‘They f**k you up, your mum and dad,” Philip Larkin famously wrote – but now it seems the opposite is also true. A new study of national health this week reports that most parents of young children are either overweight or obese. Although parents are expected to be setting an example to their children, almost three-quarters of fathers and half of mothers with children under 18 are an unhealthy weight. Yes, children, it seems, are rightly messing up their mums and dads too.
The arrival of children often alters the structure of their parents’ lives to such an extent that all their good habits go out the window. As a parent, you no longer have the time for self-obsession – how you look, how you exercise, what you eat – and instead of spending your free time Instagramming your abs or your latest clean-eating concoction, you’re doing your third wash of the day, watching your kids race around in the park where you yourself used to run laps, and spooning Häagen Dazs direct from the freezer when their backs are turned.
Working parents, moreover, are so exhausted by the time they walk in the door, that the clamour to feed the hungry mouths puts paid to the hour they might have spent creating a healthy meal from scratch. Soon, they’re reaching for the frozen pizza or the nearest takeaway.
And if the sheer parental workload doesn’t use up all your self-improvement time, then the sheer exhaustion of it all will zap your will to change. And a decent night’s sleep, don’t forget, is key to your ability to maintain a healthy weight.
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So it’s easier, all round, to take your foot off the health pedal and just eat that muffin – after all, you’re going to need the energy to nail the much bigger task at hand: raising your children well.
Secretly, we might also be glad of an excuse for our expanding waistline. After all, isn’t it far better to focus on our young charges than maintaining the svelteness of our youth?
It’s easy to be glib about the insidiousness of parental weight gain, as if it somehow comes with the territory, along with grey hair and wrinkles. But if the new Healthy Ireland Survey is anything to go by, this weight gain is a very real public health problem.
Psychologists tell us that the most important influence on a child’s life are their parents. Children may not always do as their parents say, but will more often do as they do. The health habits they observe in their parents, they are likely to mimic in later life.
My mother’s habit of taking a square of a chocolate bar and putting it back in the cupboard, rather than eating the whole bar, has become my pattern in adulthood too.
Much to my irritation, at 70 years of age, she is still dining out on the story of how she exited the maternity hospital 10 days after giving birth wearing her wedding going-away outfit. She was a slip of a girl aged just 23, but it seems the combination of childbirth at an age when your body is more amenable to bouncing back into shape, and a fastidious doctor (no treats, war-time portion control and a sugar allowance of half a pound of boiling sweets a week for the duration) allowed her to bite her thumb at what we are led to believe is inevitable in pregnancy: that we will gain ‘baby weight’ that is subsequently impossible to lose.
My childhood was punctuated with warnings of what not to eat when I became a mother myself. Do not ever finish what your children leave on their plates. No takeaways, no McDonald’s, no treats when the children eat treats. No fizzy drinks. No sauce-rich pastas and curries, a proper meat and two veg dinner in the day. Home cooking and baking. Wisdom passed on from her mother to her. I couldn’t wait to be an adult and eat all around myself. But some of her wisdom stuck with me.
In today’s Ireland, food we don’t actually need is everywhere and that, coupled with the increased franticness of family life, means maintaining a healthy weight in adulthood is a struggle: a mental, physical and emotional struggle for better health. Anyone who says otherwise is lying. But do you really want your epitaph to be a profit statement in Burger King’s balance books?
And consider what we are giving our children when we step away from the biscuit tin, stand up against the onslaught of over-consumption, and say to this portly horseman, pass by.
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