I am watching home videos with my daughter, who is nearly 15 and prone to bouts of nostalgia. She likes to remind herself of a time when life was simpler — when she received toys instead of gift cards for her birthday, when her little brother still idolized her, when her favorite thing about the science museum was the diorama room and she could run freely through the exhibit since no one else’s favorite thing about the science museum is the diorama room.
On the television screen, my children’s cheeks are still rosy and full, their smiles silly and unguarded. I love watching their skinny little legs kicking in the pool, their pudgy fingers picking up one goldfish cracker at a time.
The only thing I don’t like about these old home movies is seeing myself on camera. The me I see onscreen is quite heavy – 40 pounds heavier than my current weight, to be exact. Because I am short – only 4’9” – a gain or loss of even three pounds is visible on my frame. Forty pounds, which I lost the year before I turned 40 years old, represented nearly one third of my body weight.
My daughter is watching a video of her brother’s fourth birthday party, and I am cringing at the sight of myself, when she says, “You looked better back then.”
“Really?” I ask in surprise. I peer at the television, trying to see what she sees. “Why do you think I looked better back then?”
“You looked better with more weight on you,” she says.
At first I just blink at her, utterly confused. “Why do you think I look better with more weight?”
“Because,” she says, “you looked more like a mom.”
Occasional childhood chubbiness notwithstanding, I was never truly heavy until after my children were born. Once I had my daughter at age 30, and then my son at age 32, my weight crept upward. It happened so gradually, though, that, like a lobster in a pot of slowly boiling water, I didn’t even notice it was happening at first. Sure, I knew I’d put on a few pounds, but I still thought of myself as a thin person. Now, when I look at those old photos and videos, I barely recognize myself.I start to think about what it means when I say that being at my happy weight makes me feel like myself again. Do I mean that it makes me feel like I did before I had children?
When I was at my heaviest, I went for my annual physical. When my doctor told me that my cholesterol was borderline high, I finally admitted to myself that I’d gotten seriously overweight. It took me close to a year to work my way back to my “happy weight,” pound by hard-won pound, and, five years later, I’m still maintaining that weight loss. My cholesterol is back in the normal range, and the disconnect I used to feel between my outside and my inside – between my past self and my present self – is gone. I feel like me again.
I’m proud of myself for losing that weight, and I’ve always assumed that my children were proud of me too. Which is why it is so startling to hear my daughter announce that she prefers the heavier mother in the videos to the healthy one I am now.
“You looked more like a mom back then,” she says.
I want to ask her what exactly she thinks a mom looks like. I want to insist that mothers come in all shapes and sizes. I want to remind her that I lost the weight for her and her brother as well as for me, that I want to be healthy for a good long time so that I can watch her grow.
But I don’t say any of that. Because none of it, I know, has anything to do with what she really means.
Back when she was young – before homework and chores and the overwhelming drama and confusion of teen friendships – I was a stay-at-home mom, and I organized my days around her and her brother. If there was anything I wanted to do for myself, I squeezed it in while they were napping or watching a video or after they’d gone to bed for the night.
But as my kids got older, they wanted to curl up and read their own books rather than listen to me read aloud. They asked to be dropped off at their friends’ houses, leaving me an hour or more to myself. At this point, they’re both old enough to stay home by themselves. The ability to go to the grocery store whenever I want still feels like an indulgence.
My daughter loves her burgeoning independence, but every once in a while she decides that she needs some hands-on time, and that’s when the past and the present of our relationship crash up against each other. Because as she’s become more independent, I have too. I no longer always drop what I’m doing the moment she asks for me. Unless it’s an emergency, she sometimes has to wait – for me to come home from work or to finish my run, or even just to reach a stopping point in a book I’m reading.
Time and time again, she sees me prioritizing myself over her. And while she knows she can’t go back to being four years old at the science museum, I wonder if part of her thinks that if only I were heavy again, things might be a little more like they used to be.
For me, my weight loss represents my discovery of my own strength. It represents the realization that I have to care about myself as much as I care about my family.
It means something very different to my daughter.
Or maybe it doesn’t. I start to think about what it means when I say that being at my happy weight makes me feel like myself again. Do I mean that it makes me feel like I did before I had children? Is that what she hears?
I look at my daughter watching a much heavier me on the television screen, and I think I understand. When she says that I looked more like a mom back then, she’s saying that I looked more like her mom. She’s saying that she’s nostalgic for a time when I didn’t care about things other than parenting her. And now that I am 40 pounds lighter, she feels as though she’s carrying some of that extra weight – in added chores and responsibilities, in the emotional burden of being fifteen, in the knowledge that I am a person just like she is, rather than an archetype.
So I hold my tongue, and, as we watch together, I try to see my former self the way she does. I see the delight with which my eyes follow her every movement. I see the protective way I carry her into the pool, the glee with which she collapses into my waiting arms at the bottom of a particularly tall slide.
“I will always be your mom,” I tell her when the video ends.
“Sometimes parents get tired of their kids,” she says, without looking at me.
“I will never be tired of being your mom,” I promise her. “In fact, I can guarantee that you’ll get tired of me being your mom way before I get tired of being your mom.”
She sits with this for a long moment. Then she says, “Yeah, I’m kind of tired of you being my mom already.” She’s kind of joking — but kind of not. As I said, she’s nearly 15. Neither of us are who we used to be. In some ways we’re less, and in some ways we’re more.
She switches the video, and we watch together.