“Here you go Mama,” my son Lucien, age 4 (almost 5), said to me, handing me back the fruit salad I’d brought for his afternoon snack to preschool pick-up. “That’s enough fruit. If I have any more, I might spoil my dinner.”
I was amazed. In my rush out the door I’d grabbed the package of cut fruit leftover from a weekend run to Whole Foods, and, even though there was a bit too much fruit in there, I figured a little extra one day wasn’t such a big deal. Lucien knew better. Like me, Lucien loves food. He can recount what he did last weekend based on what he ate; he loves to help prepare food and enjoys a trip to the supermarket. The difference between us is that he’d been learning from the earliest age how to self-regulate his eating, how to know when he’s had enough, how to celebrate food without turning to it for emotional sustenance.
It was a lesson that had taken me thirty years to learn. I’d grown up in a troubled, unstable household in Long Island, New York. My father was an involved and self-proclaimed feminist ’70s dad, but when his temper flared he turned mean and even violent. I took comfort in food – bowls of pistachio nuts eaten while reading novels in my room; afterschool frozen pizzas; nighttime bagels eaten after pasta dinners without a vegetable or fruit in sight. I was sometimes chubby, occasionally thin after a yo-yo diet, and sometimes downright obese. I had the cruel schoolyard nickname “Bubble Berger” to prove it.
My mother struggled with her weight too. Some months she came home from her job as a teacher and sat on the couch flipping between Phil Donahue and Oprah, eating chocolate kisses and a bag of pretzel rods. Other months she attended Weight Watchers meetings and dieted on steamed broccoli and turkey burgers. When she was “good” she could squeeze back into her size twelve Liz Claiborne outfits; when she was “bad” she shopped in the plus size section. At times I wondered if this was an insurmountable family inheritance. Was my child destined to struggle with his or her weight? I started trying to have a baby in my early thirties, after I’d lost 40 pounds through good old diet and exercise – it was yoga and yoga philosophy that helped me change my life and my body, as I chronicle in my book.
As it turned out, I struggled with my fertility – a miscarriage, years of trying to conceive again with no luck – before becoming pregnant with my son in what still feels like a miracle of an IVF cycle. During that difficult time, I had the chance to explore all the reasons I’d sought refuge in a plate of french fries with mozzarella cheese in the first place – to truly process my difficult childhood (thank you, therapy), make peace with the decision I’d made to walk away from my family of origin, and find a healthy, positive relationship with food and exercise, and with my body. I was 35 when I got pregnant, 36 when I had my son.
By the time I had Lucien I was ready. I taught him the “yogic rule” of eating when he was a toddler: after a meal you should be 50% full with food, 25% with water and 25% with air. He watched me work in the vegetable garden I’d planted in our Vancouver, British Columbia backyard and ate raspberries, peas, and tomatoes off the vine. Rather than hiding in his room eating and reading, we’d go to the library every week and there he’d do headstands while I read to him. For dinner my husband I served serve up veggie burgers and yam fries, rice and kale and black beans, pasta with wild salmon and fresh tomatoes, avocado slices and sautéed carrots fresh from the garden. Lucien went to ballet class and on snow shoeing expeditions, came along on family dog walks, could run all the way home from preschool if I promised a Pixar movie or an episode of Doc McStuffins in return.
When Lucien handed me his fruit bowl back, unfinished, I celebrated. I knew we’d broken the cycle, together, and that Lucien would be okay.
Jessica Berger Gross is the author of enLIGHTened: How I Lost 40 Pounds with a Yoga Mat, Fresh Pineapples, and a Beagle Pointer (Skyhorse), out in paperback this month. She writes the Enlightened Motherhood blog for YogaJournal. Learn more at www.jessicabergergross.com