Any parent who has battled with unhealthy habits understands that deep aching desire to break the cycle, to raise your children without those habits, to see your children grow up into happy, healthy, well-adjusted people.
Having children was my own wake-up call to get my act together and lose weight and get healthy. It took some time to figure out exactly what the healthiest diet was for my body and what the most sustainable activities are for me. And I’m still a work in progress and still have personal struggles with not just my autoimmune disease but, more broadly, with my relationship with food. But, especially compared to how I lived 5 years ago, I feel like I am a pretty decent model for what to eat, how to approach food, how to have fun and how to incorporate activity into my life for my kids. I have made a huge amount of progress toward my goal of “setting a good example” for my kids.
Food was always more than sustenance for me. It was joy, stress-relief, company, entertainment, consolation, and comfort. Food was my crutch and my friend. Name a bad food habit, and I had it. Even though my body and brain chemistry is vastly improved, I have a history with food that means I still have these emotional associations. When I’m stressed, I still want to eat sweets, even though my body doesn’t physically crave those sweets anymore. I must be constantly vigilant less I fall back into these bad habits. It’s much easier than it used to be and it continues to get easier and easier, but it’s certainly not effortless.
One of my greatest wishes for my children is that they grow up without having this emotional dependence on food. I want them to enjoy food and know what good food is, but I don’t want them to turn to food reflexively the way I did for so long (and sometimes still do).
So, when my youngest daughter said “raisins make me feel better”, my skin started to crawl. She was having a massive temper tantrum and I just belted her into her carseat while she screamed because it was time to go to bring her older sister to school. When it’s time to leave, it’s time to leave. I turned on the music, hoping that would calm her down. There was a box of raisins beside her, leftover from a snack she had the last time she was in the car. She started eating and calmed down quite quickly. Then she figuratively slapped me across the face with her declaration. “Raisins make me feel better”. Ouch.
My initial reaction was something akin to panic. Oh no! My daughter, at the ripe old age of not even three yet, is using food to calm herself down after a tantrum! Then, I took a deep breath. Part of her tantrum was likely because she hadn’t had time to finish her breakfast (she took her usual break to play half way through but didn’t go back to finish her breakfast before it was time to leave). She was probably hungry. Maybe her blood sugar was still low. I know from experience that low blood sugar was the number one trigger for tantrums in my older daughter (still is!). Heck, low blood sugar is the number one trigger for my tantrums, er, I mean, crankiness.
I still don’t like the idea of my daughter associating food with calming down. Of course, it’s natural to associate food with feeling satiated and feeling satiated feels good. Is there a difference if the reason for feeling upset is hunger?
I see so much of myself in my younger daughter and it makes it feel all the more important to “fix” my flaws in her (without creating new ones!). I try and tell myself that I can only do the best that I can do, that I can’t predict what experiences will shape her, that she isn’t actually a mini-me. And, it’s not like my toddler feeling calm after eating a box of raisins is exactly the same as a 275lb-me burying my sorrows in a tub of mint chocolate chip ice cream.
All I can do is continue to do my best. I am trying to prevent tantrums before they start as much as possible (which basically means that I make sure my daughter’s physical needs are met, that she gets cuddles and attention, and that I give her plenty of warning for transitions). I find myself using the strategies from The Happiest Toddler on the Block quite frequently (works like a charm with my younger daughter, although it didn’t work as well for my oldest). I am trying to avoid situations where food can be seen as the rescuer. I try to control what I can control, change what I can change, and accept what I cannot and roll with the punches. But, man, this parenthood thing is hard!