Authors: Dara-Lynn Weiss
is a work on nonfiction. Some names and identifying details have been changed.
Copyright © 2013 by Dara-Lynn Weiss
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
Ballantine and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Jacket design and art: Misa Erder
To paraphrase Tolstoy, all healthy-weight kids are alike, and every overweight child is overweight in his or her own way. What follows is my family’s story. Some names—including those of my family members—and identifying details have been changed. Conversations, events, and quotations have been reconstructed to the best of my recollection. Other people involved in the story, including my daughter, Bea, will have their own perspectives on things that likely differ from mine. This book represents my personal experience, and my particular point of view.
It was a picture-perfect autumn Saturday. I was walking hand in hand with my daughter, Bea, on a quiet downtown block dotted with cute boutiques and trendy restaurants. Suddenly, something in a store window stopped me dead in my tracks.
“Oh, my God,”
I muttered breathlessly.
Following my gaze, Bea squeezed my hand tight. We stood still for a minute, taking in the sight before us: row upon row of pastel-hued, buttercream-frosted, expertly decorated cupcakes. Some had cute little flower appliqués. Others bore a playful smattering of sprinkles. They were beautiful.
“Can I have one?” Bea asked.
“No,” I answered quickly. A mother’s reflex, based on any number of ingrained, “good” parenting tenets: setting limits, the avoidance of sugary processed foods, and protecting her appetite for dinner among them.
“Share one?” she ventured.
Well played, Bea. With those words, she had turned a kid’s innocent request into an opportunity for mother/daughter bonding. A chance to connect over our shared love of—obsession with—the indisputably empty calories of cupcakes. Once I was cut in on the deal, I saw the value of the proposition. I grinned at her, and we giddily went inside.
We feasted our eyes on the contents of the display case. Chocolate frosted, red velvet, or classic vanilla? I didn’t even have to ask. Classic vanilla, obviously. Where cupcakes are concerned, Bea and I are invariably on the same page, and vanilla is our shared favorite. I bought one.
I took the cupcake from the woman behind the counter, and handed it down to Bea for the first bite. Her big brown eyes widened, and her lips parted in an expectant smile, revealing a prominently missing front tooth. I watched the crumbs collect on her lips as her teeth sank into the thick layer of frosting, and down through the fluffy wall of cake.
My turn: I closed my eyes for a second, savoring the flavor of the delectable treat but more so the exquisite pleasure of spending time with this delightful child. At nearly seven years old, she still thought most of my stupid jokes were funny, and the unselfconscious abandon with which she emitted her hearty laugh made me try all the harder to provoke it. At nearly seven years old, she still generously shared what was on her mind, and I never knew what amazing, hilarious, fascinating thing she might say next. At nearly seven years old, Bea was so easy to please. Why would I begrudge her this simple delight?
If passersby had looked into that cupcake shop window, they would have seen a gleeful little girl enjoying a sweet bite
of childhood and a mother happily aglow in the small experience.
If they had children themselves, they might have recognized the kind of ineffable, joyful moment that makes parenting so special.
But our idyll was about to end.
The pediatrician walked briskly into the examining room, grabbed the folder from the pocket on the door, and looked at the chart. Bea sat on the examining table in her underwear, her arms crossed over her body.
“She’s four foot four and ninety-three pounds,” the doctor read. Like all observations she’d made about Bea’s health during the previous seven years, this one was made matter-of-factly, almost breezily. But I knew what was coming.
“I need to get some help with her weight,” I said, preempting the inevitable reprobation.
“I think it’s time,” the doctor agreed.
This was a moment I’d dreaded, and now that it had arrived, my heart sank. I’d chided myself about Bea’s eating in the months leading to this annual checkup. The pediatrician and I had discussed Bea’s escalating weight at our annual appointments for half her
life. A year earlier, at the pediatrician’s urging, I’d acknowledged that the problem had gone too far, and I’d promised to deal with it.
I’d tried. I’d failed miserably. In the intervening year, my little girl’s height had increased normally, while her weight had spiked a stunning twenty-three pounds.
Bea’s weight was now equivalent to someone my height (just under five feet four inches tall) weighing 175 pounds. Her blood pressure was 124 over 80, up from 100 over 68 a year before.
There was something about seeing those numbers written into Bea’s permanent health record that triggered something primal in me. My reaction was the same as if I’d been told Bea had a potentially fatal allergy, or diabetes. Her weight pattern was no longer a simple parenting hurdle; it was a medical crisis. Something was threatening Bea’s health, and I needed to protect her. I needed to figure out how to make the change happen.
If I can look back through time and pinpoint the moment I sat up straight and buckled down, it was then. I knew that I couldn’t let my own hang-ups (more on those later), my parenting shortcomings (plenty of those), my fears of screwing Bea up (always, always), my concern about other people’s reactions (ingrained, hard to ignore), and the overwhelming difficulty of the task stand in the way of helping Bea become a happy, healthy child. I didn’t want my daughter to suffer the health hazards, the emotional pain, the social stigma of being overweight. The buck had to stop there. Even if Bea was only seven years old.
Bea was born an alert, happy, beautiful little girl. She was healthy and met every milestone of physical and intellectual development heralded in the baby books on or before schedule. My only disappointment when she was a baby was that she wasn’t a bit chunkier. The first grandchild born to my parents was my niece, at that point the single fattest baby I’d ever seen. And she was
scrumptious! Giant eyes with never-ending lashes blinking languidly onto tumescent cheeks. Her sausage-link arms and gargantuan thighs were a total delight. We all wanted to bite her rotund belly, which no shirt seemed able to contain, and on which she rested her chubby hands with Buddha-like calm. Then she grew into a healthy-weight child, and her infant deliciousness was just a cute little footnote. So I’ll admit that at first I was the tiniest bit let down that Bea’s limbs didn’t wrinkle with excess adipose tissue and that her stomach was flat.
Bea had barely been around a year when her brother David was born. They were pretty easy kids. Bea in particular had a maturity and easygoing nature that made my husband, Jeff, and me suspect we were getting off easy in the parenting department. She didn’t cry much. She was a reliably good playdate. She talked in full sentences by age two, could read books at age three, and scored in the very top percentiles of every test we subjected her to for the purposes of kindergarten admission.
At home, her unabashed goofiness—often exhibited in improvised dances and high-volume singing—made her little brother laugh so hard he’d nearly choke. She was game for anything and would get excited about even mundane activities such as drugstore shopping or pushing someone’s baby in a stroller. Basically, she is a better child than I deserve, a fact my mother jokingly reminds me of constantly.
I was quick to deflect any implication from other people that our parenting had much to do with any of our children’s accomplishments. When someone asked what Jeff and I did to get Bea to sit quietly at a dinner table at age two, or for David to learn how to send emails at age three, I would assure them we hadn’t “done” anything. “They just came out this way,” I’d say.
The differences between David’s personality and temperament
and Bea’s further disabused me of any notion that our nurture had much to do with how they were inclined to act. My husband and I were, after all, parenting them both the same way (or trying to), and though they were both awesome, there were marked differences.
For example, Bea would instantly learn the words and movements to a song in music class, while David would spend that time tinkering with the technology, figuring out how to work (and blast) the stereo system. Her weakness was bossiness, his was short-temperedness. They were both sensitive and loving, but her affection took the form of a generalized fondness for people, whereas his was a very focused and fiery passion. She preferred playing with boys, while his best friends were girls.
When it came to food, both were good eaters but, again, different. David had clear ideas about what he wanted. A less diplomatic way to say this: he had (has) very precise, narrow tastes in food that, while fortunately incorporating all food groups, were (are still) dauntingly specific. While Bea would happily eat whatever we fed her, David had to have one of the exact vegetables he would tolerate (broccoli, carrots, corn, or Brussels sprouts), one of the two proteins he liked (chicken or beef), and definitely lots of pasta. He would rather starve than eat something he didn’t like.
Right or wrong, early on I adopted the theory that kids’ essential natures were basically imprinted on them at birth. Sure, somewhere deep in my heart I sometimes took secret credit during proud moments, and also wondered smugly if other kids’ misbehavior—a classmate’s inability to share, a friend’s uncontrollable temper tantrum—were the results of mistakes in their upbringing. Judging someone’s parenting is all too easy.
But overall, I believed (still do) that my kids’ interests, intellectual
capacities, overall health prospects, and dispositions were all in there from the start and couldn’t be significantly modified. My husband and I felt that it was our responsibility to help our kids along by constructively molding whomever they naturally were. I couldn’t expect David
to stand up during music class and blast the stereo. But when he did, did I laugh and praise him for his independent spirit? Did I gently but firmly redirect him back into the circle? Did I grab him and remove him from the class? (I chose the middle option.)
When Bea wasn’t sleeping through the night, did we let her cry it out, or did I get up and soothe her back to sleep every time she awakened? (For me it was an inconsistent combination of both.) When David refused to eat the tofu stir-fry the rest of us were enjoying, did I cook him the penne he wanted, or did I give him the choice of eating what we were having or going without dinner? (Mea culpa again: I usually wimped out and made him the pasta.)