Parenting

The hardest thing about parenting with an eating disorder? Everything

My path to recovery has taken various turns, and now that I'm raising two daughters, there's another twist. How do I keep them, and me, healthy?

It’s lunch time and I have a picky eater. She’s always been that way; the look she gave me upon her first taste of avocado was as full of resentment as the one she gives me now, at nearly five, when I encourage her to try a bowl of spiralized zucchini.

I open a container with leftover spaghetti from the night before, which she ate enthusiastically with butter and salt. She turns her nose.

How about ramen? Nope.

Grilled cheese? Pass.

We somehow agree on cheese taquitos, and this negotiating has me so worn down that I probably would have agreed to ice cream just to get her to eat something.

These battles to get her to eat remind me of my own. But unlike my daughter, I’m not a picky eater. I’m a food addict, and I avoid certain foods because I’ll binge myself to death, most likely dying an early death from diabetes-related complications and obesity. This is my eating disorder.

Before I found recovery for my eating disorder, I was blasting through giant Costco packages of 100-calorie snack packs in two days. This was in addition to everything else I was eating: healthy meals, followed by holiday cookies and candy from the employee break room and snacks from the vending machine. I’d tuck the snack bags into my desk drawer at work to last couple weeks, but they’d disappear within hours, like the boundaries of my latest diet. I’d blindly reach for a little package of controlled substances and deliver them piece by piece to my mouth without pausing or processing what I was doing.

On weekends, I’d power through multi-course meals believing I was a “foodie,” eating foods that caused me physical pain, ignoring my body and the recommendations of my doctors. Eating was white noise, drowning out my pain.

   Woman running on a treadmill, showing her legs and feet only    
   While worrying about getting pregnant, my eating disorder slinked back
My addiction was heightened or maybe caused by trauma and PTSD from circumstances beyond my control. I could not have stopped 9/11, and I will never know why I had to be an eye witness. I don’t know if that trauma awoke a sleeping giant inside me that could only be satiated by food and more food, or if it planted a seed in my psyche that I nurtured into a Little Shop of Horrors Audrey II with bingeing and disordered eating behaviours over the following decade.

In recovery, I have followed a very specific, prescribed diet for almost eight years and have found relief from the yo-yo dieting, bingeing, self-hate, compulsively weighing myself, restricting and general insanity around food.

It’s not easy and it doesn’t always look like other people’s recovery. I have to research menus before every meal out; I have carried my own bread into restaurants on a cross-country trip, and I have cried quietly by myself when I forgot my dinner and my peers had a pizza party.

But even with following this prescribed diet, I am regularly triggered by otherwise normal situations: dinner parties, restaurants, birthday parties, grocery shopping, travel, preparing meals for my family and a lot of otherwise totally “normal situations.”

And that’s just it. A huge (HUGE!) part of parenting involves helping your children eat healthy meals, every single day—which makes this most basic of parenting jobs sometimes the most excruciating for me.

My daughters are too young to understand why I don’t eat gluten or sugar—they just think I’m allergic. Maybe someday I’ll explain to them that just one bite of these foods may lead me down a never-ending food and shame spiral of bingeing.

Frankly, I’d rather they hear me ask if there’s gluten or sugar in everything than experience my bingeing, restricting, anxiety and declining mental health. I’m not hiding my issues; I’m protecting them from the idea that food is the problem rather than my mental health, a nuance that many adults don’t understand. Food has never been the problem; it has always been the symptom.

My children, despite my efforts, will probably encounter trauma in their lives. I can’t control their world. But I can influence how they respond. There is a chance they have inherited that sleeping giant and that they are hard-wired to have addictive behaviour triggered by extreme situations.

Most scientists agree that addiction may have genetic links, so I definitely watch for signs of disease, like uncontrollable anxiety or compulsive behavior, and I make sure they aren’t relying on some substance to self-soothe. For me, food was the balm, but it could have been alcohol, drugs, gambling or prescription medications. They’re all dangerous, it’s just that some things kill you faster.

An important part of my recovery is the re-discovery of my spiritual self and slowly letting go of my need to always control my environment. That need was taking the place of faith in something outside of me. Just like I can’t control the tides, I can’t control life, so as I let go, a grace came over me. I trust that this grace will help me recognize teachable moments when they arise.

So if one of my daughters tells me she wants to change the way she eats so she can change how her body looks, I will have the tools to help her think differently. If she ever says something unkind about another person’s body, I can teach compassion and love for others as an extension of the love we should have for ourselves. 

I do my best to protect my girls every day from both the ravages of the world and the tightly-leashed monster within me. My mental and emotional wellness is the only way I can be the parent I want to be. I have been given the grace to maintain abstinence from binging through three pregnancies and two losses and have ridden the emotional waves of grief and elation. Through it all I have not abused myself with food. My life has gotten so big, it has drowned out the desires of my disease.

To outsiders, it may look like I’m picky (or perhaps still disordered), but this is what it looks like for me to choose sanity one meal at a time. This is how I am the most stable, healthy, loving mother I can be.

And by the way: I constantly wonder if I’m doing it right. But, oh—isn’t that most of parenting?

Read more:
Picky eaters: 3 experts weigh in on your FAQs
How to avoid passing food hang-ups onto your kids