Unloving Mothers: When Food and Meals Are a Battleground

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In almost every household, save those of the very rich, those in which fathers have taken on the homemaker role, or the rare home in which household duties are evenly split, mothers are most often in charge of feeding the family.

A 2016 study showed that 70 percent of women cooked, whether married or single, compared to 46 percent of men. Not surprisingly, women with children spent more time cooking and serving prepared food.

In a functioning and loving family, food can symbolize the ties that bind. The sensory experience of food—the smell of a redolent stew on the stove or the sweet taste and fragrance of an apple pie—can become a vivid and automatic recall of times past, as Marcel Proust so famously showed when he bit into a madeleine. Cooking and serving food are acts of nurturance, after all.

But, in a dysfunctional family, food can become a powerful tool in an unloving mother’s arsenal. Food comes with its own cultural freight: what you can afford and not afford to eat, whether you can afford to feed your family well, how much you eat, and what you eat as reflected in how thin or fat you are. But, on a micro-level in a toxic family, it can be symbolically complex, and food or mealtimes can be a vehicle for painful memories.

Asserting Control Without Saying a Word

Food can become a way of exerting power and control in an unloving mother’s hands, as well as a way of rewarding or punishing behaviors. That was Sarah’s experience growing up:

My mother’s way of using food was subtle and deliberate. If you’d pleased her, the menu would include something you loved to eat which basically meant that we ate hamburgers often since they were my brother Tom’s favorite and he was her boy-who-could-do-no-wrong.

But if you displeased or disappointed her as I apparently often did, you’d inevitably be served something you hated which in my case meant cooked beets or lima beans. Since the house rule was that you couldn’t leave the table unless your plate was empty, I would sit there staring at the huge pile of vegetables, frantically wishing them away.

She never chastised me directly but her pursed lips and the hated foods delivered her message loud and clear. It’s not surprising that my relationship to food as an adult is complicated.

Movie buffs may recall the scene in Mummy Dearest, drawn from Christina Crawford’s memoir of the same name, in which Joan Crawford tries to force her daughter into submission by serving her the same uneaten bloody rare meat day after day. Fans of Crawford found the scene exaggerated and campy, but it happens in real life too.

In an interview some years ago, Joanne recounted how her mother used food to underscore how unimportant she was:

My mother would ask me if I were hungry and, even if I said I wasn’t, she’d make me something to eat as if I had said nothing. When I protested, she’d get angry at how I’d wasted her time and, worse, her food.

She’d give me choices for dinner and by the age of six or seven, I knew that whatever I would pick wouldn’t be on the table. It was her way of telling me that I wanted didn’t ever matter to her.

That was true in other realms—deciding on activities, setting up playdates, buying clothes—where she was always the final arbiter but the food thing was every day and always. It was way worse than being told outright that I was worthless. She made me feel invisible.

Playing Favorites and Setting Up Rivalries

Mothers who are controlling, combative by nature, or high in narcissistic traits may use food not just as reward and punishment but as a way of manipulating sibling bonds. Research shows that parental differential treatment (aka PDT or, in plain language, favoritism) affects not just the individual child but the nature of their connections. Food can become symbolic in these households as well, as Patrick, a 45-year-old attorney, explained:

At my house, it was all about desserts and, yes, how big a slice of the pie you got indicated your standing in my mother’s eyes. My sister, Maggie, and I were the odd ones out with our big brothers, Josh and George, the ones on the throne.

My dad was served first, then Mom served herself, then the two favorites, and then we got whatever was left. We are talking slivers. And, somehow, she always managed to run out of ice cream before she got to us too. It won’t surprise anyone that my sister and I are close, see our parents as little as humanly possible, and have little to do with George and Josh.

I hated them for not protecting us. When my now wife was still my girlfriend, she didn’t believe my stories until she went to Thanksgiving dinner one year and came away hungry.

She couldn’t believe it. But it happened. And, no, it wasn’t really about ice cream or pie. It just cemented why the older boys got new bikes and we got hand-me-downs; in fact, my sister didn’t own a girl’s bike until she bought herself one with babysitting money.

And, in case you’re wondering, my parents had and still have lots of money.

A Serving of Shame Along With the Pie

The consumption of food—eating too much or eating too little, being a “glutton” or a “pig” or being “too picky” and “ungrateful” for the bounty—can become weaponized in a toxic family and a source of shame and prompt a child not just to internalize those comments as truths about him or herself but to develop a lasting and uneasy relationship to food.

What Science Does and Doesn’t Know

There’s a terrific irony in these examples of mealtimes as a battlefield because the research is robust in showing that, generally, families who eat together at a table (and not in front of a TV) and who eat healthier foods not only enjoy physical health benefits but that children were at a lower risk for depression and substance abuse and had lowered rates of disordered eating.

I turned to Alli Spotts-De Lazzer, a therapist with expertise in eating disorders, a contributor here, and author of Meaning Full: 23 Life-Changing Stories of Conquering Diet, Weight, & Body Image Issues, for some insight.

She pointed out that while research is scant, “Still, science supports that food rewards and punishments during youth can result in emotional eating patterns.”

But she made a hugely important point, writing that “Not all emotional eating is problematic; it can simply be one way of coping. Emotional eating becomes problematic when it becomes the main or only regulation skill.”

Think about that for a moment; it’s when we turn to food and away from managing our emotions that we are in deep waters. She added that other red flags that emotional eating has become dangerous are when “it turns into disordered eating, brings on negative feelings of guilt or anxiety, or results in physical unwellness.” If this describes you, please seek professional help.

When I asked Spotts-De Lazzer whether there was a single most damaging pattern of maternal behavior, she singled out the shaming we discussed but pointed out that the cruelty is obvious and therefore can be recognized even by the target. Instead, she focused on maternal lack of awareness–those behaviors modeled by the mother which are then absorbed by the daughter as “lessons,” if in a more covert way.

These might include a mother not eating dinner because she thinks she needs to change her body or passing judgment on herself or her daughter regarding looks, size, or food choices. As the therapist noted: “The cumulative effect of a mother’s unawareness can be the most damaging of all.”

It’s said that “Bread is the staff of life.” We need to make sure that we are serving it in the most conscious way.

Copyright © 2022 by Peg Streep

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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