From infancy onward, mothers are under pressure to balance (as if!) their own self-care with the demands of a growing family. Women so often set high standards for their ‘performance’ as mothers which adds on more stress and pressure during an already challenging time of life. No doubt, managing the various tasks and expectations of motherhood can be overwhelming, both physically and emotionally. If you’re experiencing motherhood while also struggling with an eating disorder, these demands can feel even more burdensome.
Many mothers who may be struggling with eating concerns, avoid seeking treatment because of shame or guilt (“I should have it together”) or because they simply can’t rationalize taking time away from family. So often, mothers are credited for this selflessness. We see it in quotes like “a mother’s love is a selfless sacrifice” that adorn the front of advertisements or greeting cards. But the truth is that sometimes you have to be selfish to be selfless. L.R. Knost, author and child development researcher, once said: “taking care of yourself doesn’t mean me first, it means me too.”
Having It “Together”
With the never-ending list of responsibilities and with a family depending on you, it’s not surprising if you work hard to hold it together – to appear strong, invincible – even when inside you may be overwhelmed. Trying to maintain a strong exterior means internalizing your feelings and possibly going to great lengths to hide disordered behaviors. Mealtime, food shopping and preparing food for the family – seemingly mundane tasks – will be highly triggering and difficult for someone with an eating disorder.
A mother struggling with an eating disorder may fear the children will pick up on unusual dining habits or a poor relationship with food. Thoughts of restricting, binging or purging can overwhelm, creating a constant and nagging distraction from the present. Mothers will report laboring to find opportunities to sneak away to binge or purge without being discovered. The pressures and stress of mothering, only makes these moments of solitary release all the more appealing – but the aftermath that much more distressing.
In Cosmopolitan Magazine article “I Developed an Eating Disorder as a Mom,” one mother writes “even though I was a mom in my 20s and I knew full well the importance of balanced meals, I began skipping them altogether. I started seeing how long I could go each day without eating anything…I was embarrassed to be an adult and a mother suffering from a disorder I thought was so common in teenagers. Looking back, I know I could have avoided anorexia if I had found other ways to cope with stress over the years.” So often, mothers will report that these stigmas (identifying with a “teenagers disorder”), in addition to scheduling conflicts, fear of being absent from the home during treatment hours, appearing as a failure to children, self or spouse etc., prevent them from seeking treatment.
Children of Mothers with Eating Disorders
As stated by Eating Disorder Hope, Statistics show that first-degree family members of individuals with anorexia are eleven times more likely to have anorexia themselves and six times more likely to have some disordered eating behaviors. This is likely due to both genes and the modeling of eating disordered behaviors. We know that mothers who frequently comment on weight are statistically more likely to have daughters who use weight control behaviors and/or binge eat. It is for these reasons among many others that appropriate care and support are essential for both the individual sufferer and the family unit.
There is a reason we inflate our own lifejacket before inflating the life jackets of those around us. While it may be challenging to face some of these stressors or stigmas, one cannot simply “stop” an eating disorder in its tracks without the support of an educated treatment team. Once informed on the risks of eating disorders on the family structure, we can foster a family environment of trust, non-blaming, understanding, and health.
Columbus Park is launching a new group specifically for mothers working toward recovery. The group will create space to talk about body image concerns, parenting struggles, feeding children, managing self-care and more. The group will be facilitated by Columbus Park’s Clinical Director (and mother of two!), Melissa Gerson, LCSW. There will be a monthly nutrition-focused session facilitated by Registered Dietician, Justine Violante-Roth. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.