I’m fat.” At the innocent age of five, my daughter stepped off the bathroom scale, patted her belly and gazed at the floor in disappointment.
She was serious.
Oh my God, what have I done? A thousand emotions flooded my core in an instant.
Shock. Horror. Guilt. Regret. Shame.
It must have been only been milliseconds of real time, but it felt like several minutes. My thoughts morphed into a flashback of haunting memories.
On my knees in the bathroom, staring at the toilet with vomit streaked across my face.
And how many memories did I have like this? How many times had I stepped on my bathroom scale after twenty minutes of purging and said, “Just two more pounds”? It appeared as though my psyche could recount each event with striking clarity.
After years of teasing and insecurity, I had started my first diet at the age of fourteen, and by the time I was eighteen I was purging everything from carrots to crackers. Self-hatred had become my normal and I believed my inner torment was well-deserved, though I wouldn’t have wished it upon my worst enemy. The scale was a constant companion through all of this; I lived and died by its every word.
Only lost one pound today?
No problem, I reasoned, I’ll use more laxatives.
And then I met him. The man of my dreams—well, the best dreams I could muster in an oppressive fog of self-abuse. He was aware of my problems, though, and he wanted to help me. I would let him try.
Over time both he and I believed I was getting better, and eventually we decided to start a life together. A family. After a few months of trying, we found out we were pregnant.
I wanted the best for the baby growing inside of me, I really did. I changed everything about my lifestyle. No more drinking, of course, and the smokes were in the trash in a heartbeat. But I knew something else was inevitable–weight gain. Well, maybe it was inevitable, but I would do my best to avoid it. I would carefully portion my meals, eat all the recommended fruits and vegetables, drink a ton of water, and exercise every day.
For nine months it seemed as if the self-abuse disappeared. I was magically cured by this thing called pregnancy. I had actually lost weight in my first trimester, which thrilled me to no end. But by the eighth month I was really popping like a birthday balloon. As the pants grew tighter and tighter around my hips, old feelings of insecurity began to surface.
And then that blissful day arrived. Samantha Jean took her first breath and my capacity to love grew a thousand-fold. I had forgotten all about the shame of my past and could only focus on her beauty, her perfection—her innocence. In that moment I knew I had to do better for her. I had to do better for her than I had done for myself. The last thing I wanted was for her to turn out as I had—a broken and tormented woman.
There she was, cooing and kicking.
Hunched over the toilet I was at it again. This time with my baby next to me on the bathroom floor, comfortably playing in her bouncy chair. She was so innocent, so unaware of what her mommy was doing. But she was still watching me. Those big blue eyes watching mommy with intent.
The irony of the moment wasn’t lost on me. I couldn’t bear to leave my baby alone in another room, so I had brought her into the bathroom with me. I wanted to protect her. Was I really accomplishing that, though?
She doesn’t understand, I reasoned, she’s only four months old.
But something about that moment lingered. I had done so many awful things in my life, but this one seemed to top the charts. Purging in front of my child, what depths of depravity would this illness take me to?
Countless shopping carts filled with organic produce.
I wanted to be a good mom, I wanted to do everything right. I decided I couldn’t practice bulimia without psychologically damaging my child, so I had to try something else. This time I would drag my husband and child into my misery. I spent hundreds of dollars on organic produce. I juiced, I ate sprouted grains and I gave up dairy and meat. Meanwhile, I charted every ounce of food my daughter consumed in the first two years of her life.
I had found my new obsession. I would teach Samantha proper eating habits. I would teach her how to enjoy exercise. I would carefully monitor every item she consumed to ensure she was getting the appropriate nutrition for optimal growth.
Through all of this the scale remained a close “friend”. But now this friend had a new purpose. Now it was helping me keep my daughter “healthy”. I would step on the scale alone, then again as I held her in my arms. She was a chunky baby like most, and I wanted to keep an eye on it. I could not allow her to live the same life I had. I wanted to protect her from the teasing and torment of being an overweight child. I wanted so much better for her.
Occasionally my husband would notice my obsessiveness over Samantha’s eating habits and weight. He would lovingly point it out and I would naturally get defensive. No, I was just doing what was best, I was being a good parent; I had convinced myself like the proudest addict in denial.
In the end I was guilty of leading by example, though silently, and teaching my daughter what I had feared most. Through my actions I taught her the same message delivered to me my whole life—outward appearance matters most.
“No! You are not fat!” Back in the present moment, I shook off the feelings of remorse to grab hold of my precious little girl. As much as I thought I had controlled what she saw and heard it was my insecurities that had spoken louder. Every time I told her she was beautiful, she was loved, she was valued, she had a purpose, and everything about her was perfect, all she saw was her mommy’s attitude. I had never believed those things about myself, and therefore she was unable to accept it as a reality in her own life.
Every time I had refused to let her take my picture, every morning that I stepped on the scale, every new diet I tried and every time I cried when my pants no longer fit—that is what had taught my daughter. That is the example she learned from.
Do as I say, not as I do.
Only it doesn’t work that way. Not in the life of a recovering bulimic, at least. I’m not perfect, I do fail, and I try my best yet come up short. But the one thing I learned that day in the bathroom as my five-year-old stepped off the scale: it’s never too late to try again. If God doesn’t give up on me, then I can’t give up on me either.
I looked her in the eyes, with tears of a changed heart flowing freely, “Samantha, you are beautiful. You are not fat. I love your little tummy, I love everything about you. And you know what? We’re not using that scale anymore.”
“But Mommy, we use the scale every day.”
“I know, honey, but not anymore. We don’t need it.”
And so a new beginning was born.
In that moment I realized I was not a bad mom or a failure as a parent. All along I had done the best I could, and this situation was only a catalyst into becoming a better person. It was a chiseling tool further refining me into the woman God designed me to be.
My story is not the same as the next parent’s story. What works for them might not work for me. The best evidence of good parenting is not found in the lack of mistakes, but in the lessons learned from such errors. Being a good parent, I am learning, is more about forward progress.
I can’t change the past but I can allow God to change my future; not only my future, but the future of my child.
We are all parents in recovery, messing up and moving on and learning to adapt. No one has it all figured out. As the sun wakes up and a new day begins, I don’t just look at my daughter differently, I see myself in a new light. I have no choice but to allow God to change my thinking. My child’s emotional welfare depends on it. Because like it or not, she will do as I do.
This article was originally written for an essay writing contest (which I obviously didn’t win) and I finally decided, after nine months of sitting in my computer, it needed to be shared. I hope it helps someone out there.