A Good-Enough Mother
28 years ago tomorrow, I entered the world. My mom was herself 28 at that time. Turning the same age my mom was when she had me has been emotional for me, and I’m not entirely sure why. I do know that when a parent has died, which she did about 7 years ago, it is not uncommon for these kind of milestones to have an effect on us. I expect that turning 49—the age at which she died—will also be a big one for me.
I have been reflecting lately on the legacy my mom left me with, particularly with regards to fat and body acceptance. Like all human relationships, ours was complex, and while it may be tempting “not to speak ill of the dead” I personally tend to prefer honesty.
I was a plump kid throughout my childhood and teen years, and while my mom never really made directly hurtful comments about my body size, the signals were there. I could see the “look” in her eyes when I wanted to wear clothes that didn’t “flatter my body” (which meant hide the fact that I had a tummy). She would encourage me to exercise and diet with her. On an almost daily basis she made comments about her own body size not being acceptable. My mother had an enormous influence on my acceptance of my body, and it wasn’t a positive one. I can say all this frankly, but with grace, because to have expected my mother to rise above her own upbringing in a fat-obsessed culture would have been asking her to be super-human. I myself wouldn’t have been able to even question the idea that fat and fat people are all kinds of bad (unhealthy, ugly, lazy, stupid) if it weren’t for stumbling upon Fat Acceptance stuff online in college. So I can see how my mother’s negative influence on my body acceptance and self-love was a product of the culture she was raised in. I wouldn’t say that “she hurt me,” but instead I would say that she herself was hurting, and her way of coping with that hurt (to try to lose weight, to “be good” in how much she exercised and ate) ended up reinforcing my own body-loathing.
On the other hand, without my mother’s positive influences in my life, I would never be writing this blog. She taught me that I had something worth saying, and that I should say it. She taught me that it mattered what I thought, even though some people might try to tell me that “girls aren’t supposed” to do this or that (she’d gotten that message a lot herself, and didn’t want her daughters to be oppressed by it). She thought I was intelligent, well-spoken, wise, and funny, and she communicated this to me verbally and in non-verbal ways. She also didn’t mind that I made mistakes sometimes. It was always clear that no matter what, she loved me. I remember coming home from high school one day, terrified because I had gotten a poor overall grade for the quarter in Biology. (The quarter grades didn’t go on report cards; semester grades did). She said, “did you try your best?” And I sheepishly admitted I could have done better. “Well then, you will!” and she just dropped it at that. Sure enough, I’d raised the grade up to a B by the time semester grades came out. My mother’s grace and her belief in me were major factors in my ability to do that.
Many of my friends are new mothers, or have been mothers for some time, or are about to become mothers. I’m delighted to see these little ones, and so looking forward to meeting the little ones who haven’t yet come into the world. I do not have kids, and my spouse and I are not planning on having kids, but I am planning on continuing to play an active role in the lives of the children in my community, as preacher, counselor, pastoral caregiver, teacher, aunt, and mentor. When reflecting on our role in the lives of children, I can’t help but think that Fat Acceptance is so important in our parenting (and our teaching, caregiving, etc.). The way we teach the children in our families and communities how to speak about and think about their body is important, and the example we set in how we talk about and think about our own bodies is even more important. Of course, I don’t want this to become yet another way that parents—or other community caregivers—aren’t living up to the standard.
Donald Winnicott, pediatrician and psychoanalyst, coined the term “good-enough mother” and I think that is so important here. We do not need to focus so much on being “good parents” or “good teachers.” What if we could be “good-enough aunts” and “good-enough pastors”? The reason I emphasize the concept of the good-enough mother (etc.) is that I was recently reminded just how much it is true that Fat Acceptance should not be just one more impossible standard to which we hold ourselves. It’s not just one more bludgeoning tool to say “I am not good enough.” If we look at ourselves in the mirror and don’t like what we see, or we feel guilty for having that second piece of cake, being a Fat Activist doesn’t mean we should beat ourselves up for beating ourselves up. We don’t have to be perfect, we just need to be good enough.
Being good enough with regards to fat acceptance and how we teach the children in our community to love instead of loathe their bodies, to have healthy relationships with food instead of disordered relationships with food, doesn’t mean perfection on our part, it means moving in the right direction. It means that we take a stance about our bodies being good, at their exact size and shape right now. We stay educated about issues of health and civil rights as relates to fat and fat persons. We affirm the goodness of the Creator as expressed in our created bodies and the good gift of food. And when we fall short of these things, we treat ourselves with grace and respect. We stumble, and we get back up. We beat ourselves up, and then we remember that we deserve better. We keep on. We make love our focus.
My mother was a good-enough mother. And I often wonder what she’d think about what I’m doing now. I very much wish she was still around so I could tell her all that I’m learning about Fat Acceptance and Health At Every Size, because I know how much she needed freedom from the oppressive message that her body was unacceptable. I also know beyond a shadow of a doubt that she would be just tickled pink that I’m writing this blog—sharing my self and my truth in this way with so many people.