I have been attending a weekly Suppers meeting that started as a group focused on our relationship with carbohydrates. It has been interesting to observe where the conversation goes aside from food. We had been meeting for about six months when we started talking about therapeutic friendships and discussing Birdie’s story, Liar, where lying and authenticity, and bingeing, and self-observation were all tangled up.
Many in our group focused in on the theme of protectionism in Birdie’s story: “There were adults in my early life with whom it was just not safe to be real. Now all these years later, I’m still wired for subterfuge and there’s some connection between this and how I keep making the same mistakes over and over.”
We decided to sit with the question: How are protections that we used to cope with situations that made us feel unsafe earlier in our lives causing challenges today?
This prompted me to share how angry I get when my five-year-old daughter drops or spills something. She is forever dropping things . . . just as I put the last dish from dinner in the dishwasher, just as I am about to turn out the light at bedtime, right before we are walking out the door for school. And I’m the one who has to clean it up. My scolding is hurtful and reduces my daughter to tears. I know, in retrospect, that my reaction is completely disproportionate to the innocent and often playful act that precipitates the mess. This ruins our dinners, bedtime routine and outings. And I hate myself for my behavior.
It got me thinking about how my mother treated me as a child. I had my share of being yelled at for typical childhood behavior. As I grew older, her judgments became more harsh and unrelenting. I asked my Suppers group how they thought this might translate into a life of poor eating. The answer seemed so simple to them: when the people with whom you are supposed to feel safe make you feel unsafe, you turn to outside influences as a coping mechanism. It dawned on me that for most of my life I have used food.
These thoughts ran through my brain for weeks. To think all of this was not only a trigger for my own bad eating habits, but that I was paving the way for my daughter to invent her own coping mechanisms, weighed heavy on my mind. I wanted to do something to stop interacting with my daughter in this manner. For now, I could only observe, reflect and be aware.
About two weeks later, my daughter and I were making cupcakes to bring into her class. We were having a great time. The recipe called for four eggs, which I had laid out on the kitchen island. She joyfully and proudly cracked the first three eggs into the flour mixture. Thoroughly enjoying her cooking confidence, I turned my attention to the recipe and heard a dull crack. I snapped my head up and simultaneously saw a yolky-shelly mess on my countertop and a terrified look in my daughters eyes as she braced herself for the berating about to ensue. My heart sank and melted at the same time.
It took only a split second for me to decide that I wasn’t going to do to her what I always do, what my mother did to me. Instead I softly said, “That’s ok, that’s ok, that’s ok. We have more eggs. Go into the refrigerator and get another egg.” She was so happy and, I gather, relieved. She jumped up, got another egg and cracked that egg right into the batter. I was flying high. This is how I want to react every time my daughter drops something. I never want to make her feel that she has to shield herself from me. I know I won’t pull this off perfectly every time, but I can be aware. Aware of how my mother treated me, aware of how I treat my daughter and aware of the effects of both.
I followed up at my next Suppers meeting to share my afternoon of cupcake making. Everyone practically cheered. My story touched a chord with one woman in particular. She left that meeting and went out and bought each of us a beautiful, etched, egg-shaped bead as a symbol that change for the better is possible. I carry this bead around with me at all times, as a reminder of the behaviors I would like to change as I raise my daughter. And I clutch it tightly in my hand whenever I see my daughter running around with a glass of milk.
I am grateful to Suppers for teaching me how to cook and discover how to eat what is right for me. But I am more grateful for the wonderful, giving and supportive people I have met through Suppers who help me become a better person.