When my son was a curly-haired boy of seven, he loved burgers and pizza, giggled when someone farted, and loved to play catch. He strived to beat me at video games, but was sad when he did because victory shattered the myth of the invincible dad. He sought comfort in my lap when his belly ached, and ran to me from his dark room at the cough of a heat pipe because dads are supposed to be the safest place on Earth. However, in my family, dads often pummeled their sons like wrecking balls. Now Aedan is a six-foot-one high school football player awaiting another growth spurt. Although his athleticism allows for more calories, he has refused burgers and pizza during recent visits, blemishing lunches turned priceless by the distance of divorce.
During a recent visit to a café, Aedan refrained from ordering, claiming he ate a bagel prior to his visit. We talked football while I ate kale salad, and he glanced at the menu, steadfast to refuse every offer of food. When he went home, I concocted excuses as to why he restricted himself, even though on a deeper level, I knew why. My admission resurrected memories of a voice critical of what, and how much, I ate. The next day I reached out to Aedan’s mom for insight.
“He feels like you judge him when he eats in front of you.”
Her response confirmed my fear. I had often food-shamed my son much like my dad had shamed me. Although we are supposed to strive for generational evolution, I had failed, and now my son had lost his trust in me. When he was a child, I scrutinized his calories, withheld second slices of pizza, and pushed diet beverages. I was not born a dietary dictator, but was instead groomed to be one. Had I any foresight, I would have let him enjoy his food, even if he ate more pasta than broccoli. My harsh superego created visions of Aedan clutching his grumbling stomach all the way home where he could eat without fear as my eyes crawled all over his body.
The text from Aedan’s mom excavated memories of my dad’s obsession with my weight. His criticism (disguised as concern) was relentless, as I learned on my wedding day when he pointed out, “You gained some weight.” His admonition weighed on me throughout the night, and I wondered if he surveilled in disapproval what I sampled from the cocktail hour, or watched to see if I cleaned my dinner plate. I believed I had overcome the pattern and would never allow such scrutiny to hinder my relationship with Aedan, but unbeknownst to me, I paid those judgements forward onto my unsuspecting son.
Awash with panic, I believed Aedan and I would never again share a meal, or he would avoid spending days with me for fear he would starve. I launched into damage control and vowed to tell my son that I’d made a mistake, that I was sorry, and that I hoped for his forgiveness. I wanted him to know dads make mistakes, but I also wanted him to understand we can own our errors. If Aedan was going to model one of my behaviors as a father, I wanted it to be an act of humility. More so, I hoped to establish a new parenting pattern.
At dusk, I video called him so our eyes could meet as we spoke. My apology wouldn’t only be conveyed in words or tone of voice. He took my call in his bedroom, and was sweaty from the basketball he’d just finished playing on his front lawn. After we recapped his day’s events, I mentioned my curiosity about the previous day, but Aedan looked at me as if he had no idea of what I spoke. I pressed a little, and used a tone that conveyed curiosity above accusation.
“I noticed you weren’t eating anything yesterday, and we were together a long time. Did you feel okay”?
When he responded, I noted the drop in his tone.
“Yeah, I wasn’t really that hungry.”
Because I’d promised his mom I wouldn’t mention her divulgence, I instead took a leap I hoped would heal the parts of Aedan wounded by my preoccupation.
“But I noticed the last few times we were together, you seemed to not be hungry, and I think I might know why.”
Aedan fell silent, so I continued.
“Dads make mistakes, and I made big ones during our weekends together. I remember how I tried to dictate what you ate, and how often you ate, and how I focused on your body instead of your happiness. Do you remember that too?”
“I was wrong for that, son, and I’m sorry for all the times I made you feel uncomfortable. Sometimes I worry about things I shouldn’t be worried about, and I let it get in the way of us having a good time. I hope you can forgive me.”
Aedan denied my mistakes factored into his choices, perhaps out of discomfort about the exchange, or maybe to preserve my feelings, but I knew the reality and what needed to be done. At the end of our conversation I told him I loved him, that he was free to be himself with me, and then wished him goodnight.
When I thought back on the conversation, I felt a mix of shame and pride, but because I knew my apology was more for my son’s benefit than to spare my conscience, I allowed pride to win the day. Since then I’ve put the past in its place while keeping one eye on the present, and the other on the future. When I went to bed that night, I reflected not on the stigma with which I’d once blemished Aedan, but instead on the freedom I bestowed upon him to acknowledge mistakes and, if need be, say those words to his own child one day.