By Helen Bigelow
Winter 1993 issue
My grown daughter Peg and I were sitting on porch chairs one hot
afternoon, looking out at the garden. Shes in her thirties and is fat, though I
never use that word. When anyone asks me about my daughters weight, I always say,
"Shes 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 Id 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 shed have
some privacy while she read.
When she finished, she said, "I like it. It didnt 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
The inside of my head said something like, Honey, mid-afternoon bowls of
ice cream arent 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, Id 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. Thered 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 shed told me about it later, Id felt her pain and been
furious with my aunt. But with the mocha almond fudge that hot afternoon, I was almost as
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 daughters thighs. A friend dropped bya 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
writers 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
Id talked to my grown daughter of diets when she knew as much about nutrition as I
did and Id sworn I was never going to say another word. I remembered all the times
when she was a teenager or in college and Id 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 computers screen, I stared through the glare at a run of
words appearing before me. Society, I read. Vogue. Womens magazines,
men, diets, people who design clothes, stores that dont 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 wasnt 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, Id felt as if within
my daughters large body lay a major accusation of me. Id 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
writers group had hit the bulls-eye when theyd 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 Id 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 Id been in therapy, Id read good books and talked my heart out to friends.
I thought Id 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
wasnt 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, Id 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 its 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 wont 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 daughters 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 Id 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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