My kid was at his two-and-a-half-year-old well-visit the first time he said, “Fuck”.
“How are we doing today?” asked the doctor in his Snoopy tie and smart wire rims, breezily entering the exam room where my naked-by-choice toddler squatted under the exam table looking for lost change.
“Good,” Toddler replied. “I don’t have to get a shot and I didn’t say ‘fuck’.'”
“Good, good, glad to hear it,” the doctor replied, as luckily, while his vocabulary has always been expansive, my kid’s diction was about as good as his set of manners.
I conjured up my best shocked face, and looked at Toddler and firmly whispered, “We use kind words!” and then tickled him for distraction because I knew that would work as it had every other time he said “fuck” over the last couple of months.
Let me explain. It was his first time using “fuck” in public, thus it was the first time it counted. While I may have started out my motherhood journey in as an intense perfectionist (read: unrealistic idiot), with a 4-year old, 2-year old, and 6-month-old, my standards had grown markedly less perfectionistic and more realistic. Now, as long as my kids’ more minor transgressions happened in private, I could just go ahead and not count it toward the many, many, MANY items on the list running through my head for me to replay, analyze, criticize, and self-shame as I lay in bed. To a tired mom of 3 small children, it’s sound logic. If a kid pees on a tree in the forest and there’s no-one around to see him, does it make a sound? (Or something like that.)
Now, though, that my little linguist had exposed our dark secret in public to a professional who, thankfully, might be a little hard of hearing, I was concerned. Sure, it was funny that he dropped the F-bomb, his little ringlets framing the sweet face and tiny little mouth forming around the nastiest of curse words. Just ask my husband: It was his favorite parlor trick to show off to people and the first skill Toddler displayed that my husband could indisputably trace back to his own doing.
“I think that’s because of me,” Husband beamed.
“I know, babe. No, I am not rolling my eyes. It’s allergies.”
I had to strategize what I would do to break my child of what was surely the gateway habit that would eventually lead to harder words and bigger deeds, like shoplifting at the Jersey boardwalk or smoking the drugs. So I dug into my former-teacher toolkit and I tried to fix him.
I systematically ignored it, as clearly it was attention-seeking. Yet, it apparently wasn’t, because that didn’t work. I discussed with him how sad I felt when he used that word, in an appropriately educational and gentle “I statement.” He literally laughed in my face. I affirmed his other word choices. He asked me to stop doing that.
Then I tried time-outs. Huge success! Just kidding. It pissed him off enough to re-up his efforts and gave him some much desired alone time with mommy as I kept moving him back to his “stop and think” spot. I discovered what humankind has already figured out many, many, many a moon ago — “fuck” was here to stay.
I lived in fear that I would pick up my wee one from his sweet little 2’s class one morning and the teachers would give me a talking-to. My husband rooted for this, of course, as it would only make the situation funnier in his eyes, but I couldn’t imagine what teachers would think of me as my kid was walking around sounding like 1985 Eddie Murphy while other kids in his class were still working on replacing a grunt with a point with a word label.
This never happened, though.
No, it was not the “fuck” that I was confronted with one day after school. It was an F-word, but not the one we so carefully try to avoid in front of our children. It was an F-word though that is so much more hurtful, so much more pointed, and so little discussed, that I hadn’t even thought about it until that bomb, an actual F-bomb hit my kid, my oldest, 4-year old kid.
“Mommy? Am I fat?”
I looked at my beautiful boy in the rearview mirror as we drove to our favorite spot for green juices after Friday pick-up, one of our little rituals and one of our only times during the week when we could be alone together. His dark eyes were fixed on mine, hungry for a truth that I was ill-equipped to provide.
“You are perfect, every part of you! Why would you ask that?” I lamely bounced back.
“Because Zack told me last year that I have a big fat belly. But it didn’t make me sad. This year though, everyone thinks I am fat.”
I have never been punched in my gut. But I imagine it feels a lot like this moment.
“When I go out on the playground, some kids stand on top of the gym and yell, ‘Big fat boy coming!’ when I run past them.”
He states this matter-of-factly. Like he doesn’t know that he’s saying this to a mom who loves him so hard I could vomit at the thought of someone shouting anything but effusive praise at him.
“Those sound like friends who are making bad choices.”
I choke on these words as I say them because what I actually want to say is that those little shits are finished when I get their names. But alas, violence never solved anything and it is a cycle and the law looks down on adults physically harming small children yada yada yada.
As we sit and drink our celery-apple-kale juice, he goes on to tell me that he can’t tell his teachers because he doesn’t want anyone to get in trouble, but that he wishes there was someplace he could go where he could make his fat belly skinny tomorrow. He goes on to cry and tell me that he looks weird. He looks weird in his clothes, in his haircut, in his skin. He doesn’t want to look fat anymore.
With every word he shares, my heart cracks until I feel a deep physical pain in my chest. I feel the weight of every meal I have ever made my children, of every minute I have ever let them watch a screen, of every swim lesson I have let them skip when they were too tired. I think about all of the times I let them play with their Power Wheels in the driveway instead of pedaling their little bikes. And I want to make it all better, to change it all for him.
This is what parents do. We protect our children from hurt. We keep them from sticking metal objects in sockets so they don’t burn themselves up. We don’t allow them to jump off the top of the slide so they don’t break a leg. We keep them away from foods they are allergic to and toxic chemicals. But this? How do I protect my kid from this?
Suffice it to say, we tried. We read some picture books together about self-love and how everybody is different and how to stand up for yourself. We included my husband on the conversation who lovingly and confidently assured his son (and his wife) that he (they) were stronger than the words of some kids and that this too shall pass, as it had for him when he was teased for the same as a kid.
I consulted my therapist who told me to reframe the conversation into something positive — what can he do better than other kids because he is bigger than other kids? He liked that. And thankfully, 4-year-old attends a wonderful and supportive school and is taught by the most brilliant, compassionate people who, through a class lesson and a professional conversation with other teachers in charge of the playground and in a read-aloud story, addressed the issue without ever making my child feel like he had told on anyone or ever drawing attention to him in particular.
And the situation improved. For a while. Until the next time a child called him fat.
Part of me feels this need to describe my son here. To assure you he is not fat and to say all of the words (tall, broad, built big) that would make someone less harsh in their assessment of another’s size. Part of me wants to describe all of the healthy foods he likes and the active lifestyle he lives, all of the sports he plays. And part of you may want to hear that to know that I haven’t wronged my kids by relegating to him a life of obese ineptitude.
But here is the thing: it doesn’t matter.
I am sure they are many messages in here — messages about healthy eating and building confidence in our kids and probably even something about kids getting soft because of participation trophies and self-serve frozen yogurt and how they need to toughen up like generations before them. (This time it’s not allergies. I am actually rolling my eyes.) People will draw from this what they will. But there is only one point I want to make.
Stop using the word “fat” to describe people. Stop using it to describe yourself, and stop using it to describe others. Stop warning your children that if they eat too much sugar they will get fat. Tell them it will hurt their teeth and their body and their brain, but don’t use getting fat as their punishment. Stop forgetting about the boys when we talk about positive body images in girls and not focusing all of our attention on how pretty or unpretty a woman may be. Boys hurt too. Stop making overweight people the butt of the joke and assuming they are lazy or unhealthy or unhappy.
I read a few things that told me to teach my child to take back the word “fat.” Teach him it’s not a negative thing to be called fat if you don’t feel like fat is a negative thing to be. But it is engrained in our culture that FAT = BAD. So I am counting on you to change your behavior and to ask others around you to do the same.
See, the thing is, your child is not the only one you have to protect. Maybe your child is not at risk of being called fat. But everyone — everyone — is at risk of being called something and it will hurt when they are. And just like I am asking you not to let your kids use the word “fat,” I promise not to let mine use the words that will hurt your kids either. It doesn’t stop at “fat.”
Think about how you guard the word “fuck.” Think about how you never use it in front of your children and would die of mortification if they used it against another child.
All I am asking is that you do the same with the word “fat.” Because I have been called both and believe me, “fat” hurts more.