When I was ten years old, my family was helping start a new church. This is something we did often when I was a kid.
The church had a pastor and many of the other staff members needed to run a church, but it had no building. We were renting or borrowing a building from another business, that needed it during the week but not on the weekend. My family would get there a couple of hours early, along with other volunteers, to set up all the sound equipment, the childcare area, etc. Then we would stay after the service as well, along with other volunteers, to help take it all down and pack it up until the next week.
At this particular church, someone always brought coffee and donuts for the volunteers. The donuts were cut in half and set out on a tray. My brothers and I were allowed to eat one half-donut each.
Except, I never did. I would eat one half-donut in front of my brothers and parents. And then when I got the chance, I would eat, one at a time, as many half-donuts as I possibly could. I think one time I ate eight.
This came to my mind the other day, like other random memories from my childhood sometimes do, through the lens of myself now as a parent. I’ve been looking back on my small self and having the compassion for her that I never had for myself when I was small.
I couldn’t stop myself from eating the donuts—but I strongly, absolutely, irrevocably believed that I ought to be able to. I was utterly convinced that what I was doing was a sin. I was stealing, and lying about it. I was consumed with guilt about it privately. I tried all kinds of strategies to force myself to stop, all of which were guilt- or punishment-based, because that’s the only kind of control I was familiar with. I laid awake at night thinking about Jesus dying on the cross and how it must have hurt him just a little bit worse because of the extra donut that I ate that day, because I was extrapolating to the logical conclusions of the theological teaching that I’d grown up with, that Jesus’ death was him being punished for everything I did wrong.
I wasn’t ever taught it in words, but it felt pretty apparent to me that Jesus being punished on my behalf especially applied if I didn’t get caught and punished myself about it.
I tried to threaten myself and my own salvation, my own standing with God and my place in heaven. Surely I was proving that I wasn’t a real Christian if I was actively willing to sin like this and for what? A donut? A moment of earthly pleasure?
In some ways, this is a story about my intense and complicated relationship with food during my childhood. This wasn’t the only time I ever snuck sweets (and beat myself up about it forever), and even into adulthood I had a very difficult time not binging on sweet foods.
In some ways, this is a story about the faith that I grew up with, and how confusing and difficult it has been to sort out what I still do believe, and the years of trying to shed the layers that don’t make sense, don’t reconcile with a God I’d even want to believe in.
In some ways, this is a story about what an “extremely compliant”, “easy” older child might look like on the inside. It never occurred to me to talk to my parents about this, except every once in awhile during an intense guilt trip I thought about maybe running downstairs and confessing to them so that they would punish me and I could stop feeling this way. This was not the only thing that was eating me alive at this time in my life—there were dozens of things like this. I was deeply stressed and afraid and certain that I deserved it.
In some ways, this is a story about my own “spiky skills” in maturity growing up. Some ten-year-olds would be entirely trustworthy with regulating their own eating of sweets. I know my adults believed at the time, and I also believed of myself, that I ought to have been, and that it was a moral failing in myself for not being. I was an extremely intelligent child and could hold conversations far above my level and read incredibly complicated things. None of that made me emotionally ready for full independence without oversight in this one area.
I also wonder how much of that was me going through “younger kid” stages at older kid ages because those were the first times that it was safe for me to. I remember years of being afraid at night, but knowing I wasn’t allowed to come out of my room *or else*. When I was 14 and 15 years old, I used to come out of my room sometimes and tell my mom and dad my fears. Later, I overheard one of them telling a friend about how strange it was for me to be going through this phase as a teen. But I wouldn’t have been allowed to do that as a little kid.
Sometimes my own fear and anxiety flares up when one of my children (who are much younger than 10) is eating food I feel like they’re not “supposed” to. They don’t really sneak things yet, and we’re much more relaxed about food in our family, but there will still be things where, for example, I’ve hidden some snack away for myself in my room, but then things happen and a preschooler gets into my bedroom and finds it and eats it. I have never yelled at them or punished them for it—I very much feel like it’s my job to make the food inaccessible if I don’t want them to have it—but it still causes a flare of lots and lots of complicated feelings in me.
I have to remind myself that yes, it’s totally valid to problem-solve, to find the best way to make sure everybody’s getting what they need. And also, at the same time, it doesn’t have to be wildly complicated and tangled up in snarls of morality and ethics and sin. Chocolate tastes good and people want to eat it. Nobody—myself, my kids—is imminently going to die about that.