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Dad's Side: The F-Word

There are mornings when I look in the mirror, and under my breath I mutter it: the F-word. It's a difficult word to say in front of other people, but here goes: fat.

Usually, though, I let that F-word go, and I use something a little less harsh to describe what I'm seeing. Words like chubby, plump, and stocky come to mind. But whatever word I pick, I have a weight problem. I'm guessing I need to lose at least 30 pounds.

Ever since I was about 24 years old, not only has my weight fluctuated, so has my opinion on the matter. A few months before my wedding, I bought a treadmill with the idea that I was going to run my body into an Adonis state before our honeymoon. But by the time the first of our two daughters, Isabelle, was born  -- and long after the treadmill had become an expensive dust magnet  -- I didn't mind looking at photos of myself and noticing that I was, um, bulky. I thought I looked like a typical dad. My feelings changed about six months later, though, when we began to feed her solid foods. I started to wonder: How do I get my kid to eat healthy when I don't eat healthy myself?

Suddenly, every spoonful we fed our little Isabelle  -- and that I fed myself  -- was fraught with meaning and consequence.

The current headlines don't make introducing table foods any less nerve-racking. News reports are always reminding us that childhood obesity is epidemic, and that one fifth of kids will be obese by 2010. I don't fret much that Isabelle and our second daughter, Lorelei, will be overweight children; they get plenty of exercise. But I worry about what will happen when they no longer have a supercharged metabolism, and they have careers and kids, and they feel too overworked and overwrought to exercise regularly and eat better. In short, I worry about my children becoming just like me.

Not that I've ever done much about it. Once Isabelle had moved past the jars of gooey baby food, she would sit in her high chair and feast on meals of peas, mashed potatoes, soft carrots, bananas, or cottage cheese, while I made silly faces from behind a double cheeseburger with onion rings. With every bite, I knew I was sending a coded message: When you're a grown-up, you, too, can have a cholesterol sandwich with a side of artery-clogging fried vegetables.

It's my wife, Susan, who makes the effort  -- and plays the bad guy. She set up some rules that at the time seemed to me just a wee bit severe and controlling  -- something along the lines of your garden-variety dictator of a Third World country. Basically, Susan didn't want Isabelle to have any sugar, except for the kind that comes naturally in, say, apples. I understood that in the beginning, but after a month or two of watching Isabelle learn to eat solid foods, I felt she should be allowed to try pudding, Popsicles, or small bites of soft cake, all delicious snacks that  -- in texture and form  -- seem well suited for a baby's teeth and gums to sample. But, no, Susan didn't want Isabelle to have pudding or a million other soft, easy-to-digest treats. I felt like we were living in Stalin's grocery store.

One afternoon I was depositing money at a bank's drive-through with 1-year-old Isabelle in tow, when the teller slipped in a lollipop with the receipt to my anemic checking account. The lollipop seemed big enough for Isabelle to handle, and she looked so cute and happy that I just couldn't see why I shouldn't give it to her. When I later casually mentioned to Susan that our daughter had had her first taste of candy, she acted as if I had added, "and then I gave her a beer."

Susan went through a litany of reasons why I would burn in hell for having given our daughter that lollipop, from the sugar content, to the possibility of her choking while my unaware eyes were on the road, to the final argument that she'd established these rules and I'd ignored them. "Hey, wait a minute," I interrupted. "Don't I ever get to make up some rules?" There was a pause. Then we both laughed. Like that was ever going to happen.

But my wife had her reasons for boycotting sugar. In most households, rules are always going to be relaxed. Susan knew that she'd break down eventually and let Isabelle have sweet treats, which she did. She just wanted to get Isabelle and then Lorelei started on the path to eating right before they learned how to eat wrong. And I have to give my wife credit for her vigilance; at least she was trying to take constructive action. I was too busy picking out my pizza toppings.

Feeding a baby her first table foods is a big experiment, but what I've realized is, it's just the beginning  -- and it goes way beyond whether or not you're going to let your tot have sweets. Making sure your children eat healthy lasts at least until they move away to college, and all that time, they learn by studying their parents.

I could get away with having leftover meat loaf for breakfast when the girls were newborns and oblivious to the world. I can still snack away from prying eyes by eating a bowl of ice cream at midnight. But I can't pull this off forever, and I don't want to try.

Sooner or later, if I don't get in better physical condition, I'm going to inadvertently teach my girls that it's okay to let yourself go and be chunky, burly, portly, stout, or whatever adjective I want to go with to make myself feel better. Maybe even more important, while the tests from my physicals have come back with healthy results, that won't last indefinitely if I don't lose weight.

So I'm putting my dignity on the line and pledging that I'm going to drop 20 pounds in the next several months, and eventually I'm going to lose 30. That photo at the top of this column is going to be replaced sooner or later with a trimmer, more toned version. Much as I enjoy my midnight snacks, I love my children much more than burritos and ice cream sundaes.

Geoff Williams is a Babytalk contributing editor.