I once heard the anecdote that if you eat something and eating more of it makes you even more hungry, it is probably mouth hunger. In eating disorder recovery, the terms “mouth” vs “stomach” hunger are often used, mouth hunger referring to hunger that is more about emotions and stomach hunger referring to hunger that is more about physical hunger. I remember in my eating disorder 16 years ago, I would eat an entire pint of ice-cream and be even more hungry afterward. In clinical research and practice, emotional eating is often defined as eating is response to negative affect (depression, anger, anxiety) and gets correlated with binge eating. For those of us recovered, recovering, or wanting to recover from disordered eating, we know all to well what emotional eating is. Or do we? Emotional eating is not necessarily a pathological symptom to “get rid of,” nor is it limited to those struggling with eating disorder recovery. I tell my recovering clients if eating were devoid of emotional connections, then people would eat food pellets at every meal. Almost all eating has an emotional component to it. Ellyn Satter, Registered Dietitian, Family Therapist, and internationally recognized authority on eating and feeding writes:
“Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good…It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful. Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life.” 1
What is the difference between normal eating, emotional eating, and disordered eating?
That is the 10 million dollar question! I remember early in my eating disorder recovery, I needed to have some guidelines around meals in order to know what “normal” eating was- I had been so dis-connected from normal eating and it had been so long since I had felt able to trust myself. A “meal” in my eating disorder could be ice-cream with a bag of cookies or a bowl of broth. Neither of those took into account my stomach hunger, my body, or frankly, my emotions. I was either bingeing or starving not only my body but my emotions. It was like I was letting the fearful, angry toddler inside of me prepare all of my meals. In my recovery, I needed to have some guidelines around eating that helped me include my physical and emotional needs. These included guidelines such as: eating every 4-5 hours, eating a variety (at least 3 food groups) of foods at each meal, not eating the same thing every day (variety), and allowing dessert. It also helped me to establish some food recovery “bottom lines” that included: no bingeing, no restricting (skipping meals, avoiding food groups), no isolating while eating, and no purging.
Being a mom of a toddler myself now, I can see firsthand how toddler food preferences don’t necessarily veer toward vegetables and prefer sweet tastes such as cookies or ice-cream. There is a reason for this! As one Nurse Health-educator points out, “newborns are born with innate taste preference for sweet, rich, and fatty flavors and naturally reject sour or bitter flavors. This is mother nature’s way of ensuring that a newborn will accept the sweet and rich flavor of breast milk.” 2 So how does a parent deal with a toddler wanting to eat only cookies? Interestingly, guidelines to eating disorder recovery are similar to those presented to parents feeding picky childhood eaters: eat together, serve three foods, don’t force cleaning one’s plate or eating vegetables in order to get dessert, allow choice while pairing trying new foods with familiar foods. 2
But what about the emotions that I’ve been starving or bingeing?
That is where the good news and the bad news is it’s not about food. That is where no food can attend to the anger, sadness or fear that is crying for your attention. As Geneen Roth’s sign on her refrigerator states “It’s not in there.” That is where moving toward rather than away from those feelings, with tenderness rather than avoidance or aggression, is the only way out. That is where I call in the principle of what in yoga is called “ahimsa,” or non-violence toward the self. In medicine and therapy, it is referred to the principle of do no harm. It is what being a good parent, one that is emotionally aware, does with grace. Geneen Roth, asks the following questions:
“Can you imagine how your life would have been different if each time you were feeling sad or angry as a kid, an adult said to you, ‘Come here, sweetheart, tell me all about it?’ If when you were overcome with grief at your best friend’s rejection, someone said to you, ‘Oh, darling, tell me more. Tell me where you feel those feelings. Tell me how your belly feels, your chest. I want to know every little thing. I’m here to listen to you, hold you, be with you.’ All any feeling wants is to be welcomed with tenderness. It wants room to unfold. It wants to relax and tell its story. It wants to dissolve like a thousand writhing snakes that with a flick of kindness become harmless strands of rope.” 3
As you are considering emotional eating or disordered eating, I invite you to go deeper with these questions. What would it be like to bring even a tiny bit of kindness and some fiercely advocating compassion to yourself? Even for a moment? Even one moment of kindness can make a timeless amount of difference…Before my very last binge 16 years ago, I stopped before I went into the corner store to buy ice-cream. I thought of all the women struggling with the same feelings of sadness, overwhelm, and fear that I was struggling with in that very moment. I had the visceral experience of compassion. I held my own hand and I said “Honey, it’s not in there.” The tears started flowing, and I finally turned a corner.
Aka Myth Busting, Part 5
All jobs and relationships have their strengths and weaknesses, their ups and downs, their joys and trails. Why would motherhood not include these? Jack Kornfield, the renoun spiritual teacher, wrote a whole book about the spiritual journey titled “after the ecstasy the laundry.” And motherhood includes A LOT of laundry! After the profound experience of giving birth, comes the day to day experience of diapers, (diapers, and more diapers), dishes, bottles, laundry, and spending a lot of time playing on the carpet or in the playground. There are moments within these experiences of Beautiful Aha’s, humour, joy. Recently, my son said to me literally: “I don’t like money. Money is for grown ups. But why did you wipe that poo off my leg? I was SAVING it!” That was a priceless moment of humour. And yet there are often other experiences, too. Of ambivalence.
Barbara Almond, MD, author of The Monster Within—The Hidden Side of Motherhood, states that maternal ambivalence is “the crime that dare not speak its name.” She writes:
Ambivalence arises where there is a conflict between the needs of the parents and those of their children. For example, a loving mother, who has nursed her infant happily every few hours during the day, cannot really welcome being woken out of a much needed sleep every few hours all night long. Yet many women feel guilty and depressed at their own resentment, exhaustion and unfriendly thoughts. That resentment seems very understandable—after all, she does feed the baby even if she would rather not at that moment–but it isn’t, to the mothers themselves.
I have met SO MANY mothers, fabulously attentive, empathic, conscientious mothers who admit, years after the fact, how much they struggled with postpartum depression. Why is it so hard to admit? This myth that motherhood “should” be all-encompassingly fulfilling permeates our cultural subconscious. Dr Almond writes:
The need to suppress negative feelings is really more of a burden than parents realize…What kind of a mother resents her children? Every kind—but in different degrees. The problem is not the feeling which is usually temporary, but the fear of speaking about it- and the resulting feelings of self punishment.
Let’s break the silence and allow the full range of feelings, not only for children developing their emotional understanding, but mothers, too. Mothers who have (an appropriate) place to speak what feels to be unspeakable will be freer of depression, of apathy, of anger stuffed inward, more available for their children, and more available for the whole range of motherhood experiences, glowing and not.
aka Myth Busting, Part 3
This post is inspired by Jill Smokler’s book Motherhood Comes Naturally (and other vicious lies). You can check out her website at http://www.scarymommy.com
1. Motherhood comes naturally, easily, with an inborn intuition.
Motherhood is often difficult, sometimes easy, sometimes effort-full, sometimes intuitive, and sometimes counter-intuitive, just like every other job (and life). Motherhood takes practice, support, endurance, surrender and fierceness.
2. You will get back to your old self (and that is the goal).
Your old self is gone. Motherhood is a whole new identity. You will be creating and growing this right along with your baby, child, children. You may miss the freedom, the absence of stretch marks, the sleep, and that is normal. Grieving your old self is part of the process. Integrating and becoming your new self is the rest of the journey. You aren’t a caterpillar any more. You are a butterfly. (OK, maybe a grizzly Bear). Trying to get your old self back is like trying to crawl back into an already burst cocoon.
3. You’ll get more sleep as they get older.
Apparently this can true for some. Bless them for not flaunting it.
4. Having more than one child is easier because they will play together.
I have often heard this stated. I have rarely seen it in practice. However, it does happen. This is a factor in the decision to have more than one, but that decision is complex and multifaceted.
5. No-one is judging you/your parenting.
Let’s be honest. Even the most open-hearted of us are judging. Even if it is to be helpful. Recently, I saw a father trying to get his toddler out of the car, speaking in an exasperated, harsh, abrupt tone. I heard the child yell and then start crying. I wanted to go comfort the child and tell the Dad “Don’t speak to your child that way! Don’t you realize how deeply that is hurting him?” Instead I asked the Dad if he needed support. He said “No, but thanks.” I saw him relax a bit. The Dad said “He wanted to bring his piggy bank to the playground and I know I’ll end up having to carry it, so I said no.” “Ahh.” I said. I saw the Dad take a breath and regain his capacity to be with his toddler with a bit more presence and a bit less exasperation. Who among us has not been there? Let’s support each other as parents in staying present. It’s hard work, but the children in all of us will be more safe.