My Mom Was a Secret Binge-Eater -- & Now I'm Becoming Just Like Her

binge eating out of the fridge
iStock.com/Kontrec

My mother was fat. She didn't start out that way. She was 5'9" and 125 lbs when she married my father. She had my brother a proper 11 months after her wedding day. She always joked that she was a "Fertile Myrtle" as three more children came along. I was the last one and the only girl.

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I only knew my mother as a bigger lady. Tall, well dressed, and always with a ready smile. She had long legs and a beautiful face. With each pregnancy, she said she never lost the baby weight before the next baby came along. Her belly was where it all went. All the food. All the stress. All the emotion. All the happy, sad, and in-between.

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When I was in fourth grade, give or take a grade, my mother came to my classroom for something. Maybe to drop off a forgotten item or return a permission slip. I don't remember. But after she left, MaryAnn Ciniglio asked me if my mother was pregnant. "No!" I answered. Embarrassed, confused, and a little angry is how I remember that moment. I was angry that my mother was being judged. I was angry that my mother looked different than the thin mothers. 

I went home for lunch every day. We lived one block from my elementary school. As I came through the side door of my house to my tuna fish sandwich, I wasn't sure how to tell my mother about what MaryAnn had said.

"MaryAnn asked me if you were having a baby. That was stupid," is what I said. I remember looking at her face and seeing a slight smile. Maybe it was amusement at the things kids say. Maybe it was embarrassment. Maybe it was just acceptance of her body. I'll never know. My mother died seven years ago. But as my reflection looks more and more like hers every day, I feel a growing affinity to her, emotionally, as a mother. And as a woman getting older. And as a woman who eats too much.

I've never been thin. Ever. Except for that time I starved myself for a boyfriend who dared me to "diet until I was translucent" as a joke -- but not really. I knew he was embarrassed by my chunkiness. I knew he liked everything else about me except that I was heavier than all the other girls he had his pick of. My ass, my thighs, my ankles were all simply too big to be of any value. Crazy, I know.

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I honestly hate talking about weight. I hate reading about diets and talking about low-fat recipes and telling people how great they look since they've lost weight. I hate it. There are a million other things I'd rather talk about. But what I do need to get a grip on is my emotional eating. The absent-minded stuffing of my face with chips until the bag is empty and I have no recollection of anything after the first three chips. The "late-night exhausted eating" because I can eat in silence. The "car eating" because that's my little world. The "frustration eating." Frustration strikes and hand goes to mouth.

Frustration about the slow crawl to a better position at work. Frustration about missing out on time with my daughter because I know just how precious every minute is. Frustration about not being able to afford dance lessons for my child or a little vacation. Or new pants, because I've eaten myself right into the next size up. Frustration at life not turning out how I thought it would. Time, sleep, money, and maintaining relationships with friends. It's all so much harder than I expected. 

My mother must've been exhausted. And frustrated, and sometimes disappointed. But she was also happy. You can be all those things at once, I've learned. She had the need to eat Comstock cherry pie filling with a fork right out of the can. And bowls upon bowls of cereal. And frozen Milky Ways and Yodels.  

She ate dinner while she cooked it, again while we ate it, and again late at night after we were all asleep. Or at least not while anyone was watching. But my room was at the top of the stairs. I always saw her go past my door around midnight. In her knee-length cotton nightgown -- the same kind I wear now -- she went downstairs to the kitchen. I'd hear the refrigerator open and then silence.

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She must've looked forward to this moment throughout the day. Through all four kids and PTA responsibilities and bookkeeping for my father's business and caring for her aging parents and ... you get the picture. Her friend and confidante was food. It's my friend too. And I look forward to that moment alone with my food BFF more than I should.

I'm trying to break this cycle before I see my daughter fall into the same pattern. But the truth is, I like eating in the quiet of my kitchen late at night. I like turning to a snack to take my mind off moments of disappointment or being pissed off about something big or small. But I also know that my knees are hurting and my pants don't fit, and my skill at applying eyeliner only gets me so far in feeling good about myself.

There is a very pregnant teacher in my 4-year-old daughter's school. Miss Maria is weeks away from having her second child and the kids love talking about it. My daughter, Miriam, was hugging me the other day. She's waist-high on me now.

"Mommy, you have a baby in your belly," she said as she patted my round stomach. She started to giggle because she knew I didn't and she'd just made a joke. That memory of MaryAnn Ciniglio instantly appeared in my head.

I have become my mother in many ways. The good, the bad, and the rarely actually hungry.

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