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Freedom

By Helen Bigelow

 

From Radiance, Winter 1993 issue

My grown daughter Peg and I were sitting on porch chairs one hot afternoon, looking out at the garden. She’s in her thirties and is fat, though I never use that word. When anyone asks me about my daughter’s weight, I always say, "She’s probably about seventy pounds over what she should weigh" but I never add that she might be more.

For a long time my inner writing-voices have told me I’d end up working on a piece about Peg and me and my experience as the mother of an overweight daughter. Finally the piece had come, and I wanted to send it to an editor. But I knew I had to show it to my daughter first. Apprehensively, I handed the white manuscript pages over and moved to the porch steps to prune away dead petunia blossoms so she’d have some privacy while she read.

When she finished, she said, "I like it. It didn’t upset me at all. Can I have a copy to show to my therapist?"

I gave her the copy, but right away decided to hold the piece back from the editor for a while, to see if Peg still felt the same way after some time had passed. We went into the house so I could wash the sticky petunia blooms off my hands. Peg followed me inside. She opened the freezer, poked around, and said, "Mmm, mocha almond fudge."

The inside of my head said something like, Honey, mid-afternoon bowls of ice cream aren’t a good idea. Instead of saying it, I said nothing. In the silence, I realized that had anyone else indicated pleasure over the idea of ice cream on a hot afternoon, I’d have taken out two bowls and had at it.

Once Peg told me of a family Thanksgiving party where my favorite aunt had hurt and humiliated her. There’d been so many people that we were holding our heaping plates in our laps all over the living room. Peg, who was thirty at the time, had lined up with everyone else at the table where my aunt was serving the food, dishing up lavish portions. When Peg handed over her plate, my aunt plopped a small dab of potatoes, one slice of turkey, a half dab of stuffing, and several green beans on it. Peg accepted the plate, felt her face flame, and wanted to bolt from the room.

When she’d told me about it later, I’d felt her pain and been furious with my aunt. But with the mocha almond fudge that hot afternoon, I was almost as bad.

A few weeks after Peg had read my manuscript, she came to visit me on another hot afternoon. We took iced tea outside, kicked off our shoes, and sat on the porch in our shorts and sleeveless T-shirts. I felt a pang of discomfort about the size of my daughter’s thighs. A friend dropped by—a new friend devoid of stories and knowledge about any of my kids. As I introduced the two women, I felt a distinct and ugly flash of shame.

I added the incident to the manuscript about Peg, took it to my writer’s group, and read it out loud to the women there. The other writers discussed my piece at length while I sat in a soft blue wingback chair feeling half writer, half woman-in-a-therapy-group. On couches and on chairs and on pillows on the floor, twelve other women examined my piece, and in doing so they examined my relationship with my daughter and the whole essence of my motherhood.

I went home with my mind reeling, for what had appalled most of the women was the issue of my shame. They pointed out how insulting it was to my daughter. I continued to work on the piece. Bit by bit, with my computer deleting and inserting busily, shame and motherhood and I examined one another. I winced over how many times I’d talked to my grown daughter of diets when she knew as much about nutrition as I did and I’d sworn I was never going to say another word. I remembered all the times when she was a teenager or in college and I’d wanted to treat her to some new clothes. I used to loan her my credit card instead of taking her shopping, to avoid the pain of seeing her hot, disappointed face in the dressing room mirror.

One afternoon, at a time of day when I usually stop writing because of the slant of the sun on my computer’s screen, I stared through the glare at a run of words appearing before me. Society, I read. Vogue. Women’s magazines, men, diets, people who design clothes, stores that don’t stock sizes over 14, pressure on mothers, competition. The my-daughter-at-Yale syndrome, success, high achievement, being just right, social pressure, social pressure, social pressure. And with the stream of words came anger, and with the anger came truth. I wasn’t one bit ashamed of my daughter. I was ashamed of myself.

My hands grew still on the keyboard. I was ashamed of myself, of my lack of success as a mother. All these years, without realizing it, I’d felt as if within my daughter’s large body lay a major accusation of me. I’d failed. My daughter was not just right.

I felt my gut wince. My daughter Peg was smart enough to sense my feelings of failure and shame. She must have always sensed them. Oh, the women in my writer’s group had hit the bull’s-eye when they’d worried that my shame and sense of failure were an insult to my daughter.

I pushed my secretarial chair away from my desk and went to the kitchen to drink some water. Susceptibility to social pressure and the shame of not measuring up were old feelings, ones I’d known in myself and battled for years. The adults surrounding me as I grew up were profoundly creative people; I never felt I measured up. But I’d been in therapy, I’d read good books and talked my heart out to friends. I thought I’d tossed away the bad habit of taking on social-pressure shame years ago, but here it still was, in my heart and in words I had written.

I stood at the kitchen sink and stared out the window. Something deep inside shifted around; it was reality, as clean and clear as my glass of water. I wasn’t one bit ashamed of myself. I wanted to laugh, I felt like crying, tears came into my eyes. Truth tears. While writing my thoughts in the glare of the afternoon sun on my screen, I’d opened myself to truth. My reality had changed.

I went outside and sat on the porch and absorbed my new reality, the inner absence of shame, and wondered if shame would ever find another inroad and try to take up residence again. I concluded that this was certainly possible, but that if fighting shame is a lifelong battle, at least it’s one I can win.

Later that day I telephoned Peg, told her I was going to rewrite the article, and invited her over for lunch to talk about it. Hanging up the phone, I thought about my daughter, who tugs at my heart. I thought about the shine of her straight blond hair that won’t hold a curl and that swings in the sun and about her generous soul, her husband and how staunchly she is his ally, her commitment to her stepson and how hard she is trying to be a perfect mom. I thought about her woes at work, the budget cuts that have decreased her support staff and loaded work on her desk, her struggle to find satisfaction from her job now that excellence and completion are denied. In other words, I thought about my daughter’s rich, full life.

I am glad for her. I respect her, and she is happy as often as any of us are. I have raised a lovely woman, and I am proud. I rewrote my piece and sent it to her. She drove over the mountain that separates her town and mine. We ate lunch out on the porch, with ice cream for dessert. We talked abut the new piece I’d written. She said she liked it, and this time I knew she did.

After lunch we did a couple of errands together in town. Stepping out into a crosswalk, Peg said something funny and I glanced at her and laughed. The sun made her hair gleam. A wave of joy spread through my veins, walking next to my daughter, the two of us between the two white lines of the crosswalk. Hey, World, I wanted to shout. Look at me and my kid. Look at me and my pride. Look at us, and my freedom from shame.

HELEN BIGELOW is a writer living in Palo Alto, California, who is grateful to her daughter for her help and encouragement with this article.

 

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