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MOTHER MAY I?

Perhaps it is a coincidence, perhaps it is because I called my mother, Ma, but the first two letters of the month reminds me that MAy brings us Mother’s Day.  Despite the fact that some folks tout this as a shameless commercial “Hallmark” opportunity for selling cards and gifts, others experience it as a more poignant day; ripe with meaning and fertile ground for insight and expression.  For people working on issues related to food and body image, the connections between mothering, nourishment, nurturing and the female body are easily accessible during this time.  You don’t have to be Freud or even Freudian to understand that looking at our earliest associations with food, love, and self-soothing MAY provide us with valuable information about our current relationship with food and our bodies.

Our mothers are frequently the first reflection we have about the importance and meaning of food and our bodies.  Powerful role models, we choose to either emulate them or rebel, consciously or unconsciously.  How we integrate the messages we received from our moms impacts our behaviors and self-image long after we have left the nest.  Last year, for Mother’s Day, I wrote a piece about how my mom’s hatred for her body shaped my feelings about my body shape. (Here’s the link if you would like to read that post).  But this year I would like to write about a different aspect of mothering.

Whether or not we have any kids of our own, we are all still mothers to ourselves each and every day.  As adults, we have the honor, challenge, and awesome responsibility of taking care of ourselves and must learn how to discern between the positive mothering skills we learned from our mothers and those less beneficial to our physical and emotional health.  This MAY be an opportunity to do some spring cleaning and discard some less healthful behaviors, beliefs, or habits while showing gratitude for the ones that are enriching our lives. This isn’t always easy to do, especially if prone to guilt. 

“How can I reject my mother???”  “If I do it differently from my mother what does that say about how I feel about my mother?”  “I would like to take three giant steps please!  Ack!  I didn’t say, “Mother may I?* I have to go back to the starting line!”

*(For those of you too young to remember this game it was similar to Simon Says, in that you had to ask permission to move forward.  And if you got almost all the way to the finish line and forgot to ask, “Mother may I?” you had to go all the way back to the starting line.  Kind of like having to start back on Level one in Welder.** No room for error. All or nothing.)

**(For those of you too old to know Welder, it is …ah, never mind!)

But remember, there are numerous mothering styles, ranging from overly detached (othering) to overly enmeshed or (smothering). Consciously choosing a different style than our mothers used when we were growing up is not necessarily disrespectful nor does it diminish the loving intentions that hopefully accompanied their actions. We MAY choose to let go of some aspects of how we were mothered and keep others. (I will resist all temptation to make a pun about being my mother’s keeper.)

In thinking about my mom, there is no doubt that food was a large part of how she mothered me.  Her hands patting my head were indistinguishable from the sweet creamy farina I was eating when home from school with a fever.  Her arms around my waist held me like the cone held the ice cream I was lapping away at, as I snuggled on her lap and celebrated my birthday.  Food was an extension of her love and a language she was fluent in.  Was she the perfect mother?  No.  Was she the worst?  No.  Did I learn from my experience?

No doubt.

I have learned that it is never too late to learn how to be a good mom to myself and learn positive ways to take care of my body, mind, and spirit.

I have learned that in order to be a good mom to myself it is imperative to provide a supportive, nurturing and accepting environment for growth and sustenance.

I have learned that one of the negative outcomes of our diet obsessed culture is what a bad rap emotional eating has gotten from the dieting industry.  In the spirit of restriction and in the name of health and self-control, we are told that if we EVER eat when we are NOT hungry and eat to self sooth or celebrate, that somehow we have failed in our quests to attain the perfect body and achieve that coveted, detached and apathetic relationship with food.  But we are human.  And from the very start our experiences with food are intertwined with love and emotions, sad and joyous occasions.  To place a completely negative value judgment on eating for those emotional reasons is cognitively dissonant from what we have grown up with.

But unlike my mom, I consider myself bilingual in the language of food and love.  I have adopted a more mindful relationship with eating that helps me understand the difference between hunger, appetite and satiety and doesn’t exclude any one category out of fear. I have taught myself that self-acceptance, health, and self-worth are NOT based on being thin enough, or weighing a certain amount or using our body as a way to garner acceptance and approval from others.   It hasn’t been easy but I have had to learn how to trust myself with food instead of adopting punitive restrictive diet plans and extreme doctrines that call for an all or nothing approach.  These interventions inevitably set us up for bingeing and self loathing.  Our bodies and brains become the arena for the war between the “loving mom” who gives us permission to eat our fill and the nagging punitive mom hollering, “YOU DIDN’T SAY MOTHER MAY I!!!!”

I am not sure what my son, now in his 20’s, would say about my mothering skills.  He doesn’t read my blog.  I will guilt trip him about that later.  But I try my best to be a good mom to him and to me and that means putting my beliefs of what makes a good mom into action.

I believe a good mom:

  • Accepts their child for who they are.  They reinforce the strengths of the child, teach them how to be safe, and try to reshape and dissuade them from self-destructive or hurtful habits and behaviors.
  • Teaches and role models tolerance and acceptance of diversity in others.
  • Realizes that a child must be nurtured, nourished, loved and taught how to love and nourish themselves in the absence of the mom.
  • Realizes that there is a middle ground.  That no one is all good or all bad. And if you make a mistake you don’t have to go all the way back to level one.

Hallmark Opportunity???  Maybe.  But if that is what it takes to honor ourselves with a Mother’s Day gift of self-care, self-acceptance and gratitude for what good moms we are and are becoming then Happy Mother’s Day!!!

And yes, you may take as many steps as you’d like!