The Mommy Vortex: A Delicate Balance
As the 2012 holidays ran out of steam, gasping their last breath on New Year’s Day, I stood in line at my local supermarket stocking up on some healthy food to counteract my family’s recent holiday diet of butter cookies and egg nog. I had to prepare the kids’ lunches for the rest of the week, and as I loaded the belt with reasonably healthy snacks, I heard a mother behind me speaking to her pre-teen daughter in tones that were becoming louder and angrier by the second.
“Do you see that?! Do you?” the mother demanded. I couldn’t stop myself from slightly turning toward them to see what the commotion was all about. “Do you see that woman’s food in front of us?” she asked. Oh, no, she means me, I thought, panicking. She continued, relentlessly, “I bet her kids aren’t fat like you. I bet they can wear whatever clothes they want. I bet the other kids don’t make fun of them for being fat.” I immediately cringed, wanting the floor to swallow me whole right there.
The young girl was crimson red, fighting back tears, with her shoulders hunched over and her eyes down. She kept her head down, still clutching the candy bar that she must have asked to buy, which I guessed started her mom’s tirade. I didn’t want to judge her mother – I had no idea of her personal history – but I really fought with myself as to whether I should say something, given that this (slim!) young girl was being publicly humiliated, and my kids’ snacks somehow got caught in the crossfire.
The mother continued to berate her daughter about eating healthy, more quietly now that so many eyes had moved toward them, and the cashier impatiently tapped her fingers on the belt, staring me down. I caved, and moved on to bagging my groceries while the girl stood motionless, silent tears cascading down her cheeks. I left the store without saying a word.
The entire way home, and for days afterward, I felt like a coward. Shouldn’t I have defended that poor child? Shouldn’t I have said to the mom that, you know, maybe you can speak to her about this at home? With a little more compassion, maybe? What I really wanted to tell her was that I thought she was destroying her daughter’s self-confidence, her body image, and her trust in her mother all at the same time.
There has been much ink spilled over building girls’ confidence in their bodies while helping them to maintain a healthy lifestyle. I get that. And yet there are still so many women out there who manage to chip away at their children’s self esteem, publicly no less, to get a message across about healthy bodies. Are the rest of us also culpable for standing silently by? Shouldn’t we all, as a society, approach healthy eating and weight loss issues with a sense of respect, compassion, and kindness? Should we allow our fellow moms to strip their daughters of their physical and emotional self-esteem in public? Is it even our business?
I wondered to myself after the supermarket incident whether I would have been as upset with the mom if the girl had tried to buy cigarettes or alcohol. Would I have been more tolerant of the mother’s outrage? Perhaps. Yet, there was just something about the way the mom’s tone and words decimated that young girl that really bothered me.
I know we moms are under a lot of stress, that we have so many expectations to meet, and that we have to change hats so often throughout the day, from employee, to mom, to wife, to caregiver. We all get impatient and frustrated.
I still think we have to do better when it comes to speaking to our children, especially our daughters, about their bodies and their health. I just don’t see any good coming from a public verbal beating about a candy bar. In fact, I worry that the girl will start to eat in secret – or worse – stop eating entirely, just to have the “perfect” body according to her mom’s perspective or even the media’s unreasonable images.
We have to feel comfortable, both in public and in private, to explain to our daughters that their food choices are health choices, and not link everything to what clothes you can fit into or what the boys might think. And I think we have to help each other to do that.
I am still annoyed at myself for not figuring out a way to tactfully step in to help that young girl in some way. But I am going to pay it forward, so to speak, and be more cognizant of how I speak to my own daughter as she grows older and as these body image issues become more prominent than they are now. I hope that, one day, my daughter will choose not to have candy over a healthy snack because I taught her about what food choices are better for us – and that if she does want some chocolate, that she’ll realize it is an occasional treat that should not result in purging or unreasonable exercise.
Most of all, I just want her to be comfortable and confident in her body because she knows she is taking care of it the way she should. And I certainly don’t want her to fear me if she needs to talk about her body or body image. It’s such a delicate balance. But at the very least, I think we can all make a commitment not to humiliate our children about their bodies or food choices in public. After all, acting with kindness and compassion is a healthy choice, too.
Rosemarie Coppola-Baldwin is a practicing attorney and a dedicated mother of two children. A Georgetown University graduate, Rosemarie has practiced law at a major New York City law firm and for the City of New York. Rosemarie has been a guest lecturer on women’s civil rights and related legal issues at St. John’s University (New York), and offers pro bono legal services to a variety of entities.