“Choose whatever you like, Mum’. I looked at the menu and chose pancakes with maple syrup. Yum. Like many
mothers around the world, I celebrated ‘Mother’s Day’ this past Sunday. I felt completely blessed, invited to brunch with all four children, and all five grand children. We sat in a lovely restaurant and I was purring with the bliss of being surrounded by family. Life was not always beautiful like this. In my 30s and 40s, with an eating disorder keeping my true self prisoner, Mother’s Days were often painful reminders of an inability to parent adequately. My children were my greatest inspiration for recovery, and thanks to them, here I am, free as a bird in my 60s, surrounded by them and their offspring, and eating pancakes. I must diverge a little to explain that I chose pancakes in fond memory of a dish my lovely American mom, Irene, made in her black skillet, every Sunday morning. I lived with Irene and her family as an AFS exchange student in Missouri, 1968-69, and she served a platter piled high with pancakes every Sunday before the family of eight packed into the ranch wagon and headed off to Sunday School and church. How blessed am I, to remain in touch with my American family, and look forward to visiting them in October this year.
Family. Whatever form it takes, we all need family. In addition to my children and grandchildren, I cherish my American family. This family was ‘chosen’ for me by the AFS committee, and yet more than 40 years later, remains as real as any family can be. I love my American Mom and Dad and my sisters and brothers, and my heart sings, because I know they love me.
For mothers who live with an eating disorder, motherhood is something extra special, as Kelly describes in this inspiring guest blog:
My eldest son, at his kindergarten Christmas concert, glanced at me from under his floppy reindeer ears, looking like he’d way prefer to be outside kicking a football than standing before a bunch of mothers and grandparents with camcorders. His look sparked memories of those hard years of recovery from anorexia. Every day that I had cried uncontrollably, pulled at my hair, felt hopeless and prayed desperately to anyone who would listen to help free me from the torment, had led to this moment of being a proud mother in the audience.
“I had done it” – I had raised this social, articulate, well-adjusted little boy who was graduating from kindergarten and, at the age of five, was ready to start school. The moment was special for his fifth birthday had coincided with another milestone – the 10th anniversary of when I first sat in a psychologist’s chair attempting to convince her that I wasn’t supposed to be there. At the time I had all but screamed: “I’m not skinny enough to have anorexia.” The diagnosis, at age 27, proved otherwise. Now, the sight of this antler-clad son taking to the stage seemed to be cementing my recovery; not only had I recovered, I had accomplished something better, better than I had ever imagined. It was neither something that could be measured nor placed on my CV – it was more private, more notable. Motherhood had helped regain me.
I had battled anorexia in silence since my early teens. Not that I’m about to bore you with the details that come with several emotionally agonizing years of counselling. I’ve wasted enough time psycho-analyzing my stereo-typical-anorexic-past (perfectionist, eldest, high-achiever, low self-esteem). Instead I will focus on the part when you have recovered sufficiently from anorexia to walk in the community alone, meet a loving partner, get married and have kids. What is the wash up? Does recovery hold strong with the stress that comes with pregnancy, weight gain, miscarriage and three children under five?
I’m sure there are many mothers out there, like me, whose recovery is sufficient for them to go quietly about the business of school and kindergarten pick-ups, play-groups, chatting to neighbors, balancing work, study, family, relationships and generally keeping themselves fed.
Motherhood on the whole has had a positive effect on my eating disorder. I consider myself ‘normal’ (after a life-time of feeling ‘different’), given I now eat a variety of food and regular meals and I don’t have to exercise every single day. More importantly, I’m realistic about what I can achieve and no longer suffer from non-stop negative self-talk. Mostly I am grateful that I have been able to produce three healthy children with a body that I starved, tortured and hated. In fact, my children have proven the toughest self-image, self-renewal boot camp that three years of sitting opposite a psychologist armed with a note pad and pen could never have provided.
Not that it has all been smooth sailing. As with most recovery stories, I’ve had my share of setbacks. Anorexia is renowned for sneaking up from behind and grabbing you in a silent headlock no matter how smart you might consider yourself to be. It starts with a missed lunch, then a smaller dinner than usual, and the next thing you know you have hardly eaten all week. Times of stress, crisis or change are when I am at my most vulnerable.
When I had my first baby, I became distressed after four weeks when I hadn’t regained my size and hit the pavement desperate to lose the baby-weight I had gained. Even after several years of being ‘well’ the anorexia behaviors became my way of coping with fear and change. I wanted to gain back ‘control’ over my body and had to somehow deal with the incredibly inadequate feelings and fears that accompanied the launch into motherhood. Another baby later, I found myself sitting before a doctor in a small coastal town, with a 15-month-old and a crying newborn, listening to a description of my anemia and being forced to explain (while fetching dummies from the floor, pulling a toddler away from a medical bin) that despite my ‘coping’ presentation, what I really needed was a referral to my psychologist as once again, I was struggling to eat.
I’ve found that recovery from anorexia has some similarities with motherhood. It can be tough at times; a constant evolving process of growth; redefining what is important, what makes for happiness and maintaining a balance between my needs and that of my busy family.
For you see, some of my closest ‘new’ friends know nothing of my past. Mostly they are other mothers and neighbors that I have met during the course of my children attending kindergarten and school. While I tell myself that there hasn’t been much of an opportunity to confide, the truth is that I cherish being perceived as ‘normal’. A decade after recovery from anorexia, I still fear being instantly re-defined in the eyes of others who know about it. That I will be watched more closely at a party (I still struggle to eat in the smallest of crowds), greater meaning will be extracted from what I say, or comments will be made if my jeans are hanging loosely or I refuse a piece of cake. My biggest fear is that all that I have achieved could be taken away; that the tormenting voice of anorexia will convince me again that I don’t deserve such happiness.
My children counter-balance this fear – they teach me to be more human, rather than a super impersonator of someone who is perfect and always keeping the balls up in the air. Kids are messy, get sick, don’t use their manners (at the times when you most want them to) and state their opinions out loud.
My four-year-old son summed it up perfectly when he came into my bed in the middle of the night, cuddled up and muffled in my ear that he had had a bad dream but now that he was snuggled close to me, all his thoughts were “happy thoughts”. “Me too, me too,” I said as I felt the warmth of his breath and felt his body soften as he drifted off to sleep. Moments like this make for the happy ending I had prayed for and is what I cling to. Moments like this keep me well. Kids live in the moment and I’m striving to be like them.