A mother tells her 30-something daughter that she is overweight. (The daughter, not the mom.) “Your arms are flabby, “mom says. “You are at risk for heart disease and diabetes; you will never find a husband.”
“Thanks, Mom, “the daughter responds sarcastically. “I had no idea. Now that you mention it, I do resemble a beached whale.” Then the daughter gets a gym membership, works out assiduously six days a week, starts eating nothing but celery, loses 40 pounds, and marries a loving and supportive man.”
That never happens.
What does happen is that the connection between mother and daughter is savaged. Every woman in this culture is reminded daily of how she is supposed to look. She doesn’t need mom to point out the obvious extra pounds. There are billboards everywhere. Until recently, models in print ads and on television were always unhealthily thin. No woman benefits from being told she is overweight. No woman loses weight as a result. Not even in movies.
The broader issue of whether kids grow up healthy and whole in spite of rather than because of their parents’ insensitivity and ineptitude is too broad for me to address perfectly. There are too many other issues involved. Maybe some kid somewhere gained insight as a result of a mean-spirited comment. “My mom could never accept me the way I was so I learned to rely on myself and I’m content never seeing her.” But the succinct question of “how healthy is this mother-daughter relationship?” seems straightforward: the daughter is more likely to be resentful than she is to show up graciously for family visits. “I would love to come see you for Christmas, Mom, but you know December 25th is the night I always wash my hair.”
I might go so far as to argue that mom has likely issues with body image of her own. Maybe mom has anxiety about the daughter getting married. Maybe mom believes that women need men to be economically comfortable. One thing for certain is that anxiety rolls downhill. The bumper sticker says, “insanity is genetic; you catch it from your children.” I might suggest that the trauma brutally apparent and ubiquitous in each generation is passed along from parents to children.
“You have a C in algebra. That is unacceptable. In this family children are expected to get good grades in math. Chemical engineers earn the highest salaries of college graduates. You will never be a chemical engineer unless your grades improve significantly.”
The only vaguely helpful sentence in the harangue above is the statistic about compensation. Indeed, chemical engineers are well-paid. Chemical engineers are also invariably good at math and science. What never happens: ”Goodness dad, thank you so much. That is helpful information,” followed by the child’s enhanced report cards. “Chemical engineers make good money? Then, by golly, rather than struggling in algebra, I’ll get an A in differential equations instead and become a chemical engineer.”
Long time readers of these columns may find the above blindingly obvious. “Of course we bathe our children in unconditional positive regard.” Maybe my column this week is similar to the teacher yelling at the class about absences. The children who are present are not the ones who need to be admonished about attendance. Maybe my readers are already well aware of how blisteringly pointless it is to yell at your kids, to tell them they are fat or otherwise broken and imperfect.
But there seems to be a lot of screaming going on in this culture. And there seem to be countless broken parent-child relationships, lots of lonely people on the holidays when families should be together. So I will keep writing. And you will keep accepting your children for who they are rather than what they do, what they look like, what grade they get in math, or if their arms are flabby.
Or maybe you’ve been wondering a little bit if you are too tough on your kids, if it is your own anxiety rather than their behavior, weight, or math grade that is causing pointless conflict. If reading this essay allows you to stop berating your kids to change that which they already know they would like to change, then I will feel good about my contribution this Tuesday. Giving your kids a break. And having a good relationship with your beloved children. That’s something that sometimes happens.