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Educating Mommy
Or, How My Toddler Taught Me To Trust My Tummy

By Jane Dwinell

 

From Radiance, Winter 1992 issue

I’ve worked on my body image and food issues for at least thirty of my past thirty-seven years. Like everyone else, I’ve done the diets: fad diets in the 1960s, college-student poverty "diets" in the 1970s, Weight Watchers in the 1980s, with even an short stint as a lecturer. Three years ago I discovered Breaking Free from Compulsive Eating (Geneen Roth) and Overcoming Overeating (Jane Hirschmann and Carol Munter). It was because of these books that I stopped dieting and began trying to eat when I was hungry and accept my body at the size it was. It’s been a struggle, although a pleasant one, because I know that what I’m doing is right. My intuition has always told me that I am not meant to be a size 10 and that food should be a pleasure, not a punishment. My work in the field of holistic health has helped me realize that our bodies know how to take care of themselves; we just need to stop and listen to them. But nothing and no one has taught me more about food, self-love, and body love than my four-year-old daughter, Dana.

I knew when I became a parent that I wanted to avoid food struggles. I had watched too many friends force vegetables on their children and not allow them any number of things, from chocolate milk to cookies. I had watched the fights and I had watched the kids when I had them over for dinner: They ate whatever they wanted and they seemed to make reasonable choices. Were they just rebelling against their parents or was something else going on?

I had worked for years as nurse in a birthing center and helped thousands of babies adjust to life "on the outside." I had seen that they all fed differently: Some nursed voraciously and lengthily; others snacked, nibbled, or had to be helped to learn how to suck on a flat nipple. But they all wanted to eat and they all got hungry and they all stopped when they were full. I had vowed to let my child make her own decisions about food, whatever they might be.

By the time I began to learn how to feed myself, Dana was into solid food. She had always nursed on demand and now was fascinated with the world of spiral noodles, tofu, and fresh tomatoes. She was allowed to eat what she wanted when she wanted it. The house was filled with a wide variety of foods as I worked on my formerly "forbidden" foods: ice cream, potato chips, and chocolate. She often would join me for a bowl of chocolate chips, and although part of me cringed inside, I made no comment. (I mean, just how healthy could all that sugar and chocolate be for a two-year-old?)

She would prance around naked, holding a bowl of her latest food delight: fresh peas, warm bread and butter, hamburger, Cheerios and raisins, or pickles. She refused to wear clothes; a side effect of this habit was that she toilet trained herself. She lounged with her food, played with it, dripped it on her tummy, and always stopped eating it when she was full. More than once I saw her remove a piece of food from her mouth, say "All done," and prance away from the food to her next project. How many of us listen to our bodies that precisely? How many of us would actually remove food from our mouths?

Then the Oreos came. Cookies were not foreign to her, nor chocolate, but I had always done all of our baking, so she had never seen any that were store-bought. My parents gave us a bag of food after a visit, and the Oreos were inside. Dana took the bag and carried it off. I held my breath and did not say a word. The next time I saw her she had figured out how to take the cookies apart. She was lining them up carefully, building roadways. She had eaten a few. Later she built towers, and then she made sandwiches out of just the chocolate parts, and then she made sandwiches out of the chocolate and filling parts. She spent the day with that bag of Oreos, never letting it out of her sight. By nightfall she had eaten about half the cookies and had played with the rest. She had eaten nothing else all day.

The next day she woke up, bright and cheery as usual, and asked me to make her a salad. It was summer and the height of the growing season. She took me out to the garden and pointed out the ingredients she wanted: lettuce, kale, radishes, carrots, broccoli, green beans, tomatoes, and cucumbers. We picked everything and went back to the house, where I assembled the salad and she poured on her favorite dressing: homemade poppyseed. She lovingly ate each vegetable with her fingers and then asked for more. That entire day she ate nothing but salad after salad after salad.

She had listened to her body—and had listened to it magnificently. I knew that I could trust her, she knew that she could make her own food choices. She hadn’t become a whining, oversugared child the day she ate the Oreos. And the next day she ate salad to compensate for the lack of nutrition the preceding day. If only I could so easily do the same for myself! Here I was, a highly educated adult, and she a young child. Yet she knew more about what her body needed: She respected her body, used it in her play, cherished it. In contrast, I still often yelled at myself, chastised myself for eating non-nutritious food, felt my fat was my enemy and would never leave me alone.

It was a turning point for me. I became a little child again, the little child I had never been allowed to be. I lined up potato chips, dripped ice cream down my front, spent some time naked in the garden with my daughter, both of us reveling in warm, fresh cherry tomatoes. I watched my daughter and learned from her.

Today I am wiser and at peace with my body and with food. It is high summer again, and today’s food of choice is cucumbers. She comes to me every half hour or so, requesting "six slices of cucumber." She lines them up in a perfect circle on her plate and then goes back outside to play. I can see her eating them slowly and carefully in the sunshine. Soon I will join her with my food of choice. We’ll sit on the swings, both of us wearing just overalls and eating our personal delights, proud of our strong, soft bodies, enjoying the warm day and each other’s company.

My dream has come true: There are no food struggles, no food issues, in this home. My partner, Sky, and our nine-month-old son, Sayer, share in this bounty. Four people, four different bodies, four different food preferences, all okay, all accepted, all loved. Dana has taught us and we have learned well.

JANE DWINELL is a freelance writer who, along with her partner and two children, is a homesteader in northern Vermont.

 

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