Sick of reading fluffy bulimia recovery advice online that sounds great in theory but doesn’t actually work? Tired of the black hole in the Internet where all the bulimia in motherhood support is missing? Then read on!
Most parenting advice out there is geared towards mothers who do not suffer from bulimia, so it can be easy to feel shit about yourself when you have to do things a little differently. Furthermore, most eating disorder recovery advice is delivered without parenthood in mind, which can be frustrating when your circumstances are different.
Here are 5 highly actionable, detailed, no nonsense strategies for bulimic mothers at varying stages of recovery, written by someone who actually gets it:
1. Family mealtimes: Use them or lose them
In eating disorder recovery, you will probably be told that participating in family mealtimes is important and even essential. This is arguably true in most cases, and it may be for you. Having close family around you while you eat can be very helpful in establishing a meal routine and normalising your eating behaviours. In the long term, it is also a good way of connecting with your loved ones over food in a healthy way.
Of course, eating disorders aside, there is also the unavoidable fact that involving our kids in family mealtimes is an all-round very good thing to do.
However, this is not always true in every situation. If you have a young family, depending on the nature of your children, mealtimes can be a stressful experience even for ‘normal’ parents. Chuck an eating disorder into the mix, and it can be downright hell.
If this speaks for your situation, prioritise your eating disorder recovery before everything else. I say this not because I don’t care about your kids, but because it is best for them in the long term to get a healthy mother back as soon as possible. This is one of the reasons your self-care is so vital. There are many years ahead to enjoy family mealtimes with your children when you are in a better place. Right now, if it’s not working for you, simply don’t do it.
If you need to eat separately from your kids, normalise it as much as possible. If you are able to, try sitting with your kids while they eat – schedule it as coffee time. This way, you can focus on parenting without having to deal with your own shit at the same time. Then, later, you can deal with your own shit without having to focus on parenting. When it is time for your own meal, eat at the table with your partner or a support person. Make sure you eat enough – ideally with a meal plan set out by a dietitian who understands your needs. You simply will not be able to recover from bulimia as long as you practice restrictive eating. (No, ‘this time’ it won’t be different).
Remember, segregated eating is only a short term solution for those who need it. When you are further ahead in your recovery, you will be in a better headspace, and this is when you can reintegrate your own eating with your children’s. And man will you cherish it, and so will they. 🙂
2. Develop a strategy to handle kid-related bulimia triggers
Every bulimic has their triggers, and when you are battling bulimia as a mother, chances are your darling kids – through no fault of their own, of course – press your trigger button more than anything or anyone else. With the exception of Point 5 on this list, there is no way of escaping this, so the best thing you can do is develop a concrete coping strategy, and if possible, enlist the help of your partner or support person in its implementation.
This will look different for each individual, because everybody’s triggers and coping methods are different, but I can give you a handful of examples to work with:
- Suck a strong mint or chew gum while you are cooking to reduce your temptation to take ‘just one bite’.
- Have your partner/support person with you while you prepare meals or lunchboxes, or alternatively ask them to completely take over the responsibility for a while. Yes, even if they don’t ‘do it right’. Learn to let go. Worst case scenario, just don’t look! 😉
- Avoid preparing specific trigger foods in the early stages of recovery. Your family will survive without them for a while, and if they don’t like it, they can prepare it for themselves.
- Suck another strong mint or chew gum after the meal to reduce your temptation to take ‘just one bite’ of people’s leftovers.
- Incentivise (or order!) your kids to swiftly dispose of leftovers, or have your partner do it.
- Implement a strict household rule that uneaten food is not to be left lying around.
- Leave lunchboxes in the car boot after you collect your kids from school/day care. If they get the bus, ask them to put their lunchboxes somewhere out of sight. Let your partner/support person deal with the leftovers when they get home. That is a chore you can lose for a while.
- Don’t get furious with the kids if they leave their food, or force them to eat. Even if they are being fussy. I know how hard that is – but you must allow them to self-regulate and eat intuitively.
- If you have a toddler or a perpetually ravenous older child who is liable to demand snacks at unexpected times (and kick up a triggering tantrum if the answer is no), have a plan in advance.
- If there is a certain time of day this happens, when possible, get out the house before it happens. Go for a walk. Visit a friend. Head out to the playground. Have a non-triggering snack prepared in advance to take with you, or buy a healthy snack from a shop or cafe while you are out.
- When that’s not possible, have an opaque box of healthy snacks that you can whip out at home when this situation arises. Have this box stored somewhere away from other trigger food. When your kids ask for a snack – that box is your go-to. You take it out and allow them to choose. The less triggering these snack foods are for you the better.
- Alternatively, have a strict time for meals and snacks and stick to it. At these times, make sure you sit down and have a snack yourself. Eating regular, controlled portions of food is better than allowing your blood sugar to dip between meals, which may cause binge cravings.
- If it’s a vital dietary staple, then you might have to suck it up. However, if there are certain non-essential foods that your kids like to eat that get you every time, simply don’t keep them in the house. Let them be a going out treat that you can buy and let them consume in a controlled external environment.
- Feel selfish? Don’t. They will survive, and remember the end goal: your kids get a healthy, happy mother. That is more important than their specific penchant for a particular type of cracker at one point in time.
3. Get a therapist who understands bulimia and family life
If you are a mother recovering from bulimia, it is not enough to simply have a good therapist. You need a good therapist who understands bulimia, who understands raising kids, and who understands bulimia in the context of raising kids. These people are not always as easy-to-find as you might think.
A lot of eating disorder therapists spend most of their time dealing with young childless women and girls. For this reason, even those who have kids themselves can sometimes get stuck in treatment methods than aren’t tailored to the practicalities of being a mother. And for those who don’t have any experience of raising kids themselves, it can be even harder for them to empathise and relate to the specific challenges of the eating disordered mother. Of course, there are many exceptions, and hopefully you will land yourself a therapist who really gets it. If you don’t, keep pushing.
If your options are limited and this is not happening for you, I am not suggesting you shun your therapist and go it alone on these grounds. However, try to find this tailored support elsewhere if you cannot get it from your therapist. You might find it in a dietitian, a GP, a nurse or a peer support person.
4. Consider (temporarily) ending your time as a stay-at-home mother
This one is harsh, it’s sad, it’s devastating, and it’s not for everyone. However, if you are a stay-at-home mother, and if your condition is continuing to spiral despite your relentless recovery efforts, in serious cases of bulimia it might be time to consider making a big change in your day-to-day life.
One of the most effective tools in bulimia recovery is distraction, and this can be exceptionally tough to achieve when you are at home all day in a highly triggering environment. Of course, your first step would be to pack your week full of out-the-house activities that you can do with your children. However, this can be exhausting, and your bulimia may be at the stage where you simply won’t do it unless you have to.
If the force of your illness is so strong that you are cancelling and avoiding plans so you can stay at home to binge and purge, then consider locking yourself into a commitment that is harder to avoid. If you can, think about going to work for a while. Even if your wages barely cover childcare – see it as a form of treatment. Remember, this won’t have to be forever. If you are committed to being a stay-at-home mother, it can be a temporary bridge until you are better able to handle spending time at home.
No, this is not a magic wand solution, but it can help. However, you will still struggle at work. You will still have to spend some time at home. And it will only work if your ‘bulimia demon’ will allow it in the first place. There are times when a person is too sick to go to work, which leads me to the final strategy:
5. Severe bulimia? Take drastic action
If your bulimia has reached the stage of severity where you are stuck in a daily cycle of perpetual binge purge and nothing you can do will pull you out of it, then – if you can – find a way to remove yourself from the equation for a while.
How many times have you said “If I could just break the cycle”? But you cannot break the cycle because you are stuck living with all the triggers and nothing seems to change. You feel like you have no hope of getting anywhere with recovery when you are constantly having to deal with feeding your kids and the whole family eating scenario. You try going out, even going to work, but the force holding you back is too strong. You will lose a job if it means you can stay at home to binge and purge, or you will just do it on the road or in a public toilet. It follows you everywhere and you can’t escape.
If your illness has spiraled out of control to this stage, you have to focus 100% of your energy on getting better. One. Hundred. Percent. Not easy as a full time mother, huh.
In this situation, I cannot stress how effective inpatient treatment can be in helping you to break the bulimia cycle. I know it seems extreme. I know you cannot envisage the reality of leaving your kids for any length of time. But take a look at your quality of life and ask yourself, honestly, is your situation sustainable? Would some time away from your kids hurt more in the long term than the impact this illness has on your family life?
In an ideal world, every bulimia sufferer can access this option, but in the real world I know that good mental health services are at best a post code lottery. Push for the treatment you deserve, but if it does not happen, don’t give up. If you can’t access inpatient treatment for your bulimia, then talk to your local eating disorder charity about whether there are options for getting away from home for a while. Explore general respite care options. If you can afford it, look into private health or eating disorder retreats. If you can’t, go and stay with a friend or family member for a while.
One way or the other, if nothing else is working, find a way to take yourself out of the picture when the situation calls for it. Doing this will not ‘cure’ you; there will be much more work to do. However, in serious cases, getting away from it all can be an incredibly effective component in breaking that terrible cycle, and the first step in reclaiming a quality of life that you can enjoy with your wonderful family.