Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Moralization Of Spaghetti And Meatballs

There's been a little bit of a kerfuffle over one of NSIL's tweets that I wrote about in this post, and I'm thinking I need to start back at square one and better explain my feelings on that particular subject. On October 8, 2012, NSIL tweeted this: Mama made spaghetti and meatballs and apple pie...i am loved. Taken out of context, viewed at face value, or examined as coming from someone who's mother doesn't have a history of emotionally abusing her children, it could very well have been relatively meaningless. But I read that tweet and immediately recalled the time that NMIL came to see us in the hospital after DS was born and practically tripped over herself in order to deliver a jab at DH's weight from her seemingly endless supply of subtle insults. I read that tweet and immediately thought of all the times she called DH or his sister "big boned" or commented on how much they liked to eat. I read that tweet and recalled that both DH and his sister had been overfed as children which resulted in lifelong weight issues and obvious complexes about their size. I read that tweet and immediately thought of the instance when she blamed her eighty-pound pregnancy weight gain on DH, and then used the whole thing, to my complete astonishment, as yet another way to make fun of DH's weight, rather than take responsibility for the simple fact that she overate while pregnant with him. She said, "I gained 80 pounds! I was huge! I ate everything I wanted. In fact, I ate DH-sized sandwiches. I ate as much as DH! Isn't that so funny?" Then she proceeded to list off all the things she would eat for breakfast everyday that amounted to that weight gain, all the while slipping in those subtle jabs about DH's weight.

NSIL is a girl who rarely gets attention from her mother, and when she does, it usually takes the form of subtle criticism and manipulations. NSIL only gets attention when her mother wants something, and, just like I'm sure she did with her apple pie, she binges on it until it makes her sick. It makes her so sick that I'm betting the very next day she was puking up that lovely apple pie in the toilet because her NMommy has always taught her that it's bad, oh-so-bad, to be fat. And, given what she's learned, NSIL knows that there is no in between for her, that it's never been an option to just be healthy. She either gets to be the fat, ugly girl, or the beautiful, skinny girl (who always gets reminded of how fat she is, thereby never achieving the perfection her NM expects).

I married DH, who is also the child of the Mama that makes spaghetti and meatballs to show her love and I have NO doubts whatsoever that the bitch used food as a way to emotionally abuse him and to control him while he was growing up. It probably started from infancy and here's what that would have looked like: That baby is crying, I'd better give him a bottle, that'll make him shut up. Because in NMIL's world, there has probably never been any room for compassion and empathy, both of which are required to parent well. She didn't have the knowledge or desire to listen to that crying baby to try and make sense of what he really needed. A baby isn't hungry every time he cries, though he will learn pretty quickly to shush up if someone keeps putting food in his mouth. And so, from the get go, he was overfed. His NM didn't bother to think about it any deeper than that. DH was a fat baby. He was overweight. Not chubby, healthy-chubby, like all newborns. He was rotund. I recall seeing one picture of him where he looked like the stay-puffed marshmallow man. I know a lot about infant nutrition and I've been around enough little ones to know that for them to be overweight is not healthy. And as he continued to get older, she continued to overfeed him.

It's my belief that children don't make themselves fat. Their parents do. By offering too much food, and the wrong kinds of food, and not setting limits, and not encouraging exercise or healthy eating habits, and not modeling good eating habits themselves. But children, even the ones who are naturally heavier, don't just get fat on their own. They have so much growing to do, and are so active by their very nature, that no child becomes obese unless they have a very serious medical condition or someone overfeeds them. And I see the latter as a kind of abuse, in and of itself.

Now, take a girl who has an obvious eating disorder; who is already pressured by the unnatural standards of the society around her, who frequently expresses the desire to be skinny. Then, offer that same girl attention in only one regard: through food. And what you'll get at the end of the day is a girl who's just as emotionally starving as she was before you stuffed your delicious and fattening apple pie into her mouth. I'm betting that she couldn't possibly have refused the meal because she would have been treated to a terrible guilt trip and she doesn't have the skills to handle it. I'm also betting that immediately after the meal was over, or shortly after that, her NM made sure to throw one of her famous jibes out at her daughter's weight. One of those underhanded numbers that you don't quite figure out until later, when the moment has passed and it seems like far too petty a thing to go back and comment on: "You always DID have quite the appetite" or "Gee, you ate like you haven't eaten in MONTHS" or "If [DH's childhood nickname] were here, you'd have given him a run for his money! He's probably the only person who could have out-eaten you!"

For the record, she didn't say those last three comments. At least not in front of me. But I wouldn't have put it past her because she did make similar ones to DH in front of me that were so subtle, they even went over my head, so that I didn't fully understand what she had been implying until seconds too late.

NMIL is someone who does not give unless there is something in it for her. And that includes the giving of food. I've always said to DH that the ONLY thing, literally the ONLY thing that could ever even remotely be construed as good about that woman, in my opinion, is that she is a good cook. But really, in the scheme of things, her skills as a parent don't hinge on her ability to cook meatloaf. Feeding our children is, indeed, a need we must meet, but there are many others that NMIL has never met. And the fact that she "fed" her children does not, nor will it ever, make her a good mom. I stand by my opinion that anyone who ties being fed with feeling loved has some very serious emotional issues.

I've got to quote both Upsi and Pronoia Agape here as well, for making some fantastic points concerning their observations about was so very wrong with this particular tweet from NSIL.

Upsi wrote, "...when a parent lacks empathy for their child and is unable to emotionally tune in, feeding them a meal like that is no substitute for the love they require. The meal itself is not the issue - the issue is food being a charged subject for people who grew up needing love and empathy and maybe only getting fattening food and then remarks about how chubby they are getting.

PA wrote, "That's what their "love" is and does. An unhealthy, calorie-packed meal as proof of love for a girl who seems so eager to lose weight and might be starving herself much of the time. There's a metaphor in there...this whole situation is just so descriptive of the messed-up dynamic that it would be impossible to imagine, wouldn't it, for the girl to declare she was loved after her mother prepared chicken breast or fish in a veggie sauce with a nice salad. Because the mother wouldn't show her love that way. Perhaps because she knows her daughter has body image issues. Perhaps because she's the one carefully nurturing those issues."

So the ugly cycle is: NM nurtures the child's poor self-esteem by constantly being critical, while simultaneously creating life-long eating disorders that only contribute to the child's feelings of worthlessness; then, the child binges on the NM's "love," feeling like that is the only way she ever gets attention. Apple pie? I'm thinking more like toxic pie.

**Disclaimer: I have absolutely nothing against spaghetti and meatballs, apple pie, pumpkin pie, various cheeses, pot roast, or any other kind of food you can imagine. No meatballs have been harmed in the writing of this blog post.


  1. When I was a freshman in college and trying hard to please my unpleasable mother, my mother sent me a Tupperware of leftover pasta bake via my dad (I had a local part time job and needed a ride back to my dorm because my younger sister had my car that year). And, man, did I ever feel like that container of leftovers equaled love from her.

    I feel pity for your sister in law. I was never as deluded as she seems to be, and struggling out of the mire has been hard and hellish for me.

    1. I think one of the things that really bothers me is that I can see how all of this stuff effected DH. He wants to run to the pantry whenever he's sad or upset and bury his emotions in food, instead of dealing with them in a healthy way. He's definitely an emotional eater and I think that mentality stems way back to his infancy and early childhood.

      I'm betting that food is a tough subject for a lot of ACoNs. Food seems like one of the earliest ways Narcs are able to control their children.

      I can only imagine how hard it would be for NSIL to make it out, if you've had such a hellish time getting out and had a clearer view of things than she ever has. It doesn't give me much hope for her.

    2. Food and other addictions have been big parts of my life. Numb was preferable to the pain of false love.

      Your NMIL is trying to consume your NSIL. I guess it's fitting she's trying to fatten her up. Like the goddamn Hansel & Gretel witch in the woods.

  2. And lmao: "no meatballs have been harmed"!!!!

  3. When I'm down only chocolate helps. No doubt something from childhood. I know so many people who try to fill the void inside with food...... or chocolate.

    Q's Sis

  4. Great clarification, Jonsi. I still struggle so much with food and size and filling the void and numbing and over-eating, it's really good to talk about it.

  5. You know, it seems this situation with NSIL is loose/loose for her. NM set out the meal. If she turned it down, or ate little, NM would guilt her for not "appreciating" her enough. If she did eat, she'd get admonished for being a pig.
    It is very metaphorically for a narcissistic mother's love. They lay it out there, baiting you with it, testing you with it. But if you dare reach out for it, you get your hand slapped. You are supposed to DESIRE it, but never actually REACH for it. The ridiculous standard they hold us too is impossible.
    And random other thought. I don't restrict my kids from sweets and junk food, per se. But I've really tried to teach them to have a healthy relationship with food. I don't push sweets, I don't bribe with sweets, and I held off on lots of sweets as long as I could. I just didn't see the point of offering them, as my kid didn't know what he was missing. So many people found this offensive to them. They wanted to shower my kids with sweets and soda and junk. They thought it was their right as grandparents (or relatives) to "love" their grandkids like this. I still can't wrap my head around how teaching them unhealthy associates with junk is loving my kids. How watching my kids stuff a cake in their mouth made these people feel like they were doing my kids a favor.

    1. LOVE your point about how it is a lose/lose situation for NSIL. Great observation.

      And I so agree with you that it's more loving to teach our children to our children how to have a healthy relationship with food than it is to stuff their faces full of junk. And the thing is that in a healthy relationship with food, there is always room for a moderate amount of "junk." I'm certainly not advocating that we stop giving our kids a piece of cake every now and then. I'm saying that apple pie is no substitute for true, genuine, honest, unconditional love.

    2. My kids definitely love a piece of cake or candy now and then. Funny thing is, my oldest, when he's had enough, stops eating it. He never feels the need to stuff it all down his throat. He enjoys it and then moves on. It's a fun treat, but it's not the end of everything.
      I think what disheartens me about watching others make a big deal about giving my kids junk is that, really I can see it is more about the adult's poor relationship with food. They get off on the sweets or the soda and it's almost like they want to "convert" my kids to their way of thinking. Or they want to live vicariously through them. Kind of like the "high" has somewhat wore off for them, so watching it through the kids' eyes is a cheap thrill. Does that make sense? It never seems about just wanting to give the kids a sucker. It seems so much more deeply layered than that.

    3. Exactly. Food is good, but not as a substitute for real love. Just like drugs and alcohol or any addiction, it can never fill up that void.

      Now food made with real love by those who really truly love you feeds the body and the soul, whether it's spaghetti or salad, I say! ;) Must be why DH thinks my rice is so much better than his...

  6. I've never really pulled any punches in regards to your sister in law.
    But it's sad to any one locked in this kind of maze. Sadder still is seeing a bright soul who's spirit is completely dampened and distorted by the manipulations of her mother.
    It's not to late for her. But her mother will never let her go until she is warped beyond repair.
    It takes depth to feel the kind of anguish she expresses.
    She is not some gum smacking dim bulb.
    Even if that is what she projects.
    She'll either snap out of it or she won't.

    1. I agree. I wouldn't write her off. She knows there's something painfully wrong in her universe. She just hasn't realized yet it's her mother.

  7. Hi Jonsi!
    Great post and excellent point-by-point analysis as always. I don't have the food issues that I hear from a lot of other ACoNs, possibly because I found alcohol so early, ha ha, or maybe because it was always my job to feed everyone else. My issues with food were in finding a way to feed my family lovingly and healthily without confusing it with the forced labor that my cooking was in my NFOO.

    My DH, however, feels love most easily through acts of caring, and my cooking - as something that I DO enjoy - is a gracious and effective ACT of love for him (as opposed to a replacement for love.) Possibly because his mother, his primary caretaker in childhood is a terrible, terrible cook. I could tell horror stories about mayonnaise that would make your hair stand on end.

    When I cook for him, my family, it's freely given and readily accepted as an act of service and love, though, which I think is what you've so effectively pointed out is missing in the NSIL/NMIL dynamic here.

    Also, one of our daughters has a life-threatening food allergy, so all of our meals are prepared at home - typically by me. And the act of love in keeping her safe is expressed here too. Again, two different things, but I just wanted to give an example in which the gift of well chosen, prepared and healthy food cooked by another CAN be an act of love.

    Especially when those meals are shared with attentive and engaged people talking and sharing with each other.

    So glad no meatballs were harmed, LOL.


    1. I agree that food can be made with love but that it cannot ever be a replacement for love, nor can any other physical or material substance - drugs or alcohol included of course. And I think for me, that's really the meat of this particular issue, that abusive parents use it as these things as a replacement for real love. And in the case of food, it's a lot harder to call it abusive. It's more acceptable to say that your parent abused you if she drank, but not if she overfed you.

      Thanks for sharing, Vanci. You made really great points that show how food can be part of a loving relationship and it's necessarily negative on it's own.

    2. Hi Jonsi,
      I've been thinking about this post all day, and though my comment is truth, it's revealed a couple of other insights for me that are too long to go into here. Would it be alright if I blogged on this with a link/reference back to you post?

    3. Link/reference/blog away, my friend!

  8. Great post and so many great insights here!

    In my FOO, food wasn't the big thing - meals were pretty healthy and there was always just enough for all of us, no overeating. No sweets, ever - only a cake for my birthday. It sounds sad to some people, but I'm actually not a sweets kind of person, so I was really fine with this.

    What my NF and his FOO peddled was alcohol. His sister, the parentified scapegoat, who had to take care of her parents and live with them even when she was married, while being abused all the time, was encouraged to drink as much as she needed to sedate her. Eventually, she literally drank herself to death. MY NF is a heavy, but always controlled drinker. I was being given sips of beer starting when I was 5 and I think I was allowed to drink as much as the adults in any extended family setting when I was younger than 15. I regularly got quite tipsy at family lunches as a teenager. When I went out in my teens I got drunk out of my mind almost every time. This changed when I met my DH, the first person NOT from a dysfunctional family in my life, but I still have a bit of an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.

    Sorry for the long comment. I just realized they always peddle something, they always try to get you addicted to something they're selling. Because they know they can't just develop a healthy, strong relationship with you, so they need to sink a hook in you and reel you in if you try to get away.

  9. Excellent analysis jonsi and the above comments were illuminating as well. It's the difference between "Food IS Love" vs. "Food is a PART of Love." At least that's what I'm "hearing." The NP sets up a classic binary/double bind for their kids: "Eat this-it's my LOVE" and then denigrates/devalues the kid when they insinuate, "You Fat Lil' Pig. I can't believe you ATE THE WHOLE THING!" which of course is never stated directly thereby ensuring their Plausible Deniability remains "intact." (That is one of THE most frustrating "tactics" BTW I've encountered in attempting to nail their jello.)
    As an infant I would now be dxd. as "Failure To Thrive." I DO have memories going back to the crib including one where I am standing up, holding on to the raised side rails, crying my lungs out with a cold, wet diaper (they were cloth in those days) inching it's way down my "hips" and chafing my legs. No one came. I believe that was the beginning of Learned Helplessness.
    Psychb was an RN, BS and had my older sister so she had OJT AND OJT and did not breast feed; Dad traveled extensively for his businesses but I remember always feeling safer when he was around. They were affluent and had "Household Help." I mention these facts as they do relate to what happened next. When I was older, I asked Dad if I really WAS a PITA as an infant and small child-I DID get sick-A LOT. He confirmed that I DID cry more frequently as an infant than my older sister, and he became suspicious of my care. HE brought me to a Pediatrician who told him, "She's NOT getting enough to eat-FEED THIS little girl as much as she wants when ever she wants it" so he made SURE that happened.
    To this day, I can ignore completely hunger pangs. I need to remind myself to eat some days when I'm feeling light-headed or shaky. I do believe it started back there. There was later a horrible period in my young adult life when I was so abjectly poor I did NOT have money for food. Psychob was certainly financially able to have helped me at the time BUT nothing is given freely with an NP: The clincher was, she would "Help" IF I was willing to move back in with her. I knew exactly what that option would mean for me.
    I chose poverty and the streets. In my mind, experience and in reality that was SAFER than to ever go back to living with her.
    If my kids, regardless of their ages were struggling THIS badly (and I'm NOT speaking here to an underlying chemical dependency issue) and I was in a position to help them I'd do it in a heart-beat or less-even't if I wasn't in a position to help, I'd FIND a way: There would be NO "qualifiers." BTW, this was absolutely the beginning of the end of our "relationship." Guess who came through as soon as they were aware of how horrible my situation was? Dad and S/M. With NO "strings attached" although they sure could have if they chose to do so.