“It’s a girl,” he said. “It’s a daughter.”
Lying there, on that bed, I realized two things at once: firstly, how deeply I must have been afraid of having daughters; and secondly, how happy I was to have one.
Three years later, I had another daughter after another pregnancy of being certain the child I was carrying was a boy. We did no gender-checking ultrasound with either child, but my intuition, I realize, must have remained blocked by that fear of raising girls. How, I wondered, can I make them less messed-up than me?
Like so many women in this time and place in western history, I am often utterly confused over how much space my woman’s body is supposed to fill. A child growing up in the 80s, I was nurtured in a world of NutraSweet and Weight Watchers and Jane Fonda by my beautiful, kind mother who was constantly dieting. I learned many lessons through her example: how to eat on smaller plates to avoid large portions, how to wait until late to eat a weekend breakfast so that you can stay full until dinner, how to compare onesself to other women constantly to decide who is heavier, how to remove as much fat as possible from food before serving it. I learned that skipping someone’s birthday cake made my mother “good,” that a day’s success could be judged by how “bad” one was at eating “light,” that children could eat pizza but adults needed to eat salad. My brother seemed oblivious.
I was watching. I was watching very carefully. By middle school, I could not negotiate between my adolescent appetite and the desire to be “good.” I began sticking my fingers down my throat and looking around to see if I was heavier than my friends. By college, I was surrounded by other women in the same situation, and the competition got even more intense while the messages got even more confusing. Who could do it better, and what was “better?” What was healthy, anyway: being “good?” eating vegetables? having a good attitude about my body as it was, but being heavier than someone else? I had watched my mother, and I had watched TV, and I had watched my friends, and the voices in my head grew dissonant. I watched everyone and came to an uncomfortable stalemate with all of it.
And then I had daughters. And I knew they were going to watch me, too.
My determination to give them only positive messages around food and their bodies could not have been stronger. From the moment they each began eating solid food, I was clear about how they should decide what to eat. I asked them constantly, “What does your belly say? Does it want more food, or is it all full? What does your belly want to eat? Does your belly want more fruit or more noodles?”
Both my daughters leaned over to talk with their bellies often. My older daughter’s belly had its own voice, even, a nasal-sounding squeak that declared “I want more pears” or “I want to drink milk” or “I am all full.” My younger daughter’s belly was quieter, confused as it always was by her strange health issues, but even that belly said, “I am all done for now,” or “I only want to eat blueberries.” We had lots of fruit and vegetables and also regular servings of dessert. I ate everything in front of them. When they told me I was beautiful, I swallowed back my conditioned response and said “Thank you!” instead of “I wish I was!” I never talked about weight or body shapes with them. I never talked about other women’s bodies. I pointed out beautiful dresses and fantastic t-shirts and the gorgeous, dark eyes of their soft, round preschool teacher.
In short, I did all the things I was supposed to do so that I would not mess up my daughters.
And then, in 2014, my younger daughter Sammi had cardiac surgery, during which the surgeon nicked her thoracic duct. All the fat in her diet had to be removed until it healed, and so I put my 8 year old daughter — on the cusp of puberty, with a 11 year old pubescent teenaged sister — on a fat free diet.
A fat-free diet. Fat-fucking-FREE.
I held it together when I had to buy Sammi a box of Snackwells cookies, the fat-free cookies my mother had allowed herself to eat during her Weight Watchers days when I was in high school. I held it together when a family member sent me a list of recipes from her own Weight Watchers meetings and I realized that almost all of them had too much fat for my daughter. I held it together when I packed Sammi school lunches of fat free cheese on diet bread with fat free yogurt and a tub of berries.
I held it together until I got a call from the Hebrew School that I needed to come get Sammi right away because she was freaking out.
Perhaps sending her to Hebrew School just three weeks after surgery was too much for her, but I had thought what she really needed was for everything to get back to normal as much as possible. When the special necklace I had bought her fell off and she could not get it back on, her remaining patience had drained out, and she had become inconsolable. The teacher had pulled Sammi’s big sister Ronni out of class to sit with Sammi in the youth lounge and try to calm her down. As I walked down the hallway toward the lounge, I could hear Sammi wailing. The closer I got, the more words I could make out, and when I was close enough, I heard something that sounded like “…what’s going to happen?”
The minute she saw my face, she began howling in earnest — deep, terrified sounds — and said, “Mommy, oh no Mommy, oh no, I ATE FAT!”
As I held Sammi against my chest, Ronni explained that she had been having a pizza party with her class when she was called away to be with Sammi. “I wasn’t thinking, Mommy, and I just wanted to make her feel better, so I offered her a bite of my pizza. I’m so sorry! Is she going to be ok?”
And so there I sat, with my two daughters who I had taught, vigilantly, not to be afraid of food. I had never given them anything dietetic, despite the craziness of the medically restrictive diets we’d followed for Sammi over the years. I sat there, rocking Sammi in one arm and squeezing Ronni’s shoulder with the other, and I reeled. Sammi might not be ok. Ronni was shaken and feeling guilty and responsible. The whole disaster related to the consumption of one bite of fat. The teenager in me screamed at the injustice of how bad fat really was.
“You’ll be ok,” I said, to all of us.
I called the doctor, who said that one bite would probably not be enough to hurt her, but we needed to watch Sammi’s breathing, which would mean that fat was coming out of the hole in her thoracic duct and into her chest. I held my daughters close to me, and we went home and hugged some more, and the hours passed, and Sammi kept breathing.
And we weathered the storm, somehow.
My worst fears — that my daughters would come to villainize fat — had come true, but not in the way that I had expected. When the diet was over and Sammi had healed, there was no connection made afterward between fat and being “bad,” or between food and piety, or between the space they take up and the quality of their contribution to the world. Somehow, my work has held up. Somehow, our foundation was strong enough to pass even that wild, unfair test.
There will be other challenges that await us as women with women’s bodies, I am certain, but perhaps I have dodged this one for them, at least for now. Perhaps the world cannot get through that hole because I never let it open up for my daughters. Time will tell.
I have daughters, and I am grateful for every ounce of them.