The guilt of being the middle-class mum of a fat child
It’s not just families who don’t know better, gorging on fast food. LUCY CAVENDISH owns up to . . .
THe other day i walked into the sitting room to find my son Leonard watching supersize vs superskinny on TV. He looked riveted and then, when he turned to me, i could see he was crying.
‘i look like them,’ he said, pointing to the supersize people on the screen. ‘i have rolls of fat on me.’
i honestly didn’t know what to say. it is certainly true that Leonard is overweight. He has a large stomach, big thighs and huge arms. He is only just ten years old, yet he weighs nearly nine stone.
His little brother Jerry is only 16 months younger than him and is half his weight. Leonard’s size makes it hard for him to exercise and he is ashamed of his body. To cheer him up — though heaven knows if it is much comfort — i keep telling him that he is not alone. i regularly see boys of his age who are a lot fatter than he is.
One child in ten is obese by the time they start school aged four, according to recent figures released by the Health and social Care information Centre.
As a parent, you hear things about the rise in obese children, but you never think it will happen to your children. Obese children are products of uneducated, jobless parents who exist on Mcdonald’s and live in social housing, aren’t they?
Actually, no. As Leonard shows, they can come from all sorts of backgrounds — rich, poor, middle class, aristocracy. And it’s a very hard issue to tackle.
As a mother, i feel the most unbelievable guilt at seeing my son getting fatter and fatter. i know i am judged by other middleclass parents who think i am a bad mother for allowing it to happen. But how do you stop a child from eating when all he wants to do is eat?
That day, watching the TV, Leonard had an epiphany. ‘i want to change who i am entirely,’ he said.
i almost broke down there and then. He is my lovely boy, one of the kindest, most generous, loving and genuinely humane children you will ever find. i love him more than words can express. Yet this brave and truly wonderful spirit of his has become encased in a body he no longer wants and i have a horrible feeling it is all my fault.
On the surface it does, indeed, seem strange. i am a middle-class, paid-up health food freak who was at the vanguard of the organic food revolution in this country.
i used to edit the Observer Food Monthly magazine, responsible for pioneering organic food, healthy eating, seasonality, balanced diets, micro meals, vegetarianism and organically sourced produce.
There are vegetables in my fridge that most people don’t even know exist. How has someone who exists on not much more than organic seaweed and lentils ended up with a child with a weight problem?
WELL, at this point, i must confess that my relationship with food has been chequered throughout my life. When i look at photos of myself when i was five, i see a child who is quite unmistakably porky, with big thighs and a moon face but, being that age, i didn’t care.
By the age of eight, however, i did start to mind, because i had a best friend who was half spanish and looked like a doll. i really wanted to look like her, but i was probably twice her size.
My mother told me the weight would come off when i was older — and it did. From the age of 12, my body elongated out like a worm with long legs and no boobs to speak of.
Then, when i hit 16, adolescent curves started taking over body, and i didn’t like it. i developed a mild eating disorder, sometimes eating nothing more than a mango a day, and calorie counting like a maniac.
Like Leonard, who snaffles biscuits when i’m not looking, i learned to be sneaky and lie. i’d throw meals out of the window, morsel by morsel, so my worried mother didn’t see the peas bouncing off the grass.
At university, i piled on weight on a diet of frozen pizza, which set the pattern for yo-yo dieting throughout my 20s. Four pregnancies left me four stone overweight and officially obese, before i slimmed down to my present size 12, 18 months ago.
so i do know the agony Lenny is going through. What’s distressing for him is that he is the only one in our family to have a weight issue.
raymond, 16, Jerry, eight, and Ottoline, five, fall into the so-called ‘normal’ weight ranges for their age. We are not a ‘fat family’. i serve up steamed fish with ginger and spring onions. We have small portions of pasta with homemade tomato sauce.
But my standards do slip regularly. My morale and ability to say no to the children when they want treats doesn’t hold all the time.
i understand the desire to eat a cake, doughnut, muffin or packet of crisps. i can’t expect my children not to feel the same way. so, yes, i sometimes buy biscuits. it doesn’t help that raymond seems to exist on little more than chocolate biscuits and endless carb-loaded plates of pasta and pesto. To keep the peace, i tend to give in to his demands.
But when i see Leonard reaching for a biscuit i have to ask him not to eat it, however cruel that sounds.
sometimes, he storms off furiously and i feel terrible. it’s become so bad i can see him looking at me every time he goes to eat something,
worried about whether or not he should eat it and how i will react. it makes me feel terrible.
it’s a Catch-22 situation. While his skinny younger brother Jerry spends his life running and jumping and playing endless games of football, Leonard doesn’t exercise nearly anywhere near as much.
Because he’s overweight, running is harder for him. He gets breathless and disheartened. so the one thing he needs to do — exercise more — is the one thing he doesn’t want to do.
When i gently try to suggest he does more exercise to get fitter, he gets so upset that he runs out of the room and locks himself in the bathroom.
And, like all over-eaters, Leonard always finds a way to indulge his hunger. if i ban biscuits at home, he will go to friends’ houses and eat every single one in their tin.
it’s become clear that Lenny has an entirely different relationship with food than his siblings. it has a real emotional meaning for him.
Lenny’s eating and love of food almost define who he is. He eats more than his siblings. He eats more than me. Food is his ‘thing’ and, in a large family where everyone is struggling for attention, it’s what he has been given attention for. even as a small baby, he’d reach out and grab some chicken or a yogurt.
i noticed he had a large appetite even when he was just a year old. He’d eat anything — curry, camembert, risotto, seafood. People marvelled at how experimental he was.
Children get praised a lot for having a ‘healthy’ appetite. if children get attention for something, especially positive attention, they will continue to do it.
it’s the psychology behind it that worries me. in the past, Lenny was a round, cuddly, squidgy thing, a butterball of joy. But now his eating causes him huge unhappiness, so much so that i am becoming worried about his future.
Leonard comes from a long line of addicts — there is obesity and alcoholism running rife in his genes.
My father was an alcoholic and died from related illnesses. Lenny’s great grandmother and great aunt on the maternal side died from obesityrelated illnesses. Two doctors i have taken Lenny to have suggested to me his love of food might be genetic.
i can see Lenny is developing a dysfunctional relationship with food: eating is like an addiction, it’s as if he can’t stop. He has no concept of being full. if food is there, he will eat it. if it is taken away, he gets angry. it is a horrible vicious cycle.
After he eats, he gets attacks of guilt and he looks so sad i just want to hug him and hold him forever. But then he’ll do it again.
if there are five yogurts in the fridge, Leonard will eat all five. When i tell him just to take one, he gets upset. ‘But they are just yogurts,’ he says. ‘i thought they were healthy.’
i tell him they are healthy, but only in small amounts.
But our society doesn’t do small amounts. it’s all super- size meal deals. every time you walk in to a shop, there are come-and-buy-me chocolate bars and banks of Krispy Kreme doughnuts and bags of crisps piled high.
Why have onions when you can have deep fried, batter- covered onion rings? even healthy things have been abducted by the food industry and turned into unhealthy things — chocolate yogurts, Weetabix containing chocolate chips.
The food industry is conspiring to get our children hooked on fat and sugar so they can sell more and more of it. The scary thing is that it’s working.
it is so different from when i was a child. dinner for me was a baked potato with a bit of cheese and salad. Lunch may have been a boiled egg and a piece of toast.
now children want and expect much more food — and so many more treats. You can’t spend your life saying no, though i know that’s what i must learn to do.
However hard i try to make Leonard eat healthily, i know i have failed as a mother because he is unhappy with himself. Ultimately, that is my fault.
i am so busy managing my life, dealing with work, coping with four children and a divorce (which i am sure hasn’t helped my son’s self-esteem) that every resolution i have come to about Leonard has failed.
Thankfully, his siblings never make an issue of it. They are very supportive of him. They do not feel it is their job to judge him.
That doesn’t go for everyone. i know there are people out there who judge me. i see them stare at us in the shops when Leonard is grabbing ‘pick and mix’ sweets. it makes me feel angry, then tearfully defensive. i want to go up to them and shout ‘He is the most lovely boy on the planet,’ for i know they are judging him, too, and i know that if he doesn’t get his weight problem in check, people will judge him for it for the rest of his life.
There are, of course, some obvious things i can do: banish all ‘bad’ food from my house; find the energy, somehow, to revamp my entire household and the way we eat; and also be prepared to face down the tantrums every single member of my household will have.
right now, with my eldest son doing GCSEs and the mass demands of everyone else in this house, i find that idea exhausting. The other children are happy to support Leonard, but that tends to wane when we are on our second week of celery sticks and ‘delicious’ salads.
Friends obviously find my perceived uselessness at this all highly frustrating. They give me sideways looks as if to say ‘just stop being so pathetic’.
One of them, a really close friend, says ‘poor Leonard’ every time she sees him as if he is suffering from some life-threatening disease.
i have had friends giving me diet books, recommendations of raw food regimes and suggestions of taking him to a kinesiologist, which is some sort of movement expert.
But i know they are all thinking the solution is easy — up the exercise, reduce the amount he eats, put him on a treadmill and hey presto! he will lose weight.
But if it were that simple, i’d do it. All parents of overweight children would do that, but we have so many emotions flying around our families.
Maybe middle-class mothers are killing our children with kindness, being too tired and too confused and too understanding (after all, don’t i want to eat cake? Of course i do) to really stand up, dig deep and sort out this problem.
After all, it’s one that is affecting the entire nation, not just me. i am sure many other mothers are on their knees, weeping, vainly and desperately trying to find a solution to an increasingly insidious problem. The truth is i am at my wits’ end and so i am writing this article for every other warm, caring, loving mother who is tearing their hair out, just as i am. My concern is about Leonard’s future health and happiness. i fear that, in a society that has no tolerance or understanding, he will be bullied and laughed at as soon as he leaves the comfort of his highly supportive junior school and goes out into the wider world. so far, Leonard has been relatively protected, surrounded by his family, friends and school. But i am terrified that there could well be real trouble once he starts secondary school in a couple of years time.
The other day there was a glimmer of hope. The morning after i found him watching supersize vs superskinny, he went online and found a diet website full of chef’s ideas. He came and asked me to look at it with him. We then made a list of all the food he liked — chicken, yogurt, broccoli — and then worked out a weekly diet plan for him.
We are in the process of making a chart where we will plot his progress. He will be rewarded for losing weight — he is saving up to buy a skateboard. not only that, we are going to incorporate a weight chart, incentives and his own recipes.
From now on, he says, he is going to lose weight, run, get healthy. There’s a voice in my head telling me we’ve been here before and have failed. i can’t tell you how much i want it to work this time.