Treating Parenting Stress with Junk Food: How I Traded One Addiction for Another

My highest non-pregnancy weight was around a year and a half after my first son was born. I was sick of feeling uncomfortable in my own skin -- and sneakily relying on maternity-waisted sweatpants when I was at home -- but I had developed some very bad eating habits. Well, it wasn't so much habits, plural, as one major diet-sabotaging routine: every evening, after my child went to bed for the night, I collapsed on the couch in front of the television and mainlined whatever junk food struck my fancy.

I knew it wasn't healthy, but the entire comforting ritual had become my reward for making it through another day. Those precious few hours between my kid's bedtime and my own represented the one time a day I was allowed to be as selfish as I wanted, and what I wanted was to completely unplug … and treat myself. With, say, an entire pint of Ben & Jerry's Mint Chocolate Cookie ice cream.


Breaking that nightly "But I deserve it!" habit was the hardest part, when I eventually got ahold of myself and lost the weight. Like many bad habits, though, it never went away for good. Time and time again, I fall right back into it.

Years ago, I bragged that I didn't have a sweet tooth. What I didn't realize is that 1) not having a sweet tooth doesn't actually make you a superior person in any way, so shut up, jackass, and 2) I did have a sweet tooth, I was just drowning it in sugar-laden booze. After all, why have dessert when you can have another glass of wine? Or, you know, five. Plus two beers. And maybe a G&T chaser.

When I quit drinking, I turned immediately to food. I tried all the other relaxation techniques that had been suggested to me, and a few even worked (to this day, I take a hot bath before crawling into bed, because I got so used to doing so in the early days of learning how to sleep instead of passing out), but food -- particularly sugary foods -- became my new indulgence.

Food addictions are tricky to deal with. I can attest to the fact that stopping an out-of-control drinking problem is no fun at all, but there is the small, cold comfort of not having to decide how much alcohol you're going to drink, or what type, or when you're going to have it. With alcoholism, you stop drinking altogether. (Or, okay, I shouldn't speak for everyone. That's the tactic I took.) With food, well, you can't just ban it from the house. You need to learn to eat like a normal, non-self-medicating human being.

And if you're me, you have to learn how to enjoy the childfree part of your evening without overdosing on pizza-flavored Combos and Nutter Butters while watching Deadwood. Not that there's anything wrong with any of those things, mind you ... unless maybe you're wearing maternity pants and you haven't been pregnant for at least 18 months.

In the fullness of time, I started replacing junk food with healthy snacks and herbal tea, I exercised while the TV was on, and I worked to fill my life with non-parenting activities that I drew enjoyment from, so I didn't feel quite so desperate in those evening hours. I relied on everything I'd learned to get back in shape after my second son was born, and I never fell into quite the same rut the second time around.

But (you knew there'd be a but, right?) it's insidious, that couch-snacking habit. It's crept back lately, since the weather's gotten wet and cold and it's dark out at 4 PM, and I've been a happy, but increasingly lazy, homebody. By the time the evening comes I just want to chill out and revel in the fact that my work is done and I have another adult around, and yes, after the boys go to bed I've been far too tempted by the plethora of holiday treats on hand.

What is it about mindlessly shoving food in my mouth while zoning out in front of a movie or a TV show? It has nothing whatsoever to do with hunger, that's for sure. It's like I'm telling myself that it's okay to completely switch gears -- that it's okay to stop thinking, stop exercising any form of discipline. It feels like the ultimate relaxation, and yet it eventually creates all these bad feelings as my fitness levels decrease, my pants stop fitting, and I start feeling self-conscious and unattractive.

Anyway, the hard part is taking the steps to make healthy changes, but something that always helps me is writing it down. So here I am, making a public commitment to break out of my junk-rut -- and if it's a bit of a cliché to do that on New Year's Day, well, SO BE IT.

Do you struggle with the nighttime Oh Thank God the Kids Are In Bed, Pass the Cookies habit too?

Image via Linda Sharps

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