Breastfeeding through anorexia

In a matter of days I will no longer be breastfeeding a two year old, because she’ll be three.

Did I ever intend to be breastfeeding at three years of age? Honestly, no. But I wouldn’t change it for the world and I’m proud that my daughter will have the opportunity to wean when she’s ready, that I am still able to nurture her in this way, against all odds. 

I am proud of my body. The body I’ve abused for over a decade. The body I’ve fought so hard against. The body I’ve wanted to destroy. It’s not given up. It’s given me the most amazing gifts – my lovely girls.

It’s carried two perfect little girls to term, birthed at healthy weights. It’s produced milk, milk designed just for them, milk that’s nurtured them, helped them to grow, provided them comfort, allowed us that precious bonding time.

I suffered with PND following the birth of my youngest. It got bad quickly. There were moments I didn’t want to even be around my children. I needed space, wanted to disappear, or failing that, stay in bed and never have to face the world again. 

On one particularly bad turn I handed my baby to my husband and said ‘please take her, just take her.’ He took her downstairs, gave me a break, but before too long was at the door again….

‘I said take her, I need to be left alone’

‘But babe, she needs feeding, she’s hungry’

‘I can’t’

‘You have to’

‘No. I don’t. You feed her’

There was a pause while we both took this in. He knows how important breastfeeding was to me. He also knew how she thrived on it.

‘You really want me to feed her? Ok, so I’ll need to go and get formula. But do you really want her to have formula now?’

I didn’t. We both knew this. I suspect he also knew that breastfeeding was actually keeping me from breaking down entirely. This was the one thing I could do for my daughter that no one else could. 

‘Give her here. I’ll feed her.’

And that feed saved me. As she nursed, I gained perspective. I needed help. I saw the doctor the very next day.

It’s a common misconception that in order to breastfeed you must have a good diet. Actually, only a tiny percentage of what you eat reaches the milk produced. Your body puts milk production first and your needs second. I was never encouraged to stop breastfeeding, but was encouraged to increase my intake for my benefit, and put on various supplements to limit the damage I was doing to myself. 

I carry a huge weight of guilt for how my eating disorder has affected me as a mother. My children are loved, so loved, and they know this. They have a nice house, they are nourished, nurtured, they are happy, but for a lot of their childhood I’ve been there but not present. Weighed down by the eating disorder, anxiety and depression. We’ve had many, many days at home when we should have been out, because I couldn’t face leaving the house. Letting them breastfeed until they decided they were ready to wean is something I could give them. 

So as I breastfeed my three year old, I treasure the moment as I know that, someday soon, we won’t have this anymore. She’ll have moved on, at her own pace. I’ll be left with memories of how I was able to nourish my little girls when I couldn’t nourish myself. I feel proud, I feel love, I feel grateful. 

Grateful to the body that’s given me and my children so much, against all odds. 

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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.

My Babies

The one thing I wanted my whole life was to be a mother.

My eldest was unplanned, but the moment I discovered I was pregnant I felt complete. I was terrified, yes, but so excited. I was also quite proud of my body in that moment. I’d put it through years of abuse and yet, despite contraception and without trying, it was growing a life.

I spent my whole pregnancy planning a wonderful life for my baby girl. I had an idea of exactly what sort of mother I wanted to be. I wanted to give her everything.

My eating disorder got in the way.

I managed about 5 days of ‘good’ eating. I didn’t vomit for almost a week. Part of one week out of the 42 I carried her I ate properly.

I’ve spoken a lot about shame. I feel a lot of it, but nothing comes close to the shame I have for how I treated my unborn babies. So many times I came close to seeking help, I hated what I was doing, but I was stopped by the fear that my baby would be taken away from me if anyone found out. So I carried on in silence.

She was born 12 days past my due date. I felt a surge of love like never before. I was a mother, this was my baby, I would do anything to protect her.

Anything, apparently, except give up my eating disorder.

I did manage to keep my weight pretty stable for the first couple of years. I had a dip around the time we got married, although it stayed within a healthy range, but a lot of time was wasted on my eating disorder when it should have been spent raising my daughter.

I wanted her to have a sibling. I actually made a real effort to get better before trying to conceive. I wasn’t ‘well’, but I was doing better than I’d done in a long time. My weight increased and stabilised. We started trying, I became pregnant straight away.

I lost our baby. And then I lost a lot of weight. And then I lost another baby.

Miscarriage is one of those horrible things that unfortunately happens a lot. Pregnancy is as fragile as it is precious. You’re told it’s not your fault, that there’s nothing you could have done to prevent it. A lot of people said that to me. Not one of those people knew I was throwing up everything I ate. I wonder if I’d have lost the pregnancies if I’d been well – after all it was a miracle I’d fallen pregnant in the first place, given the abuse I’d been putting my body through for the past decade.

After coming around from the operation I needed to remove my first lost baby (or, as the hospital called it so clinically ‘products of conception’) the nurse asked me how I was feeling. I replied simply with the word ’empty’. I felt empty.

Then just when I was considering that I should take some time out and focus on recovery, I was pregnant again.

I binged, vomited and starved the whole way through that pregnancy, a downward spiral until she was born at 39 weeks.

The first time I threw up after she’d been born (other than the post-partum sickness I suffered after both labours) was about 6 hours later. I’d had a slice of toast on the ward. I couldn’t bear it. My eating disorder was so consuming that I was bringing up a single piece of toast while my newborn baby was being cuddled on the ward. When my eldest came to visit I let her eat my lunch for me. A great novelty to her (it included a pot of jelly!), and meant I got away without eating.

For days after the birth I had these horrible ‘surge’ feelings in my chest, as well as increased frequency of palpitations. I went to the doctor and asked him to check my potassium. He said it was on the low side but ok and blamed it on the post-partum haemmorhage. I still couldn’t admit what I was doing.

From there on it gets pretty repetitive. I’ve spent a lot of time binging and purging while I should have been interacting with my babies. I’ve put off taking them out because it will involve food with nowhere to purge. On one occasion that I took them out for a picnic my youngest shoved a cheese biscuit in my mouth with great delight that she was ‘feeding mummy’. I spat it out into a tissue when she wasn’t looking.

My oldest is 5 now. I’ve been a mother for half a decade. I believed so much that becoming a mum would end the eating disorder, or at least that I’d be able to manage it.

Recently, she was cuddled into me and said ‘Mummy, I wish I had blue eyes like you. I hate my eyes.’

I wanted to cry. She has the most beautiful, deep, soulful dark eyes. She’s only 5 and she wants to change herself already. How long before the focus shifts to other parts of her body? She’s a perfect little thing, in every way. What sort of example am I setting to her though?! I don’t vocalise my self hatred but despite my attempts to protect them from my eating disorder she knew what scales were for by the age of 2. Unless I change things I fear that I will destroy them as well as myself.

So there it is. When I say I’ve thought about leaving, how they deserve better, how I feel like a terrible mother, I’m not just being down on myself. I’m being honest. How far are these amazing little people going to get with me in their life?

I just hope that, despite everything, they never once doubt how much they’re loved. That is the reason I won’t ever leave them.