It seems like I was always an angry child.
Not the throw-fits-in-the-grocery-store kind of angry. Not the slam doors or pull-off-the-wings-of butterflies angry. Although I did a little of the former — a couple of times, and got smacked for doing it.
No my anger turned itself on me in the form of headaches — stabbing, killer headaches that constantly felt like someone was ramming an ice pick into my head.
My mother gave me aspirin at first. Mom, always looking for the easiest way to avoid confrontation, handed me two children’s aspirin at a time, every four hours, until I graduated to Tylenol. When she was not handing me Tylenol, it was food.
My mother suffered from depression. Well, that is what she said in later years. She seemed more bipolar to me — going from happy highs to hysterical screaming and shrieking and smacking me in the mouth to crying. To lying in bed all day. Some days she would try to cure “us” with food. Her favorite was Hot Chocolate Pudding.
It really was not pudding at all, although it started that way. She would use one of those “Jello” boxes – the non-instant variety. The kind that did not set up instantly. But the kind that you cooked on the stove. Stirring constantly — my job while my mother wallowed in her depression on the couch. When it was finished cooking the instructions said to put it into the refrigerator, cover with a thin film of plastic wrap. Stretched tight. And let it set. We did that with a couple small bowls of it.
The rest? We ate like soup.
My mother did not bother with a bowl for herself. She gave me a bowl of it. A bowl that was actually about 2 servings’ worth – warm, molten chocolate lava. She poured another two servings into three small footed milk glass dishes for the refrigerator, and properly covered them with plastic. The rest she ate herself out of the pan with a soup spoon. She told me we were eating this “hot chocolate pudding” because “we were sad.”
Years later I would learn about what sugar spikes can do to ones moods. You get this rush of well-being, comparable, I suppose, to what one would feel with heroin, although I have never done personal research on that particular subject. When that high wears off, you crash… really crash… and you are worse off than you were before you ever bothered with all that sugar. I am no scientist, but I do know that my mother’s primary reward system revolved around food. In fact everything seemed to revolve around food. Vacations, traffic routes from church, life in general.
I often tell the story about the beginning of my love affair with cheese.
When we had behaved particularly well, my mom would take us to Mansour’s Market. As a reward, we would each get to pick out our very own cheese. Our very own, and no one else could eat a piece (way before “Who Moved My Cheese”) without the decider’s permission.
To this day, if I had only one food I could eat for the rest of my life, it would be cheese.
And the food I associated most with punishment? Eggs.
I have this memory of sitting at the kitchen table. I must have been 4 or 5 years old. In front of me is a plate of food. The way I see the story in my head, the plate holds scrambled eggs. They are cold. I do not want to eat them. I am not hungry and cold eggs taste disgusting. But my mother has decided it is time to show “Sissy” (that’s me) who is The Boss. So she forces me to sit there. Tells me I cannot leave the table until I “clean my plate.” After much begging, I try to get down from the table, and she runs over and jerks me up by the arm, shoving me back into my chair.
“EAT. DAMMIT,” she says.
I’m sure at this point some crying ensues. Mine, first.
Which makes it worse. Mucus is not a particularly good seasoning, especially on cold scrambled eggs.
Then, not to be outdone, I would guess my mother started crying. Because her 5-year old was “being mean to her.” Her willful little daughter did not want to eat, and by damn, that child was not going to get away with it.
I remember trying to get up again, and run to my room. Toward the front of the house. Which makes me think I was even younger. Because I had the room in the front of the house until my baby brother was old enough to move away from my parents’ room. At one point we switched rooms. He got the front bigger room, because he kept falling onto the floor furnace when he tried to cross it to go to the bathroom (the bathroom was between the two bedrooms, the floor furnace between the back bedroom and the bathroom door.)
So maybe I was four. But I remember crying “No, don’t make me eat any more,” and running from the table. My mother grabbing me, spanking me, and dragging me by the arm back to the table and shoving me into the chair. Shoving my face toward the plate. In my mind’s eye, this went on for hours.
Then my father came home from work. Probably asked what I was doing crying at the table. Dad was a school principal, so it was probably around 4:00 or 4:30 p.m. He had on a hat. Back then, men were always wearing hats. That they took OFF when they came inside. Real, proper hats. Not baseball caps turned backwards, that grown men now see fit to wear inside restaurants, church, wherever.
I remember some sort of discussion between my mom and Dad. Mother telling her side as the victim at the hands of her spiteful, mean little girl. My father telling me to go to my room. So at that point I’m thinking it’s a reprieve. Or parole. Or something. But I go to my room, and my father follows me in and spanks me again. I’m sent to bed with no supper.
I think I fell asleep. Exhausted by the ordeal.
I am awakened by a knock at the front door. I sneak out of my bed and peek around the corner. At the door are Jan and Wayne, the kids from down the street. Here to pick me up to go to Vacation Bible School. Or something like that. I think Jan and Wayne were Mormon. I did not know that there were different faiths at the time, I just remember that I loved going with them to their Vacation Bible School. We did not have that at our church, at least in the form that Jan and Wayne did. We just had a Sunday School teacher who told us Jesus died for us because we were all bad and did not deserve it.
I hear my mother say to Jan and Wayne, “Amy cannot come with you. She has been very bad and would not eat.”
I remember being humiliated and mortified. So much so, that I never asked to go to church with Jan and Wayne again.
Because people would KNOW.
They would know how rotten (my mother’s words) I was that I did not belong with kids at the fun church activities. Jesus CERTAINLY did not love me.
Years later my mother would tell the story differently.
In her version, I had been really sick and had lost a bunch of weight. In her version, she was worried about me so she was just trying to get me to eat something. Grilled cheese, she would say. But for years and years and years afterward, I had an aversion to eggs. In fact, I have only lately started eating eggs again.
I have always loved grilled cheese. Give me a grilled cheese any day.
So, that, I contend, makes my mother’s version of the story a bit suspect.
Later my mother would offer an apology — of sorts. “I was such a bad mother,” she would say. “I was always so frustrated. I did not know how to handle a child so willful and angry as you were.”
I read online the other day, that a friend was forcing her children to eat their least favorite vegetable as a punishment for lying. I steeled myself against a rant at the time. It was not the proper forum.
I have battled against a twisted relationship with food my entire life. Eating as a reward. Eating when I’m sad. Eating when I feel slighted. Eating more after I really am full, and could not eat another bite. But I do. Because it tastes good. Because I deserve it.
That Ladies and Gentlemen, is messed up.
Here are a few facts from the Center for Disease Control about childhood obesity.
• Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years.
• The percentage of children aged 6–11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7% in 1980 to nearly 18% in 2010. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12–19 years who were obese increased from 5% to 18% over the same period.
• In 2010, more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese.
Now, part of the uptick can probably be sourced to fewer children playing outside and more children sitting in front of the computer or glued to a phone playing video games. Or the rise of carbohydrate-rich convenience foods served to kids by on-the-go parents working way too many hours just so that they can make enough money to keep a roof over the kids’ heads.
But maybe it also has to do with forgetting that food is energy. Food is fuel. And good food should be enjoyed, but only as much as is necessary to provide nourishment for the body.
I am not saying that food is not awesome. Or that chefs should not be able to make our taste buds jump for joy with a fabulous wine and food pairing. But what I am saying is that food should not be used to reward children for what we deem acceptable behavior or to punish them for what we think is unacceptable.
Food should not carry with it all that baggage.
I helped raise two kids and I know that sometimes it is difficult to motivate children to act with a maturity they have not yet reached. It can be frustrating. Maybe the kid is acting out because she cannot express what it is that is bothering her. Maybe he is testing your limits. Maybe he is just being a kid.
Maybe the problem is not the children at all. Maybe the problem is the adult.
We have enough eating disorders created by a societal pressure to look like a narrow set of avatars, instead of a variety of healthy human beings.
Let’s not pile on by turning something that should always be enjoyable, and necessary to live into a reward or punishment based on our own fear of failure in parenting.