Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Woes for My Unborn Child

Mariposai over at The Monster Beneath raises a point I haven't thought much about because I don't want to have children myself: What if you had a child who had an ED? Because I am not a parent and don't wish to become one, I have the luxury of looking at child-rearing what-ifs from a removed standpoint. It's a game, almost--theoretical, a reflection on myself, not the child-parent relationship, because I will likely only ever know one side of that pairing.

I remember a conversation with a friend of mine who's also a new parent. My friend doesn't have an eating disorder per se but has struggled with various forms of disordered eating, specifically orthorexia. She was petrified that her child wasn't getting enough to eat--she was constantly measuring and remeasuring her son's milk (she was unable to breastfeed), peppering the pediatrician with questions about her son's growth (which is normal), researching obscure pediatric swallowing disorders (which her son had zero signs of). This jibes perfectly with what a friend of mine who is a lactation consultant told me: Inevitably, when she has a client who is overly worried that her child is underfed, when my friend pressed the issue the client would reveal a history of disordered eating.

The uninformed snapshot of an ED patient's family history is that the parents encourage a disordered mindset: Praising her for losing weight, putting her on a diet at a young age, shaming her for a pubescent growth spurt that doesn't go from beanstalk to hourglass overnight. I've met a couple of patients with those kind of families, and I'm horrified at the thought of not having family be a refuge from the daily weight-loss assault the world throws at girls.

But most people I've met with EDs don't have such a seemingly logical family dynamic. The stories I heard that were more common were: the "perfect" family in which self-expression was silenced; families with too-permeable boundaries; distant, removed parents; the parents who told their daughter she was great as-is while the father openly ogled other women and the mother constantly dieted. And, of course, the families with abuse--sexual, physical, emotional--that is all too common when discussing women's mental health. It may be a biological crapshoot as to whether it's an ED or depression or OCD or a child who manages to somehow escape the darts of dysfunction (just as a highly functioning family is no guarantee of outrunning biological factors in mental health), but the point is: The things that actually trigger EDs at the base level are usually not what we, as ED patients and those who support them, think of as "triggers." My friend would never tell her son that he needed to change his body, but I can see how growing up with worry over food could confuse his own attitude toward nourishment when he's old enough to start making his own choices.

I was raised in a feminist household--I remember saving up my allowance to buy a Barbie (my parents wouldn't buy one) and my mother sitting down with me, undressing the doll, and pointing out how Barbie's body was different than real women's. They never did or said anything that a well-meaning but ignorant observer could point to as "why" I developed an ED. They never commented on my appearance (for good or bad), and the (very) few comments about my weight only took on a potency later on, after I began to examine why, in such a seemingly supportive environment, I was willing to do mean things to my body to make it "good enough." But children are intuitive: I saw my mother eating normal meals but saw her obesity, and somewhere in there knew that she must have been eating secretly. (Imagine my surprise when, decades later, we would start to discuss our own disorders and I found that we had the same binge foods, even though I'd never once seen her binge.) I knew that as the designated "good girl," I couldn't openly rebel; instead, I started restricting and desperately hoped they would notice that I needed help.

There are many reasons I don't want children, and fear of them developing an ED isn't at the top of the list. But, yes, it's on there. I've volleyed the questions to myself thousands of times: Is it in my brain / the magazines I work for / my home / what if I were born male / am I lucky it wasn't a "worse" affliction / what could I have done differently? I can't imagine asking the same questions for someone else's disease. When I told my mother that I was going into treatment and asked her why she wasn't as supportive as she could have been when I'd come to her for help years earlier, her response was one I couldn't have imagined: Because she'd been dealing with it all her life, she couldn't imagine that my problem warranted treatment. My mother loves me deeply, yet was blind to how that line of thinking jeopardized my own health--and her own, for that matter, as it kept her from having to confront her own ED. Perhaps my greatest fear is not that I'd have to deal with the pain of watching my child destroy herself, but that if my child developed an eating disorder, I'd have to confront my own recovery failures too.

(Laura Collins writes, excellently, about this in-depth at Are You Eating With Your Anorexic. She focuses on treatment methods, specifically Maudsley, and though I am not a parent I feel as though I've learned a good deal about family dynamics and EDs through her blog. As far as I can tell, Collins did not suffer from an ED herself, so her focus is different than what I'm addressing here.


  1. Hey thanks for the mention :-)

    Brilliantly written's interesting how all my commenters interpreted my post in a totally different (but fascinating) way to my original intentions...this is the beauty of blogging.

    Thanks so much for your comment on my media dilemma (your other blog is great too), in fact reading it made me instantly pick up the phone and ring the journalist in question. What happened next is a new post in itself (coming soon!)

    I feel lucky that you stopped by my blog.

    Sarah x

  2. hey!
    i just came across your blog and i can't wait to keep reading!
    i would love it if you could check out mine and follow :)

  3. Thank you for the mention and the kind words. It may seem like a paradox, but much of my work is with the goal of both getting rid of the idea that parents cause eating disorders by their behaviors while also asking parents to change their behaviors: ALL PARENTS. People sometimes get stuck on the first point and miss the second and I'm so grateful when someone doesn't!

    Your observations on parenting and parents with disordered eating and thinking is important stuff. It is an important conversation for us all to be having. Thank you!