Today I am so honored to share with you a guest post by my friend and colleague Ann Stoneson of Labyrinth Healing. Ann is a therapist in Austin, Texas who helps people pleasers find their voice and empower themselves. Ann, who is a brilliant writer and also a new mother, graciously offered to write a post for my blog this month exploring her experience with pregnancy, overcoming people-pleasing and showing up for herself. The experience of pregnancy forces you to take up more space, which for many of us can bring up uncomfortable and conflictual emotions and feelings. I am personally grateful to Ann for this post as I navigate my own pregnancy and impending motherhood, my own body image and my role as a therapist.
Please enjoy! And if you find this compelling please leave a comment and share with your peers.
P.S.: Check back in January for my own guest post for Ann’s blog about the challenges and joys of navigating body image during pregnancy.
The Sweet Potato Battle: The Vulnerability of Pregnancy, Taking Up Space, and Feeding Your True Hunger
By Ann Stoneson, MS, LPC-S
I’m rather embarrassed.
I sit down to write this post for Kate, knowing her practice centers around helping people building healthy relationships with food, and I draw a blank. Have I done this before?
After taking a quick, sheepish inventory of my blog, the verdict comes in.
I am a therapist and I have blogged weekly for three years trying to help women and people-pleasers yet I have written precisely one post about struggles with food.
One. Just one. (And you can read it here, if you like.)
Wow. Really? That’s one heck of a blind spot.
And, in the few posts I’ve written that mention eating at all, like finding Buddha at the breakfast table and the hour long lunch break, don’t get into the often complicated relationship we have with food.
So this is new territory for me.
I’ll do what I usually do with that stuff, which is to pull a handful experiences forward from my life and talk about them. Here we go.
Yes. I admit it.
I’m a very good chameleon.
I can blend in pleasingly with almost any crowd or situation. But I’m most at home making myself useful to others—listening, helping out, tidying up.
I’m the person at the party who circulates through the house, gathering up empty cups and bottle caps, presiding over the snack table like I was sworn into office for the job.
Of course, some of that has to do with being an introvert and finding refuge in solitary tasks when I’m in a sea of people at a party. But a lot of it also has to do with wanting, no, needing to be helpful to others.
It has to do with being a people pleaser. A chameleon. You obligingly change your shade, your shape, to suit the wishes and needs of those around you.
Being a people-pleaser
I carried on for years doing this. Dissolving myself into situations like tea into water.
You couldn’t even see me. I hid behind the role of helper. I went straight from college to graduate school to become a helper. And then I became a therapist, which is about as professional a helper as you can get.
Now, I preside over counseling sessions rather than snack tables, but the gig is similar.
What can I get you?
How can I help?
Do you need some more water?
Except I got pregnant.
And suddenly, I was the one who needed water, a pee break every hour, and there were even those last minute cancellations when the morning sickness just wouldn’t go away.
Suddenly, I had needs I couldn’t ignore, and I had to practice what I preach, balancing my needs and the needs of my clients during the tender, swollen, confusing months of pregnancy.
Pregnancy introduced a whole new way of chameleoning—perhaps the first true and honest way of changing my shape to suit someone else. And as with any transformation, it had its beautiful and its awkward moments.
The vulnerability of pregnancy
Being pregnant was one of the biggest practices in authenticity and vulnerability I’ve ever
experienced. Because I couldn’t hide it.
Because I couldn’t suck in my stomach or hold my breath through it.
I had to take up more space—in every sense of the word—and I was doing my best to be at peace with this.
Being a walking billboard for impending motherhood had its challenges. I got a lot of comments and well-wishes and advice from people I didn’t know. I got asked about my weight gain.
Two weeks shy of my due date, while sitting alone and eating a barbeque sandwich on my lunch break, an elderly woman sidled by my table and asked, “Are you sure you’re going to have time to finish that?”
I remember looking blankly at her, not understanding what the hell she was saying and thinking to myself, “I have another hour before my next appointment, what is she talking about?”
Then she gestured to my stomach and asked, “You look like you’re about to pop. When are you due?”
If this had been the first stranger’s inquiry about my belly’s impending deadline, it probably wouldn’t have bothered me. But I was getting inquiries every day, every time I left the house, in my final months of pregnancy. And a part of me was getting tired of all that visibility, particularly as I was feeling anxious about the birthing process and mostly just wanted to be left alone to my thoughts.
My husband joked that I should have thrown my sandwich into the ceiling fan in a panic, dropped to all fours, and then begin moaning as though I was in active labor.
I sort of wish I had, but I wanted to finish the sandwich.
Living life a second time
As a therapist, I’ve talked before with clients who had intrusive parents. Parents who wanted to live vicariously through their kids. Parents who couldn’t step back and give their children some room to breathe, to fumble about, to make mistakes.
This living through your kids phenomenon was often talked about with a tone of condemnation among therapists.
When I consider the notion now, the first thing I think of is how much more compassion and understanding I have for all parents—my own and everyone else’s. Being a parent calls down all sorts of humility on you.
The second thing I think is that raising a child is a chance to live life twice—but hopefully more as an observer and maybe sometimes a co-pilot, nothing more.
The sweet potato battle
A month ago, I sat down with my son to try and feed him his first solid foods. Initially, he didn’t seem too keen on anything I offered.
I remember looking anxiously at the packaging, which told me to use within 24 hours of opening and then discard.
I remember trying to steer sloppy spoonfuls of pureed sweet potato into his mouth when he wasn’t keen on eating.
Fortunately, I caught myself doing this early.
And each time I sit down with him, I try to be mindful and patient when feeding him. I try not to get locked in sweet potato battles. I try to hold things lightly.
As a first-time, sleep-deprived parent, I manage to do this maybe half of the time.
Healing our relationship with food
American culture has a pretty confused, complicated relationship with food, eating, and dieting.
So, with that force as a backdrop, I want to help my son cultivate a thoughtful, loving relationship with food.
I don’t want him to feel like he has to be a member of the “clean plate club” because I’m anxious about wasted food. I want him to learn to listen to his body and its cues.
Sure, there will be times when he doesn’t want what’s on offer, and he eats it anyway, or makes himself a snack when he’s old enough to do so, or maybe goes hungry for a while.
But this will be his choice.
Even now, a baby without words to speak, he has a will and he has preferences. And food is one of his earliest ways to express these.
Our relationship with food is lifelong. Whatever lessons we may have absorbed before this point, there is always opportunity to learn, to grow, to try something new.
As I work to teach my son to have a healthy, loving relationship with food, I see opportunities to heal my own relationship with it, too.
It’s hit or miss some days, sure.
I’m sure we’ll get into power struggles at times, my own anxieties rising like a tide as I try to get him to do it my way.
I try to cast forgiveness and patience forward to where my future self is waiting, mired in frustration and tears.
As I’ve said before to my clients who struggle in their relationship with food, it is the one “substance” you can’t cut out of your life and live.
A recovering alcoholic can quit the bar scene, hard though it may be. But a person struggling to make peace with her food has to grapple with that relationship every day.
I hope a peaceful relationship with food is a gift I can offer my son.
As a therapist, I’m keenly aware of the cost of parental failings.
I try not to let this awareness fuel my anxiety.
I try to embrace the concept of the good enough mother that Winnicott, a famous analyst, often spoke of.
So, whether you’re a parent or not,
whether you have a peaceful or precarious relationship with food,
whatever the shape of your sweet potato battles,
know that you’re not alone with it.
About the Author: Ann Stoneson is a counselor in Austin, Texas who helps folks quit people-pleasing. She writes weekly for her own practice blog at Labyrinth Healing, as well as at her latest project, counselinginterns.com, a resource site for counseling students and interns.