The Vagenda

Why My Complex Relationship With Food Made Me Decide Not To Have Children


I was standing in the cereal aisle when I decided I probably shouldn’t have children.

I had, up until that moment, always assumed I wanted kids. I mothered my dollies as a child. In my teens, I decided abortion was not an option I’d ever favour. By my early twenties, I was oddly disappointed whenever a hastily purchased pregnancy test turned up negative and in the last few years, I’ve had a recurrent daydream about cuddling a beatific, compliant, mini-me of a daughter, my understanding of parenthood having been crudely and almost exclusively gleaned from re-runs of The Gilmore Girls. I wanted a girl, always a girl, and whenever I envisaged my future, my little daughter was always present; as a caring, charity-giving baker of cakes who considers puppies relatively pleasant, how could I consider not having children? How could I possibly not want them?

The answer, of course, lies back in the cereal aisle. I had been there for ten minutes by the time my revelation came to me, and I was fretting, pitting the boxes against each other in a nutritional fight to the death. The oaty holes had fewer calories than the honey nut crispy flakes, but their sugar content was at least double that of the shredded wheat dust. I was starting to sweat. As I scoured a box of corn husks for a breakdown of fat content, a voice in my head – a quiet voice, somewhat tentative – said, Stop. I knew I must listen. The voice is a familiar one to me; it is the same one that warns me not to skip meals, it is the one that reassures me that spreading butter on my toast won’t result in instant, irreversible obesity. This poor voice got drowned out entirely for the eighteen months in which my already disordered eating tipped over into anorexia, a condition so nefarious I remain unconvinced I had it, even as I write this sentence.

You don’t need to have a diagnosable eating disorder to suffer from disordered eating. I have been clear of anorexia for over a year now, but my diet is still disorganised, rigid and always at the forefront of my mind. Context is irrelevant; a post-hangover calorie binge with friends holds the same thrill and terror as eating ten grams of breakfast porridge over my fifty-gram allowance. My diet can be obnoxiously healthy, or laden with fat and sugar; whilst I’ll often eat when I’m hungry, sometimes I’ll eat when I’m not. I go through periods of eating nothing but pitta bread and hummus. There was a long spell of eating biscuits with every meal.

I am not alone in my obsession with food. You can’t turn on the TV without catching an episode from what must be the 307th series of Masterchef; over in Books, Ella Woodward’s Deliciously Ella, a paean to clean eating, achieved the highest first week sales for a cookbook – not in 2015, ever. And whilst shows like Masterchef admittedly celebrate food in all its quenelle-d, smoked, water-bathing glory, the unending attention they lavish upon it means that food is an inescapable staple of life, for all of us, all of the time.

At 28, I am fit, happy and healthy, and though my diet isn’t perfect (excessive chocolate and Diet Coke, and I have an alarming capacity for bread), I exercise and drink plenty of water, eat fruit and vegetables and opt to cook over eating processed food. In isolation, who cares if I eat too much corn syrup, or skip lunch? Apart from my mother, that is. Because that’s what a mother’s job is, isn’t it? To fret over their children’s diets and steer them into good habits? This is what hit me so suddenly, as I stood inert in the cereal aisle: if I can’t do it for myself, how the hell will I do it for a child?

It’s not uncertainty that governs my decision to spawn – it’s fear. To be precise, I am scared of having a daughter. Children are incredibly susceptible to their environment; they are little sponges, soaking up speech, behaviour and morality in order to replicate it themselves. Unfortunately, children are also prone to pick up all the neuroses that the adults around them unconsciously communicate. My own mother would be the first to admit she has a turbulent relationship with food. Growing up, I was passively aware that food was bound up with anxiety and somehow related to appearance. Yet how much my mother’s issues are related to my own is hard to say; perfectly healthy mothers have daughters who grow up to develop disorders, just as chaotic eaters raise daughters who show no sign of a complex themselves.

Arguably, then, the solution is not for me to avoid having children, but to sort out my food issues before I try. Opting for childlessness seems like an excessive over-reaction to a problem with a clean and simple solution…right?

Not to my clearly addled mind, no. Which means either I don’t want to sort out my eating, or, more worryingly, I can’t. If we accept that our eating habits are unconsciously garnered from our mothers, and theirs from their mothers before them, then I am fighting against a genetic inheritance that is too vast and too unknowable, that is too ingrained in my sense of self, to try to expunge. The idea that I might pass it on to my perfect fictional daughter weighs heavy on my mind – heavily enough that I am seriously considering not having children at all.

Today, when I picture my future, I try to do so without agenda. Deep down, I know I would like children, but can the love and care I’d give them negate the neuroses I might also pass on? Received wisdom is that there is no right time to have children and undoubtedly, I’m sure nobody ever feels totally prepared. But having a child is such a massive, important undertaking that whatever my circumstance, until I can walk into a supermarket and buy a box of cereal without fear, tears, or at least ten minutes to spare, I know that I need to keep waiting. For the sake of my future children, I’m happy to be patient.


14 thoughts on “Why My Complex Relationship With Food Made Me Decide Not To Have Children

  1. “Which means either I don’t want to sort out my eating, or, more worryingly, I can’t”
    So so true. Two years after being hospitalized as her weight became dangerously low and my friend still struggles to maintain a diet that keeps her at a healthy weight and still won’t eat anything she can’t know the exact calorie count of. It’s so frustrating to see because she hasn’t changed a bit otherwise, she’s not a different person from the kid I knew at 15.
    I’m sure the author has considered a dietitian?

  2. Hiya, thanks for writing this it really resonated with me; I am 28 and about to give birth to a daughter any day now. I haven’t always had the best eating habits and although I have promised myself not to pass this onto my daughter, I haven’t exactly figured out HOW to not do that. One thing you haven’t mentioned though is that lots of children will be lucky enough to have two parents; my partner is a healthy, grounded feminist with a healthy attitude to life and so I’m hoping that my influence is balanced out by his as our daughter grows up.

  3. This post resonates with me as well. I had disordered eating for over a decade, thanks in large part to a *heavy* influence from my mother and grandmother while I was growing up (they had unhealthy relationships with food, too). I want a daughter as well, and like you am very aware of what children pick up from their parents; I am determined that I don’t make the same mistakes with my kids as my parents did with me.

    It’s taken me YEARS to sort through the emotional/habitual shit I picked up from my family, and I know how hard it can be to shed that skin. But in the past year or so, I’ve managed to do it. It was very, very difficult, and involved a lot of soul searching to identify the root of what was driving the disordered eating, and a lot more time (years of trying and failing) of forgiving myself and reminding myself that it was okay, that I was okay, and letting go of old beliefs and habits.

    I definitely don’t share this in an, ‘I did it, so you should be able to, too!’ way; I suppose I hope you find it to be more of an “It’s possible to break the cycle!” form of hopeful encouragement. And that’s what you and I have the chance to do: Break the cycle of fear, unconscious actions and self-doubt that has progressed through out families for decades. Your awareness that this exists is already a huge step forward and is so important! Now, whether or not you *want* to break the cycle, or feel you must, is a different matter entirely, and something only each one of us can decide.

    When I see my mother now still struggle with her weight and food and self-image, it’s like watching a television show from the outside because I’ve been able to remove myself from that destructive narrative, instead of being swept up in the drama and worry like I had been for years. It’s also heartbreaking because I understand so acutely what she’s experiencing — and that no matter how many diet books she buys and Weight Watchers plans she starts, the only way she’s going to find peace with her body is by starting from a motivation deep within and releasing her fixation on the very thing she’s trying to desperately to achieve.

    You are only 28; you still have lots of time to work through some of this first and still have children someday, my dear. You’d be amazed at what you can accomplish in a few years! I wish you well, and that you find and trust the abundance of peace, love and wisdom within yourself. :)

  4. What if you raised children with a partner who had good eating habits? I mean, there’s no reason why they couldn’t be in charge of feeding the children while you were in charge of other things. You’re clearly a very reflective person and I have no doubt you have other qualities you could bring to parenting.

  5. I had a similar thing before I had my son. I have anxiety disorder and was terrified I might pass it on to him by example. Since having him though I actually feel much more comfortable that I won’t. My husband made the point that I’m not the only influence in his life and he’s right: his calmness is the perfect balance to my agitation and there’s no reason the little guy won’t take after him more. Even then, only 10 months in I’m stronger than I ever thought I could be because I have to be – my husband is wonderful, but I’m his mum and there’s no replacement for me in his life. Sure, sometimes I crumble a bit when I’m tired after weeks of broken nights, but then I keep going and keep going. I’m not suggesting anyone should have a child that they think is a bad idea for any reason, but I think you’d be surprised not only how resilient they are to one parent’s foibles, but how strong they make you.

  6. The fact that you have paused for thought before just squeezing out offspring suggests you would be a great parent. If you’re willing to consider their well being and your own you are likely to research all aspects of parenting and approach the job with love and care. It’s fine to choose to be childfree too, not because you’re broken in some way, but just because you prefer your days and your life the way they are. Whichever route you choose, celebrate your life every day for the extraordinary treasure it is.

  7. Thank you for sharing this. It rings true to my relationship with food – and it is a relief to know that it’s not just me who feels like this.

    I had an eighteen-month bout of bulimia in my early twenties. I never sought professional help didn’t have an official diagnosis but yeah, I was pretty bulimic. I spent most days starving myself or only eating raw fruit and vegetables and, by the evening, getting so hungry that I’d binge on anything I could get my hands on before feelings of guilt and disgust meant I’d force myself to be sick. During this time, I was also going to the gym every single day, usually at 6am so that my housemates wouldn’t come with me.

    I’m now 26 years old and, while the binging and purging has stopped, the thoughts are still there. Every lunch time, I spend a good 15 minutes standing in the supermarket or in front of my fridge, fretting over calories and fat content. I won’t use butter in my home cooking in case I instantly put on weight. I’ll order a burger or a pizza in a restaurant and feel guilty with every bite. I’ll stand and stare at my body in the mirror at regular intervals throughout the day.

    I don’t want to solely blame my mother for these behaviours, but I do believe her negative body image has had an impact on me. Ever since I can remember, she’s complained about being “fat”, partaking in endless diets and exercise regimes. When we were watching TV, or if we were out shopping or at the beach, she’d point out the physical “flaws” on girls – fat thighs, wobbly thighs, double chins – most of whom were slim or average in size. As a teenager, it stuck with me. I had to stay thin, no matter what, because then other people would say these things about me behind my back.

    Like you, I want to have children some day. But I don’t want to pass on these insecurities and a love-hate relationship with food onto my daughter – or, in fact – my son. So I have to work on myself first. But as we both recognise this, I feel we’ve already made important steps towards achieving this.

    I really hope everything works out for you. Again, thank you for writing this.

    S x

  8. Great article. I am recovering anorexic who also had orthorexia (fixation on healthy eating)only last year. I have a daughter and she seems ok but is picky eater and I blame myself massively for this. It makes me sad how many of us are battling these demons.

  9. Dont worry – having children makes you stronger. I also had food problems but worked through them gradually during the toddler years.

  10. Thank you for your article. I have been reflecting on whether I will ever be able to have children, due to my addition to food. When I am ‘in the food’ I would choose it over my husband, family, life, everything. As a result it has led to obesity and the addition has ruled my life since my early teens. In my 30s now and I have found recovery one day at a time giving me hope and strength through overeaters anonymous (patterned after alcoholics anonymous). Anyone with a problem with food is welcome.

  11. Right on RE!!! How remarkably unselfish of you. I wish that more people took parenthood more seriously.

  12. Isn’t it heartbreaking that this stress placed on (mainly, but of course not exclusively) women can do enough damage to them that they feel they won’t be able to raise their children correctly? Your most fundamental entitlement in life.

    My mother suffers with disordered-eating-that-isn’t-necessarily-an-eating-disorder, and for a little while as a teenager, it did make me think about food in an unhealthy way as well. But because of her love and reassurance in everything else that she does, I have grown up to be a healthy woman in body and mind, and I am so glad that I am here because of her. My mother has done a much better job at raising me than her parents did for her; the cycle does not have to continue, by any means.

  13. I applaud your efforts. Since you’re still struggling, to an extent, why not take the pressure off yourself to make decision about whether or not to have children. That said, you have so eloquently spoken out about your painful problem, that there’s no doubt you could convey to a child how complex and irrational an eating disorder is. We all have problems that we wish our children won’t have but we can’t control everything they’re exposed to. The most powerful thing you could do would be to arm your children with knowledge so they’re well informed about anorexia and all of life’s other challenges.

    My sweet sister is a drug addict and I’ll do everything I can to tell my son every brutal detail so he knows just what can happen if he starts down that path.

    I thank you for your powerful article and lol forward to reading more from you. I have a hard time in the grocery store, also– there are too many items to compare. I finally started going to a smaller place with fewer choices. I also wonder if yoga and meditation could help you. Sorry if I sound too advice-y.

  14. Having children made YOU stronger. It won’t work for everyone. It’s not a magical cure for all of a persons ills.

    I understand your point here, of course I do, but to blindly assume that because having kids made you stronger it will be the same for every woman is a little short-sighted. There are, sadly, plenty of women out there for whom having children magnified their problems.