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The pediatrician walked briskly into the examining room, grabbed the folder from the pocket on the door, and looked at the chart. Bea sat on the examining table in her underwear, her arms crossed over her body.
“She’s four foot four and ninety-three pounds,” the doctor read. Like all observations she’d made about Bea’s health during the previous seven years, this one was made matter-of-factly, almost breezily. But I knew what was coming.
“I need to get some help with her weight,” I said, preempting the inevitable reprobation.
“I think it’s time,” the doctor agreed.
This was a moment I’d dreaded, and now that it had arrived, my heart sank. I’d chided myself about Bea’s eating in the months leading to this annual checkup. The pediatrician and I had discussed Bea’s escalating weight at our annual appointments for half her life. A year earlier, at the pediatrician’s urging, I’d acknowledged that the problem had gone too far, and I’d promised to deal with it.
I’d tried. I’d failed miserably. In the intervening year, my little girl’s height had increased normally, while her weight had spiked a stunning twenty-three pounds.
Bea’s weight was now equivalent to someone my height (just under five feet four inches tall) weighing 175 pounds. Her blood pressure was 124 over 80, up from 100 over 68 a year before.
There was something about seeing those numbers written into Bea’s permanent health record that triggered something primal in me. My reaction was the same as if I’d been told Bea had a potentially fatal allergy, or diabetes. Her weight pattern was no longer a simple parenting hurdle; it was a medical crisis. Something was threatening Bea’s health, and I needed to protect her. I needed to figure out how to make the change happen.
If I can look back through time and pinpoint the moment I sat up straight and buckled down, it was then. I knew that I couldn’t let my own hang-ups (more on those later), my parenting shortcomings (plenty of those), my fears of screwing Bea up (always, always), my concern about other people’s reactions (ingrained, hard to ignore), and the overwhelming difficulty of the task stand in the way of helping Bea become a happy, healthy child. I didn’t want my daughter to suffer the health hazards, the emotional pain, the social stigma of being overweight. The buck had to stop there. Even if Bea was only seven years old.
Bea was born an alert, happy, beautiful little girl. She was healthy and met every milestone of physical and intellectual development heralded in the baby books on or before schedule. My only disappointment when she was a baby was that she wasn’t a bit chunkier. The first grandchild born to my parents was my niece, at that point the single fattest baby I’d ever seen. And she was scrumptious! Giant eyes with never-ending lashes blinking languidly onto tumescent cheeks. Her sausage-link arms and gargantuan thighs were a total delight. We all wanted to bite her rotund belly, which no shirt seemed able to contain, and on which she rested her chubby hands with Buddha-like calm. Then she grew into a healthy-weight child, and her infant deliciousness was just a cute little footnote. So I’ll admit that at first I was the tiniest bit let down that Bea’s limbs didn’t wrinkle with excess adipose tissue and that her stomach was flat.
Bea had barely been around a year when her brother David was born. They were pretty easy kids. Bea in particular had a maturity and easygoing nature that made my husband, Jeff, and me suspect we were getting off easy in the parenting department. She didn’t cry much. She was a reliably good playdate. She talked in full sentences by age two, could read books at age three, and scored in the very top percentiles of every test we subjected her to for the purposes of kindergarten admission.
At home, her unabashed goofiness—often exhibited in improvised dances and high-volume singing—made her little brother laugh so hard he’d nearly choke. She was game for anything and would get excited about even mundane activities such as drugstore shopping or pushing someone’s baby in a stroller. Basically, she is a better child than I deserve, a fact my mother jokingly reminds me of constantly.
I was quick to deflect any implication from other people that our parenting had much to do with any of our children’s accomplishments. When someone asked what Jeff and I did to get Bea to sit quietly at a dinner table at age two, or for David to learn how to send emails at age three, I would assure them we hadn’t “done” anything. “They just came out this way,” I’d say.
The differences between David’s personality and temperament and Bea’s further disabused me of any notion that our nurture had much to do with how they were inclined to act. My husband and I were, after all, parenting them both the same way (or trying to), and though they were both awesome, there were marked differences.
For example, Bea would instantly learn the words and movements to a song in music class, while David would spend that time tinkering with the technology, figuring out how to work (and blast) the stereo system. Her weakness was bossiness, his was short-temperedness. They were both sensitive and loving, but her affection took the form of a generalized fondness for people, whereas his was a very focused and fiery passion. She preferred playing with boys, while his best friends were girls.
When it came to food, both were good eaters but, again, different. David had clear ideas about what he wanted. A less diplomatic way to say this: he had (has) very precise, narrow tastes in food that, while fortunately incorporating all food groups, were (are still) dauntingly specific. While Bea would happily eat whatever we fed her, David had to have one of the exact vegetables he would tolerate (broccoli, carrots, corn, or Brussels sprouts), one of the two proteins he liked (chicken or beef), and definitely lots of pasta. He would rather starve than eat something he didn’t like.
Right or wrong, early on I adopted the theory that kids’ essential natures were basically imprinted on them at birth. Sure, somewhere deep in my heart I sometimes took secret credit during proud moments, and also wondered smugly if other kids’ misbehavior—a classmate’s inability to share, a friend’s uncontrollable temper tantrum—were the results of mistakes in their upbringing. Judging someone’s parenting is all too easy.
But overall, I believed (still do) that my kids’ interests, intellectual capacities, overall health prospects, and dispositions were all in there from the start and couldn’t be significantly modified. My husband and I felt that it was our responsibility to help our kids along by constructively molding whomever they naturally were. I couldn’t expect David not to stand up during music class and blast the stereo. But when he did, did I laugh and praise him for his independent spirit? Did I gently but firmly redirect him back into the circle? Did I grab him and remove him from the class? (I chose the middle option.)
When Bea wasn’t sleeping through the night, did we let her cry it out, or did I get up and soothe her back to sleep every time she awakened? (For me it was an inconsistent combination of both.) When David refused to eat the tofu stir-fry the rest of us were enjoying, did I cook him the penne he wanted, or did I give him the choice of eating what we were having or going without dinner? (Mea culpa again: I usually wimped out and made him the pasta.)
I look back on my early new-mom worries with some amusement. Our kids eventually learned to sleep through the night (though as toddlers they were both tough to get to sleep before ten or eleven sometimes), and I trust that one day David’s taste buds will wake up. But even as I know that no one misstep will completely make or break our kids, I tend to take each new decision point seriously. Raising a child is, after all, a pretty major responsibility.
Fortunately, Jeff and I generally are of similar mind. We are crazy about Bea and David, but we try to impose limits and order. Not necessarily so well (see cooking pasta to make peace and delayed bedtimes above), but we try.
The Not-at-All-Terrible Twos
When Bea and David started eating actual meals, I did what was expected of modern New York moms and fed my children healthful, well-balanced meals that reflected the latest knowledge of nutrition. Long gone was the USDA-approved food pyramid of the 1970s, which, to my youthful delight, rested heavily on a wide foundation of starchy carbs and included a picture of ice cream in the “dairy” category. Now our carbs have to be whole-grain, and anything with more than five ingredients or an additive your child himself can’t pronounce is suspect. You even have to stress out about what kind of water you give him—and it should be in a reusable bottle, but not a plastic one!
Breakfast was not spectacularly nutritious in our home—we ate bagels fairly often, and cereal the rest of the time. But lunch always had a protein in the form of ham or turkey, a piece of fruit, carrot sticks or cucumber slices, and some kind of healthy-seeming organic-ish snack, such as Pirate’s Booty or whole-grain pretzels. And never anything other than water to drink.
Dinners consisted of protein (meatballs, chicken cutlets, broiled fish filets), a small side dish of pasta or rice, and vegetables prepared without fat. After-dinner snacks varied from a cheese stick to crackers to a frozen fruit pop to a banana. There was no junk food in our house. At that point, my husband and I had nearly complete control over the kids’ diets, and we saw no reason to introduce overtly “bad” foods quite yet.
Parents today can be pretty sanctimonious about what they’ll feed to their children, and while I certainly cared about preparing healthful and nutritious meals for my family, in my mind I mocked the moms who were overly concerned with the organic lineage of their kids’ food. At a party celebrating Bea’s graduation from the two-year-olds program at preschool, I watched as a little girl asked her mom whether she could have an all-natural frozen fruit pop. The mother inspected the ingredient list and said no. I am not sure what the objectionable additive was, but it set a pretty high standard for what that kid was allowed to eat. I think she was permitted a clementine, and that was it. I would never have expressed my feelings to this woman—her kid’s eating was her business, as far as I was concerned—but the extent to which she was controlling it seemed absurd.