“You look just like your mother.”
My mom happened to be in town, visiting my home near Washington, D.C., for the annual profusion of cherry blossoms, and this refrain followed us everywhere we went. It made me smile — through gritted teeth. It’s true that she and I share the same blue eyes, the same genial Midwestern countenance. We even have the same unruly swirl of hair at the nape of the neck. But on this visit, we looked more alike than ever: For the first time, we were nearly the same size.
My mother has been overweight for as long as I can remember, not obese but a matronly plump. In the rural town where I grew up, most moms looked like she did: farm wives with substantial bosoms and hips. At church picnics, she and her friends commiserated, seemingly surprised to find themselves in these large, soft bodies, so different from the lithe girls they’d once been. “It’s so hard after you’ve had children,” my mother would say, patting her belly, and the others would nod, glancing at us kids meaningfully and, I thought, a bit accusingly.
I’ve always taken a certain comfort in having a mom who is not thin. Unlike my friend Kelly and her tiny-skinny mother, who began raiding her closet when Kelly was in seventh grade, my mom and I were never in competition with each other. (After seeing her mother in one too many of those swiped minis, Kelly became the most conservative dresser in junior high.)
My mother and I didn’t share clothes, but we did share food. My dad was a meat-and-potatoes man, so she and I bonded over treats we considered “girly” — snack foods such as cheese and crackers that you could reach for again and again while talking across the kitchen table. Along with my sister, we’d watch TV on the couch, dipping into giant bowls of buttered popcorn. We also baked cookies, cupcakes and pies; one snowy winter we baked nearly every day, trading the dirty drifts piled outside for white, silken mounds of sifted flour in our warm kitchen.
Some nights, though, my mother ate alone. I recall her sitting beside the kitchen window with a head of cauliflower as dinner simmered and the passing cars turned gray in the twilight. She’d break it into pieces and chew quietly until it was gone. On a particularly bad day, she might switch the cauliflower for a bag of chips or chocolate cake — just a slice here and there — until that disappeared, too. My sister and I might beg a bite or two, but somehow we understood that this was my mother’s time and she wasn’t in the mood to share. I could sense even then that my mother was unhappy, and I believed it was my fault. After all, I’d seen the photographs of her, thin and smiling, in her size 6 wedding gown. I’d heard her words to me: It’s so hard to be thin after having kids. Clearly, if she hadn’t given birth to my sister and me, she wouldn’t be overweight. She wouldn’t be stuck in a family that wore her down, coping as she did with two eternally squabbling daughters while working full-time as a library director. She would still be that beautiful, joyful bride.
Determined to avoid her fate, I went on my first diet at age 8, picking at my meals until I could slide off my jeans without unbuttoning them. Thus began a pattern: I would overeat in times of stress, ballooning up one size, then two, then three, then shrink myself with starvation and workouts. I gained and lost 20 pounds at college, 40 at law school, 60 at my first job. Finally, by my 30s, with exercise and careful eating, I managed to stay steady at around 135 pounds. When I maintained that weight into my 40s, I thought I’d won the battle.
Whenever I managed to lose weight, my mother said she was happy for me. But I detected a certain tightness in her voice, or maybe it was simply that I felt guilty about abandoning her: Now that I was a thin person, we no longer shared the extra large buckets of popcorn together. It was as if I’d gotten up from the kitchen table where we’d snacked and talked intimately and left her sitting across from an empty chair. I suspect she believed that my efforts to be thin were a rejection of her, and in a way, she was right. As much as I relished the smaller sizes and all the compliments from friends, every time I refused dessert or went for a run or lifted weights, I was warding off the specter of my mother’s body, fighting the fear that I’d wake up one day and discover that somehow I’d become her.
Until one day, I had. I was struggling with the transition to being a stay-at-home mom after working as an attorney, my son was diagnosed with borderline autism and my husband was traveling ceaselessly for his career. I was too busy to go to the gym and then, after a while, too depressed. So, like my mother before me, I began my own kitchen-window vigil, only I didn’t start with cauliflower. I went straight for the brownies, cookies or — on a really bad day — a Cadbury Dairy Milk bar. The large size.
I needed help, so when my mother asked if she could come for a few weeks, I gratefully said yes. The last thing I expected was for her to show up 30 pounds lighter. Suddenly, a woman who had once dieted by eating only ice cream for dinner was spouting Useful Nutritional Knowledge. At lunch that first day, she pushed away half her sandwich. “I’m full,” she said. I mentioned that I’d made chocolate cake. “I don’t have a taste for sweets anymore,” she said casually. Who was this woman, I couldn’t help thinking, and what had she done with my mother?
It turned out that a Curves gym had opened down the block from her work. Her insurance paid the fee and provided free sessions with a nutritionist. She could drop in first thing in the morning, exercise and catch up on local gossip. “Good for you!” is what I said, because it was good for her, wasn’t it? My mother’s doctor had warned her, repeatedly, about her growing risk for high blood pressure and diabetes. This development was wonderful. So why was I feeling the teensiest bit cranky?
Let’s start with the fact that my mother now had what I did not: time to exercise and make healthy meals. I’d be able to lose weight, too, I told myself, if I were a semiretired librarian with a free nutritionist. But it was more than that. For years, I’d blamed my mother for my yo-yoing weight, or, more specifically, for teaching me to associate food with comfort. What do you do at the end of a tough day? Eat! Bickering children stressing you out? Eat! Every bowl of popcorn we shared, each cake we baked, taught me that food meant feeling safe, better.
Now here she was, finished with that kind of thinking, while I was the one snacking on sweets alone in the corner. Too late, I now understood why she’d once retreated into her quiet eating zone — how, as a wife and mother, you’re sometimes forced to grab peace and privacy where you find it. If baking (and consuming) cookies had made her life feel easier for a while, then at least she’d had that. Who was I to blame her for her habit, especially because, as she once did, I was now eating my way out of my hard-earned size 8s into 10s, 12s, then one day, I noticed with shock, size 14s. Which happened to be my mother’s current size. Only she was jubilant about that number — she hadn’t been so small in decades.
My new, healthy, energized, size 14 mother set about fixing my life. She cleaned my kitchen. She folded my laundry. She never commented on my weight, but she took over the cooking, grilling fish or chicken breasts with vegetables and maybe making a baked apple for dessert. It was the kind of healthy cooking I used to do, back when I had the time and energy. It was, I realized, a way I could eat again. With my mom around to help, I was able to stop my binges. As often as she and I had engaged in comfort eating together, it felt too embarrassing to do it solo while she was in my home. So I took a break. No Cadbury bar the first night of her visit. Or the second. Or third.
Meanwhile, I watched her play contentedly with my son. At the time, he was very into deciding how much things cost. He himself cost $6, he announced. I cost $8. How much did Grandma cost? “One million dollars!” he yelled. My mother sat back and laughed. I saw then that she wasn’t merely smaller. She seemed happier, too, more at home in her skin.
Which made me see that perhaps it wasn’t such a bad thing to be the same size as my mother, at least for the time being. After all our years of eating and dieting, of being fat and thin and fat again, we had finally met in the middle. Perhaps we did not need food to bring us together, nor to make us happy. After all, thinness isn’t the same thing as happiness and solace isn’t the same as food. Indeed, it dawned on me that the comfort of eating with my mother had never been about the cookies, cakes and popcorn. It was always about a mother and daughter in a bright, warm kitchen, talking and laughing across the table on a snowy day.