How has my normal toddler become an obese nine-year-old
Lucy Cavendish describes her guilt as a mother of an overweight child in a society that values thinness
I'm not sure when it happened but, somewhere over the past nine years, my son Leonard has gone from being a normal-looking, healthy child to one who is now clinically obese.
And I do mean clinically obese. He has a huge round belly, big chubby hands, large tree-trunk thighs. I look back at photos of him as a two-year-old and wonder how a perfectly normal toddler has turned into an overweight nine-year-old.
To put it in perspective: he wears trousers that are meant for 13-year-olds and even then, they are plus size. His weight affects his health. He finds it hard to run and breathes very heavily when he does. To lose weight, he needs to move more, yet he finds most forms of exercise difficult.
How can I explain the difficulties, the pain of having a child who is overweight? I lie awake at night wondering what to do about it. I have tried just about everything -- endless courses, trips to the doctor, clinics at my local hospital and yet . . . Leonard just gets bigger and bigger and I'm not actually sure why. My antennae are always up.
I have to bite my tongue not to tell him, "No seconds for you," or "No, you can't have chocolate." I monitor what he eats constantly. We eat very healthily -- low-fat everything, nothing fried, lots of fresh veggies and fruit, no crisps, no sugary things. But nothing has worked so far.
The most disconcerting thing is that we are not a fat family. Everyone else in my family -- me, Leonard's father, his two brothers and his sister -- is normal-sized and has the appropriate BMI. We all eat the same food and do the same amount of exercise.
His brother, Jerry, who is 16 months younger than Leonard, is as thin as a rake and eats just the same things as his older brother, if not more. But Jerry is like a child attached to a spring.
As a character, Jerry is highly strung and slightly neurotic, whereas Leonard is a lovely stoic sort of a boy. He has the kindest heart I have ever known in a child. Yet he is also a child who craves things in general. Jerry hasn't spent a penny of his Christmas money; Leonard has spent all of his on plastic tat.
None of this makes any difference to how Leonard is perceived. In a society that values thinness, Leonard is carrying around a terrible burden. It's one I try to keep from him. I try to gloss over it, tell him it's fine to be who he is (which it is, because he is so lovely).
Like every overweight child though, he knows he is too big. Sometimes he gets unhappy about it. Sometimes he feels embarrassed. When he is feeling low, he calls himself "Lennie the Lump" and it makes me want to cry. Fortunately, he is a very likeable and therefore popular boy. He is, thank goodness, not socially excluded.
Whose fault is it he has become so large? I suppose, in all honesty, it's mine. I am his mother, his primary carer. I should have monitored him more closely, shouldn't I? But I have. I am stuck in a very hard place. I know about good nutrition. I don't feed my children takeaways. But he doesn't seem to be losing weight.
Sometimes I find it embarrassing. Wandering round the supermarket, piling up the trolley with veggies and fruit, I see people looking at us, at Leonard. I start getting defensive and almost awash with guilt.
As soon as he puts anything remotely fattening into the shopping trolley I whip them out with a flourish. "Oh, we don't need them," I'll say loudly, as if trying to show the other shoppers that it's not my fault he is overweight.
I spend night after night wondering why Leonard is so much bigger than the rest of us. I have some random thoughts on this: put simply, he eats too much, moves too little. But it's more than that.
There is an obesity gene in our family on his father's side. Both his maternal great-grandmother and great-aunt died of obesity-related illnesses. But it's more than that.
As a baby and then a toddler, Leonard loved food. We all marvelled at the way he smacked his lips with excitement as soon as he saw a yoghurt. At six months old he was eating baby versions of curry; by eight months, gnawing on chicken legs. At two, it was Camembert, risotto, fondues.
He was also born at a time when I was going through a domestic goddess phase. I cooked constantly, dishes laden with cream, butter -- rich, fatty, calorie-busting, delicious food. Of course Leonard became tubby. Back then, he was "bonny". Now it's a problem.
I have talked to specialists about Leonard's weight. The advice starts at, "Don't make food an issue," and ends with, "You need to put him on a diet." I tend towards the former tactic. The more food becomes an issue, the more Leonard will worry and, aged nine, that's not a good thing. Instead, I try little tricks.
I serve him smaller portions on smaller plates. I get him to drink water before he eats and then after his main meal, so he can really tell if he is hungry or not. I try not to cook delicious food. I use low-fat everything. I only have cereals with no added sugar. I don't have biscuits or crisps in the house. I have replaced all white grains with wholemeal grains. I don't use butter. I don't use cream.
On and on it all goes . . .
As family therapist Kitty Hagenbach pointed out to me, his desire to fill himself up with food could also be his desire for more love/attention/time. I try to find space for him and me to do an activity together, just the two of us, each week. At the moment, we are madly into trampolining.
Yet still I worry. I have no idea how this will end. Food is fuel, but for Leonard, for most of us, it is more than that.
"I don't want him to grow up thinking that eating delicious food is something to be denied, avoided.
I am hoping that I can subtly guide Leonard, encourage him to enjoy the taste of good food without having to eat plateloads of it.
This, I think, will be his path to happiness.