Mother with an eating disorder in a striped dress standing in her kitchen and smiling
Courtesy of Candace Ganger
7 Ways My ED Changed How I Parent My Kids

Just the other day, I noticed my breakfast had to be three egg whites, or nothing at all. While this may not ring alarm bells to most, this sudden realization made me take pause. As someone who has battled an eating disorder since early childhood, I took the new food fixation as a warning sign. What's worse are the ways suffering through an eating disorder has changed the way I parent my kids, particularly while raising a 10-year-old girl who's so body conscious already.

As a girl who was fat shamed and labeled "obese" by her doctors, I didn't realize the roll food was playing in my turbulent childhood. I was raised by a plethora of women who were always crash dieting and exercising, so food (and how they "managed" it or "made up for it") was the focus of everything. I thought my relationship with food was "normal," because, based on my learned behaviors from those around me, it's all I knew. Even when kids at school poked fun at my soft body, dimples, and curves, nothing struck me as "wrong." Sure, I was self-conscious when I was 10, the age my daughter is now, but what pre-teen girl isn't? My body was shifting in ways I had no control over but, when it came to food, I only knew it as the enemy. An enemy I would turn to in times of desperation, and away from in times of triumph.

From an early age, I attended Weight Watchers meetings with my mom and grandmother regularly, both as a guest and a participant. I began counting calories before entering high school and, after my first real heartbreak, at 15 I became anorexic. The typical response to my drastic weight loss wasn't, "How can I help?" but, instead, "Wow, you look great." This only fed the monsters inside that would pester me from that point on, making my weight the center of my universe.

The thing about eating disorders is that you can't turn them on or off. Once you've endured them in any form, they're always lingering just beneath the surface, ready to pounce when you're at your weakest. There were plenty of times after high school when my anorexia laid dormant. I'd lose, gain, or maintain my weight in ways I'd liken to "average," but the moment something triggered my anxiety (like postpartum depression, my obsessive compulsive disorder, or a traumatic loss), I'd immediately fall back into my old, disordered patterns. Counting calories, food avoidance and restriction, and constantly weighing myself throughout the day were all warning signs I chose not to notice until it was too late.

In the summer of 2014, at a point when I was emotionally drained, anorexia took ahold of me again. This time I nearly stop eating completely. My meals were only a couple bites of whatever I had available, and I was exercising constantly. I'd reached my lowest weight ever and still never felt "thin enough" or, honestly, enough of anything. I knew I needed help.

Since then I've regained control and gained some of the weight back, but in healthy ways through strength training and making healthier food choices. Still, over the years I've noticed just how much having a disorder like this changes how I parent, and I can't help but wonder how things would be if I were "normal." In the end, though, I am who I am, which includes being the mother two my two children. The best I can do is maintain my vigilance, look for warning signs that my eating disorder may be resurfacing, and be kind to myself.

I Have A Love/Hate Relationship With Meal Planning

When you have an eating disorder (particularly anorexia) meals aren't that exciting. In fact, if anything they're draining. I spend a lot of time pretending to eat, rationing and portioning, and sometimes I stay busy enough not to eat at all. It's all-consuming and exhausting. As a parent in charge of my children's nutrition, I'm very aware of meal time and how important what they put into their bodies is. I'm also sensitive enough not to over emphasize any specific foods by labeling them "good" or "bad," as I try to teach them moderation and good health.

However, through my own struggles, I typically fall into food routines. Part of this is due to my OCD, but again, I can't discount these warning signs. I know they could be the start of food restriction or avoidance. While in the past I might not have taken so much time to plan meals, I do now for the sake of my kids and myself to ensure everyone is eating, and eating well. If I have to obsess over food in some way, I'd rather it be revolving around meal planning and not eating the food itself.

The Scale Remains Out Of Sight

Before kids, I'd have weighed myself openly, repeatedly, and without a thought. The numbers reflected back, however high or low, only made me feel worse because there could be no number I'd ever feel satisfied with. It's something I still struggle with, even as I'm in better health now, and will probably continue to struggle with forever.

This is why, in my house, the scale is put away. We haven't gotten rid of it yes, but we're planning to. I don't want my kids to walk in and see me obsessing over those numbers that ultimately don't matter anyway. The proof is in the pounds of muscle I've gained since 2014. I want my kids to know their self-worth isn't reliant on any number and to feel good about themselves no matter their size (lessons I'm still learning for myself.)

I'm Hyper Aware Of How Much, Or How Little, My Kids Eat

My kids eat in opposing extremes. My daughter, who's going through pre-puberty, has a never-ending appetite. She's growing and changing in ways I can't keep up with. My son eats like a bird, pecking away at small pieces of each meal. He's remained nearly the same size for the last couple years, only growing in length.

There's a lot of factors to consider, including but certainly not limited to: hormones, age, growth spurts, and my children's metabolism. Still, I can't help but hover when they eat. I mean no harm whatsoever, but I want to be sure they're each getting the right nutrients and in the right amounts. My fear of either of them going through what I have (or any woman in my family) consumes me. If I didn't have this history or experience, maybe my kids could just eat the way their peers do and without constant supervision.

I Notice When Food Patterns Change

Because my patterns change when I'm on the verge of food restriction or avoidance, I always think the same is true for my kids when, in fact, it's not. Sometimes they like sweet potatoes and, sometimes, they just don't. It's hard to separate when something they do is normal or part of my issues. Usually, it's the latter.

I Worry About My Kids' Health

Food aside, I know I'd be a different parent if I didn't have an eating disorder. I'm constantly thinking about my children's health, hoping they're not going to grow up the way I did when it comes to weight and self-esteem. I emphasize healthy choices and exercise and let them have treats, while simultaneously educating them on what foods do what to and for their bodies. I don't want to be annoying to the point of my kids choosing the opposite of what I say, but because my health wasn't much of a concern growing up, I make it a priority.

I'm Paranoid My Kids Don't Get Enough Exercise

I'm an avid runner in the mornings, with strength training routines at night. I'm trying to take care of myself through better food choices and exercise, and even though I fail (a lot), I'm in better shape than I have been in previous years. One the days my kids sit all day long, I take notice. I want them to be more active, but at the same time, don't want to force it.

When I was young, I wasn't active at all and no one suggested I should be. I'm trying to navigate letting them decide how active they want to be, while encouraging they get up and move their bodies. It's a lot harder than it sounds because, in the end, I want them to like the way exercise makes them feel and now what it can give them in terms of "results."

I Don't Always Have The Answers

There are times when my daughter seems self conscious in her clothes or my son points out the "crinkles" on my thighs (that I'll cry about for days), and I realize I don't know what I'm doing. My eating disorder has disrupted my life so many times, I wonder how things would be different if I'd had a "normal" relationship with food and exercise. Honestly, I'll never know.

The thing is, I always thought my kids didn't notice when I went through a period of restriction. I believed I was doing a good job of hiding those embarrassing things about myself. Then one day, not too long ago, my daughter mentioned how thin I looked. She asked about my small portions and told me I didn't look happy. It was so raw and honest, with her eyes gleaming up at me, but so true. The very next day I committed to getting strong and healthy the right way. Even when we think our kids aren't watching us, they are. I need to make sure they see me, and not the eating disorder.