Anorexia as a parent
I always wanted to be a parent, but I didn’t expect to be one.
I was diagnosed with anorexia when I was 13, a week before my 14th birthday. My nephew was a baby at the time and I remember my mum and sister both telling me that having anorexia would mean I couldn’t have children so I needed to get better. It didn’t seem that important when I was 13.
As a student at a high-pressure, high-achieving all-girls school, any sign of development into a normal teenage girl painted a target on your back. I started my periods in Year 7 and I remember feeling a sick sense of dread that the other girls would know and make fun of me. They bullied me enough as it was, I was bigger than the rest of them and wore vests in summer to cover up any signs of development. We had swimming lessons once a week and I dreaded them. I had stretch marks on my legs (which I now know to be down to Ehlers Danlos Syndrome) and having my period would mark me out with even greater stigma.
Being with all girls all the time, your body was a constant topic of conversation and a source of microscopic attention. The girls who got bras early were whispered and giggled about, they were the ‘fat girls’. I absolutely refused to wear anything resembling one for years because I was so afraid of being bullied more. When my anorexia developed rapidly two years later, it was a blissful relief from the constant scrutiny of my teenage body. Having periods always marked me out as bigger and more mature than my peers, I hated it. It was a welcome relief to me when they stopped. They remained erratic for the next 13 years and I took the POP so as not to have to deal with this tiresome reminder of my maturity.
My eating disorder remained a constant in my life for the next 13 years. I masked it well at university, disappearing off to the toilets to make myself sick after every other drink on a night out, taking laxatives every day. I masked it so well that my housemates were in total shock when one day my parents came to clear out my room because I’d been admitted to an inpatient unit. I lived after my discharge with a very present but very easy to conceal illness.
When I met my husband, I was honest with him and in my head, I had simply planned that us having children would be very difficult because I’d destroyed my body for so many years.
It wasn’t. Relying on a means of oral contraception whilst having a purging disorder is not reliable and I was incredibly shocked to discover I was pregnant when I was 26. I would love to tell you that my pregnancy instantly cured my disordered thoughts around food, but it was actually a nightmarish nine months where I restricted, made myself sick every time I tried not to, cried constantly, begged for help and was laughed at by my GP.
When I had Zoey, my weight was identical to my booking in appointment at 8 weeks pregnant and this was following three months of bed rest. I absolutely loved my baby, although I was in complete shock over the pregnancy. I wanted to be a good mother, I was terrified if I told people I made myself sick, social services would take her away. I wanted to protect her so I forced myself to be honest with my care team and I was given growth scans and eventually referred to eating disorders services at 34 weeks pregnant. I will never forget being asked why it took me "so long" to seek help when I had begged my GP at 16 weeks and he told me that my baby would simply "eat me" if I didn’t eat enough.
Zoey was born perfect and healthy at 6lbs 4oz on 5th February, during a snowstorm. The hospital wanted to send me home because they thought she wouldn’t be born for hours. Fortunately for all of us, the snow prevented it and she was born two hours later. I didn’t know what to expect when I’d been reading all these baby books and apps. When they handed her to me, I felt totally numb and it freaked me out. My mum is an earth mother, she told me how much she loved being pregnant and breastfeeding, how when you are given the baby you feel love instantly. I just kind of looked at Zoey and didn’t know what to think. I was so glad she was here, I wanted a girl so much that I didn’t believe she was real. I’d spent so long thinking my eating disorder would kill my baby that I felt almost afraid to relax and believe she existed and I hadn’t extinguished my chances of happiness like I’d done with everything else in my life. That anxiety didn’t ease for almost a day. I woke up at 4am with her. Whilst all the other babies in the ward were crying, she just curled her hand around my finger and I got it.
So I decided she would get the perfect version of me. She would never eat the foods I had that caused me to be overweight and get bullied, she’d be the perfect baby.
I don’t know how many parents are reading this, these lofty ambitions are there to bite all of us in the ass. I remember flipping out over her being given a chocolate spread sandwich, the first time she was taken to McDonalds by her grandparents. Let me tell you, she is now 10 going on 15 and I am lucky if she eats a slice of cucumber in addition to the chocolate and crisps. But I don’t care, food doesn’t consume me in the same way as it did then and this is why:
About a year after Zoey was born, we decided to have a second child. My son Ryan was born in April 2014. This pregnancy was easier. I knew what to expect, my midwife was amazing, and I was under specialist consultant-led care. He arrived weighing a pound more than his sister. But Zoey’s reaction was what changed me.
When her brother arrived, Zoey wanted to be a baby again, only wanted to drink milk. When she stopped eating, it made me focus my attention on my own behaviour and what she might have learned from me. I read an article about a woman who learned her mum wasn’t beautiful by hearing her criticise herself and I knew that it was within my capability to recover from my eating disorder and teach my children a better life. I picked up dieting books and body dissatisfaction from my own mum, so my first step was to swallow back discomfort about my body and accept it and eat in front of my children. My recovery was not overnight, it was long and challenging, especially with a toddler and a baby. But at some point, it stopped being a conscious effort and became a part of normal life.
Now my children are older, I involve them in my eating disorder recovery advocacy in an appropriate way. I do talks at schools and other parents have asked me for advice on my daughter’s peers’ struggles with their bodies. My daughter has grown up to be one of the kindest and most self-aware people I’ve ever met. She has normal ten-year-old worries and insecurities, but she is so confident and accepting in a way I never was. I have a very special relationship with her and she watched me speak about my illness for the first time a few months ago and was so proud of me. She seems old beyond her years and we always tease her that she has a dictionary in her head.
When I held that baby that I wasn’t quite sure what to do with all those years ago, I only knew one thing. That I would spend my life making sure she didn’t hate herself the way I did. That she would grow up learning to accept what makes her different. She is a truly remarkable little person (actually, she’s not so little, she’s 5ft 1) and she and her brother changed me forever for the better. I never thought I could place anything above the rules that consumed my every waking minute, but my family, the three people that matter the most, finally silenced them.