Parenting with an Eating Disorder

When I became pregnant, unexpected but very much wanted, I’d been living with my eating disorder for over 6 years.

I knew that I didn’t want to carry on living that way, with an eating disorder. I wanted more than ever before to be ‘well’, I wanted to the best for my baby and, especially while I was carrying her, that meant my health needed to be the best it could be.

The biggest obstacle standing in my way was fear. Fear of what would happen if I admitted the unthinkable – that I had an eating disorder. I was terrified that admitting this would be like admitting I was unfit to be a mother. There was never a doubt in my mind that I could be a capable parent, and that I’d love this little baby with every ounce of my being, but I was so convinced that no one else would see it that way – they’d see me, they’d see my mental illness, and they’d take my baby from me. I didn’t want to continue to live with my eating disorder, but it was far preferable to the risk of losing my baby. I’d perfected the art of hiding my illness, so it seemed like my best option was to do the best I could without additional help.

The shame of what I was doing intensified. I despised myself. This shame seemed to reinforce the eating disorder further, fueled the urges. But, my baby was born, a beautiful little girl, and suddenly I was a mother, and the option of admitting my illness decreased further still.

Having a baby, being a mother, but also being a mother to a little girl carried with it a whole new level of responsibility. I know that research shows that children with a parent who suffers from an eating disorder are more likely to develop one themselves. This scares the life out of me.

She was a big baby, a healthy 8lbs born and piled on the weight very quickly. Everyone commented on it, often thoughtless comments like ‘she’s huge!’, ‘she’s so much bigger than her age suggests!’, ‘what are you feeding her!’

What was I feeding her? My breastmilk. I’d done my research, knew from the moment I discovered I was pregnant that I’d breastfeed for as long as I could. I also knew that even with my eating disorder breast milk was the ‘preferable’ source of nutrition to any artificial formula. It’s worth noting here that I am not against formula feeding, I am very much for what works best for the individual mother and baby, but breastfeeding was what I was going to do, and we managed a very wonderful breastfeeding relationship for the first 14 months of her life.

Back to the comments on her size. They bothered me. My baby was perfect. The image of health, thriving, happy, and yet at only a couple of months old she was getting comments about her size. Now I KNOW that my illness means I’ll be more sensitive to this sort of thing but really, what does it say about the society we live in when a healthy baby girl is getting negative comments about her size before she’s even on solid food?! So yes, they bothered me, made me think I was doing something wrong, making my baby ‘fat’. (By 1 year old she’d started evening out, slowing down and had dropped naturally from the 98th centile to around about the 50th where she’s stayed ever since – so yes, not overfed (you cannot overfeed a breastfed baby), just right for her.)

Weaning was the next big minefield. How was I supposed to know what and how much to feed her when  I couldn’t even do this for myself?! In the lead up to her turning 6 months I once again did a lot of research and discovered something called ‘Baby led weaning’ – essentially you skip the puree stage and feed them finger foods from the start, baby chooses what and how much they eat and essentially self regulates their intake. This sounded perfect, and actually a lot of fun (the baby led weaning mantra states ‘food is for fun before they are one’).  As a result of the baby led weaning, the move from breast milk only to solid food WAS a lot of fun, for both of us. I was so intent on providing her with the best start that research (as well as trial and error) taught me a lot about nutrition and portion sizes, and watching her get so much enjoyment from meal times, discovering new foods and tastes, simply enjoying food for what it is rather than ‘what it might do’ allowed me an insight into what life could be like without my eating disorder. I’m trying to stay mindful of these lessons now. It really helped for a while.

By the time we started trying for our second child, I was doing ‘ok’. I wasn’t well by any stretch of the imagination, but I was in a better place than I had been in a while. I was maintaining a healthy BMI. Then I miscarried. Twice. And the downward spiral began all over again.

My weight began to fall significantly following the birth of our second daughter, and my mental health deteriorated. This time there was no hiding it. Although still too ashamed to admit my eating disorder, I accepted that I needed help of some sort and, encouraged by my husband, booked a doctor’s appointment, who diagnosed me with Post Natal Depression. This was a relief in a way, I knew plenty of mother’s who’d suffered with PND and not one of them had lost their children as a result. It gave me the courage to speak, very quietly at first, and then with the backing of a health professional, a bit louder, about my eating disorder. Several weigh-ins and blood tests later and I was fast tracked through to a specialist eating disorder team, due to my poor physical health.

Since the day I ‘came clean’ – admitted my illness and began my subsequent treatment, not once has my capability as a mother or the welfare of my children come into question. The only concerns have been about me. For years I carried the incredible weight of the burden of being a parent with mental illness, preventing me from treatment and sabotaging my chances of recovery, when the best thing I could have done was to admit I was struggling.

Parenting comes burdened with guilt as it is. These little people, who you love with all of your heart, who rely on you for everything – you want the very best for them, and it’s a constant evaluation of whether or not you are doing the ‘right’ thing. Throw a mental illness into the mix and the guilt multiplies. My biggest fear is that my unhealthy and dangerous relationship with food rubs off on them. It is in their genetics as it is, and there’s no changing that. Research suggests that children are even more likely to develop an eating disorder if a parent is still suffering. I would never forgive myself. Up until recently I was terrified that they may also realise that my relationship with food is not ‘normal’. With deeper thought, though, I’ve come to realise that scarier still is that they might grow up thinking it is. . . . .

My biggest regret is that I didn’t seek help earlier. I have been living with an eating disorder for more than 12 years now, and while I am making some progress, it has been slow. I owe it to my babies to do now what I didn’t do back then – fight for better mental health. It is never too late to make changes. It is never too late to ask for help.


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