“I hope I'm still playing tennis when I’m her age,” my mom says as we admire my impressively active 94-year-old grandmother. I nod as I think to myself that she will never make it anywhere near my grandma's age.
Based on her height and weight, my mom is obese. She's only in her 50s and has struggled with her weight since before I was born. She's already had four weight-related surgeries—multiple joint replacements, accelerated by excess impact. Every time I go back home to visit, she seems heavier and slower, less able to do things like walk up and down stairs, stand for long periods of time, and ride her bike. I’m afraid that I’m running out of ways to help her.
I’ve run three full marathons, I go to CrossFit every morning before work, and I love planning and cooking nutritious meals. My friends tell me I am the one of the fittest people they know.
I genuinely enjoy all of these activities, but I would be lying if I said that a major part of my motivation doesn’t come from the nagging fear in the back of my mind: If I don’t make my health a priority, I will end up like my mother.
Ironically, my love of healthy food and exercise comes from my mom. She is not the depressed, sedentary picture of obesity you might expect.
She worked in the fitness industry for most of her life as a group and personal trainer. I remember practicing aerobics routines in the kitchen with her when I was little. She met my father on a hiking trip; they both ran marathons in their 20s. Throughout my childhood, our family vacations consisted of camping, hiking, and nonstop family sports games—although my dad was often the one who participated while my mom cheered us on from the sidelines.
I can’t help but sense the giant elephant in the middle of the conversation.
Since recovering from knee surgery, my mom has slowly returned to the things she loves—swimming, going on long walks, and cooking elaborate meals for dinner parties with ingredients from our local farmer's market.
But every time she talks about wanting to get better at yoga, improve her arthritis pain, or be able to bike for longer distances, I can’t help but sense the giant elephant in the middle of the conversation.
I see her weight standing between her and everything she loves to do. I remember feeling like crying when we went to New York City for vacation and we had to limit our excursions to places within very short walking distances.
While I’ve never directly mentioned how I feel, we’ve had vague conversations about food, weight, and health. At first glance it seems like she’s in denial. But I’ve realized that she thinks about getting healthy just as much as—if not more than—I do, so I don’t want to add to her struggle.
If it were any other chronic disease, we might be able to talk about it more openly. Cancer, for example, is incredibly sad and often hard to talk about, but it doesn’t carry the same blame and judgment that obesity does.
My friend with a family history of skin cancer openly talks about her increased preoccupation with sun protection because she has a very real picture of what can happen if she doesn’t pay attention. She is motivated to take care of her skin that much more because she knows that she’s at risk.
With my mom, we dance around the topic and talk generally about “feeling healthy” and “having energy.” There’s something about weight and obesity—how it’s all tangled up with pride, emotion, and guilt—that makes it feel like so much more than a clinical disease. And I have trouble getting out the words about how worried I am for her long-term health.
Fitness has become a huge part of my identity and is a positive motivator for everything I do. But I can’t shake the nagging feeling that if I slip, gaining weight means so much more than just seeing the number on the scale go up a few pounds. Studies suggest that children of obese parents are much more likely to be overweight or become overweight in their lifetimes. And I have a painfully clear picture of what it looks like and how it could limit my life.
I have a painfully clear picture of what it looks like and how it could limit my life.
All of this sounds incredibly selfish. I shouldn’t be the one struggling; I’m not the one carrying around extra weight every day, unable to regain control of my body. I’m not the one with joints failing under the weight of my lifelong struggle. I’m not the one agonizing over my emotional eating habits.
So why am I the one complaining?
After all, I don't resent my mom. Her weight hasn't prevented her from being an amazing mother and role model, and I love her no matter what she weighs. When I was little, I used to tell her I never wanted her to lose weight because she was such a good hugger, enveloping me in her arms. But because I’m so close to her, I am hyperaware of the pain that she has gone through: the guilt, the agony, and frustration with her disease.
Over the years, I've realized the best thing I can do for my mom is to love and support her in whatever she does. But when it comes to something I can control, I direct my energy toward staying fit and healthy, and ensuring that my own children never have to face the same struggle.