Journalist Virginia Sole-Smith has made a career out of tackling tough topics, from multi-level marketing schemes to the hazards of nail salon jobs. As a new mom, she was forced to dive into an equally tough personal journey, when her newborn was diagnosed with a heart condition warranting three open heart surgeries. Now a mom of two happy daughters (a 6-year-old an 20-month-old), a side effect of her eldest’s surgeries—having to learn how to eat when she could not do it instinctually—provides fodder for her new book,The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image and Guilt in America. In it, she dissects how society has impacted our ability to use our own internal hunger cues to regulate our eating. Publisher’s Weekly called it “…[a] deeply personal and well-researched indictment of American diet culture…”. This labor of love has also lead to another—a New York Times piece that delves into the practice of fertility clinics refusing to treat women they consider too large, When You’re Told You’re Too Fat To Get Pregnant. Already, the piece has landed Virginia on Good Morning America. We spoke to the writer and mom of two about her passion for her work, how she regrouped after her daughter’s health crisis and what’s on her summer reading list. Plus, her favorite spots in New York’s Hudson Valley.
Can you please tell us a bit about your family?
I live with my husband, two daughters and two cats in New York’s Hudson Valley. My husband and I moved to this area in 2009 (the same year we got married!) because we’d been in Manhattan for almost a decade and were really missing trees. And closet space.
Trees and closet space are good! How did you choose the Hudson Valley?
I grew up in small town Connecticut, so the fact that I now live in small town New York is perhaps not SO surprising. I did one year in London and almost ten years in New York City in between though, so I feel like a road-tested out a few other options. We love our town because it’s right on the Hudson River and has the most charming Main Street — but we actually live a bit off the beaten path, in a neighborhood on a small mountain. So we have more trees than neighbors, although we also have the best neighbors! And we’re a short drive to civilization so it’s kind of the best of both worlds.
Can you please share the story of your eldest’s health journey?
Violet was born with multiple rare congenital heart defects; the “umbrella diagnosis” is hypoplastic left heart syndrome. Her problems were missed during all of my prenatal ultrasounds and even at birth; I had a complication-free vaginal delivery and we went home the next day thinking we had a perfectly healthy baby. Her heart began gradually shutting down about two weeks later as her anatomy adjusted to life outside the womb. When we brought her in for her four week well visit, we discovered that she weighed less than she had at birth and had a dangerously low blood oxygen level. We were rushed to the nearest children’s hospital where an interventional cardiologist saved her life with an emergency procedure. The next week, she underwent what would be the first of three open heart surgeries. HLHS cannot be cured; Violet will live with and manage her condition for the rest of her life. But her surgeon was able to successfully reconfigure her circulation to sustain her. At almost six years old, she’s a happy swinging, swimming, tree climbing kid.
The part of Violet’s story that I talk about more is the part that was really unexpected (not that anything about congenital heart disease is expected!). On that first day in the hospital at one month old, she stopped eating — and spent much of the next two years of her life dependent on a feeding tube. This happens more often than people realize to medically fragile infants and children. The combination of being so sick and undergoing so much (necessary, life-saving) medical trauma caused Violet to develop what’s known as an oral aversion, where she associated anything coming near her mouth with pain and fear. That trauma completely silenced her body’s hunger signals and she refused to eat. It took a lot of therapy, patience and trust to help her rediscover her eating instincts and realize that food could provide comfort.
How did you pick up and get back to work after all this happened?
My husband and I originally planned to take three months off together for our maternity/paternity leave. When Violet got so sick, we realized it would be a much longer road because she was too medically fragile to go into daycare as we’d planned. We each went back part-time and staggered our schedules around when my mom could come take care of Violet. I didn’t go back full-time until Violet was about ten months old and we were able to hire a nanny. Initially, the extra time off was a no brainer; my daughter was in crisis and I couldn’t be anywhere else. But it was also incredibly draining and lonely. I remember almost crying with relief the day our wonderful nanny started and I could sit down at my desk for an entire work day. I had really missed that part of myself.
Your book is getting well-deserved praise. What inspired it?
When Violet stopped eating, it felt like there was nobody who could tell us why or what to do or how to get her back to the breast or bottle. This kind of undid me because I was so used to thinking about food and eating as something we can organize with various sets of rules. I spent the first decade of my career writing about health, nutrition and food mostly for women’s magazines — so I was always reporting on the latest diet or plan that was supposed to fix everything and make eating feel easy. I was skeptical of crash diets and I hated the pervasive weight loss message in women’s media — but I kept thinking, if I just found the RIGHT diet, it would all be fine.
Somehow, when I realized that there was no plan for Violet, I also started to see that there is no magic diet for any of us. I knew that Violet had been born knowing, quite instinctively, when she was hungry and when she was full. And she was born knowing that feeding brought comfort. Trauma silenced those cues, but we were able to bring her back to them. It made me wonder: What causes most of us to disconnect from that intuitive knowledge around how to eat? What could help us reconnect?
Why do you think weight and eating are such rich topics?
Well we all have to eat every few hours, every day. And yet most of us are convinced — thanks to the diet and food industries — that we’re doing it wrong, that we can’t trust our own hunger and fullness, and that it’s somehow wrong to take comfort in food. This creates a huge amount of mental noise because we’re constantly judging ourselves for these perceived failures. And most of the failures tie to weight — we place a huge value on thin bodies in our culture, and think thinness equals health, fitness, success, happiness. So anytime we think we’ve screwed up eating, we also start to think we’ve screwed up our bodies and the whole thing snowballs.
How did this work lead to your newest project, the Times story on fertility clinics’ rules about helping larger women?
In the book, Violet’s story is really just a metaphor for this larger thing we’re all wrestling with. I devote most of it to telling the stories of other people struggling to feel safe around food and one chapter focuses on how people have to learn to eat again after they undergo weight loss surgery. Gina Balzano, my main character in that chapter, had weight loss surgery after two doctors told her she was too fat to qualify for fertility treatment. “I had to cut off 70 percent of my stomach in order to have a baby,” she told me. I was shocked, so I looked into it and discovered that half of the twenty largest fertility clinics in the country, as well as many smaller practices, use Body Mass Index cut-offs to decide whether or not to treat women, even though there are no medical guidelines requiring them to do so. So that led me to this story for the New York Times Magazine.
What is your favorite part of your job as a journalist?
So many things! I’m very nosey so I love hearing people’s stories. I love when the themes of a story start to emerge through my reporting and I can sort of see it all coming together in my head. I love the act of writing itself… or at least, I really love having written. And of course, it’s amazing and rewarding to hear from readers connecting with the work and saying “this happened to me too” or telling me something they found helpful in there.
Do your daughters love to read and write? How have you encouraged that?
Violet just finished kindergarten and watching her learn to read this year has been the absolute coolest. She also loves making books and writing letters (mostly to her cousin, planning for our family vacation this summer!); we got her a desk for her room for Christmas and she doodles around on that, drawing and writing every day. Beatrix is 20 months old, so obviously not reading and writing herself, but she absolutely adores being read to and will often sit and narrate to herself the bits of books that she’s memorized.
So far, my biggest insight on encouraging readers and writers has been that I need to get out of my own way — when I get prescriptive about wanting Violet to “practice” reading or writing, she immediately loses interest. In fact, I usually can’t even say “let’s read this book” — and I’ve ruined a few of my childhood favorites by over-excitedly trying to sell them before she was ready. But we dedicate a lot of space in our house to children’s books — there are bookcases in each of their bedrooms, the playroom and the upstairs hall, plus a lot of overflow books in random spots like the bathrooms and the car. I make a mild effort to rotate out what’s most visible on those shelves whenever I notice them getting into book ruts, but otherwise I let them take the lead because when they discover a new favorite book, we’re all going to be living and breathing it for weeks.
What do you think have been important tools for you, as someone who has put a lot of thought into it, for creating truly “healthy” eating habits for your daughters?
Getting out of our own way applies here too, BIG TIME. When parents get prescriptive about how many bites, or which food groups, they turn meals into a power struggle. I’m a big believer in Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility model, where parents are in charge of what’s offered — so you choose what to put on the table — but after that, you shut up and let the child decide how much and which foods she’s going to eat. They don’t get to request substitutes and we don’t do a lot of between-meal snacking because we want them coming to the table hungry whether it’s meal or snack time. But I never say oh you can’t have more pasta till you finish your broccoli. That’s just gonna make her hate broccoli. I think the best family dinners are the ones where we barely talk about what we’re eating (besides everyone in my family hopefully thanking me for cooking for them!).
What is on your summer reading list this year?
Three books I just finished and loved: All The Rage by Darcy Lockman, Mrs Everything by Jen Weiner, Trust Exercises by Susan Choi.Up next: Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Akner-Brodesser and Like A Mother by Angela Garbes.
How has becoming a mom impacted your work, both in terms of your writing and also how you approach your day to day?
It had a pretty huge and literal impact on my writing, which I did not expect — I dreaded the idea of becoming a “mommy writer!” But then I realized that sort of sneering attitude about women writing about raising kids is deeply sexist. So many of the most important issues in life play out in the context of home and family — why wouldn’t we write about them? I don’t plan to write much more about my own children, but I’m a feminist writer who thinks about how women relate to work, food, and our bodies — so it makes sense that I would now start to think about those issues in the context of motherhood and of how they’ll impact our kids.
Day to day, it’s just made me way more efficient. I worked from home for eight years before I had kids, and my hours were loosely office-ish but it was obviously no big deal if I wanted to start my day at 11am and end at 8pm. Now the work day happens during the hours we have childcare (9am to 4pm). I might answer a few emails after they’re in bed at 7pm or if it’s one of those weeks with doctor’s appointments and school things, I’ll get an hour or so of writing in before they wake up to make up for being out during the day. Maybe once or twice a year I’ll have a deadline or a close that requires later nights or weekends, but for the most part, my husband and I both keep to these kind of banker’s hours and it feels so much more civilized than when we let work sort of creep over into all of the hours of the day.
What are your favorite stories you’ve written?
The current NYT Mag piece is way up there — I’ve been working on it since I was pregnant with Beatrix! I also love this essay, this piece (which was the cover of the May issue of Scientific American) and I’ll forever have a place in my heart for this piece on mermaids, which I reported and wrote when I was pregnant with Violet — and yes, I put on a mermaid’s tail!
We love supporting local businesses…What’s your favorite places the Hudson Valley to:
Eat with/without kids –
Hudson Hil’s in Cold Spring
Moo Moo’s Creamery in Cold Spring — great ice cream, right on the river.
Mercado in Red Hook is the best Italian in the Hudson Valley; wish we got up there more often!
Grab a drink with friends –
Not really a “drink” but some girlfriends and I are going to Hudson Valley Shakespeare in a few weeks; it’s a fantastic local theater company that puts on Shakespeare in a gorgeous outdoor theater on the grounds of an old mansion. Everyone goes early to picnic by the river and then you watch the play while the sun sets. Magic!
Have a date night –
Roundhouse in Beacon in the summer, because they have an outdoor patio by a waterfall
Spend time together as a family indoors/outdoors –
We’re starting to be able to do short hikes with our girls, which is pretty thrilling because the Hudson Valley is amazing for that.
Indoors, we like going to Dia Beacon and in the summer Storm King Art Center is so much fun.
Shop for yourself/shop for your kids –
Our beloved local independent bookstore, Split Rock Books. They hosted my book launch and the owners are friends, but I’d be there all the time anyway because I looove a bookstore. And my kids know that I basically never say no to buying books.
Spa/salon (or anywhere you go to treat yourself) –
Shear Love NY — they do the hair of every member of my family!
Grab coffee –
Real talk, I hit the Starbucks drive through a LOT because it’s so easy to do with kids in the car.
Photo credit: Gabrielle Gerard