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'What my toddler taught me about my eating disorder.'

Content warning: This post contains mentions of disordered eating and may be triggering for some readers.

As a piece of toast was hurled across the room because it wasn’t the right bread and the butter had been spread a millimetre too thick, I had a flashback to fifteen years earlier – before I became a parent to a two-year-old with very specific eating habits.

This scene was eerily similar to a moment in my childhood home, except back then I was the instigator – an 18-year-old in the grips of anorexia projecting a plate of toast across the dining room because the butter was visible instead of transparent.

I can still picture the heartbreaking look in my father’s eyes after he’d painstakingly made the one meal I’d agreed to eat – the only solid food that would pass my lips for the next seven days. The failure he felt. His helplessness and despair.

A decade after recovering from anorexia, my family rarely talk about my ‘starvation years’ because it’s so far behind me. I’d also rather not think about the pain I caused them, the arguments, the lies, or the day my older sister took me to hospital.

And, then I gave birth to a picky eater.

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To be clear, my two-and-a-half-year-old does not have ‘real’ eating issues. In fact, she is no more tricky than most toddlers who have very specific ideas about what they eat, when they eat it, how it’s served and who is serving it.

And, here-in lies the flashbacks.

How can I blame her for screaming when dinner is chopped incorrectly? When the wrong bowl is used? When there’s too much milk on her cereal, or it’s poured from a milk bottle with the wrong colour lid? During the grips of my eating disorder, these exact errors in my rituals would have sent me into a downward spiral filled of panic and terror.

After years of recovery, self-development and therapy, I thought I had delved into the depths of my eating disorder, uncovered it’s cause and left those feelings behind me. But, nothing can open old wounds like new motherhood.

So, what is it like to raise a picky-eater, when your own extreme eating habits nearly killed you? Here’s what I’m learning:

Watch your language.

When my daughter started developing a mind of her own, I fell into the habit of calling her ‘difficult.’ I would tell anyone who visited during dinner time that “she’s a difficult eater” – a phrase that instantly triggered guilt and shame.

A big shift occurred when I realised she isn’t difficult. She simply likes to eat only when she is hungry and stop when she is full. So, I changed my vocabulary. My daughter is a “mindful eater”. Isn’t that a characteristic we could all benefit from?

Think long term.

Does it really matter if you miss one meal? It does when you’re an anorexia sufferer who only eats one meal per week. But it doesn’t matter at all for a toddler who is likely to wake up the next morning and devour a bowl of porridge.

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Instead of obsessing over one meal, I try to think about what my daughter’s eaten in a week and it’s combined nutritional value. This also helps me, as an #EDsurvivor, because when I splurge on a ‘bad’ food it puts it into perspective.

 

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Don’t add anxiety.

There is nothing more off-putting than the stench of anxiety at a dinner table. I know because, in the years following my recovery, every Christmas day, family birthday and social situation that involved food felt like a pressure cooker – everyone watching to see if I would eat or run! The same applies to toddler tea time. On the days I’m anxious about my daughter eating ‘well’, my mood will rub off on the room and nothing will be consumed at all.

Distraction and perspective.

During my recovery and now, as a worried mama, these are my coping mechanisms. When I was trying to overcome my eating issues, I ate every meal with the television on, whilst reading a magazine. I read the same article about a Holocaust survivor who took an apple out of his dying friend’s pocket. It stopped me from self-obsessing and encouraged gratitude. Now, instead of watching my daughter eat, I listen to a podcast or scroll social media. On Instagram I follow incredible parents whose children are battling illnesses – and I thank my lucky stars.

Trust your instincts.

‘Is this a real worry or an old memory?’ This is the question I use to discern the difference between a real problem and an old trigger. When my daughter eats two mouthfuls of pasta, does it really warrant panic or am I time-traveling into my past?

Perhaps there will be a time when one of my children do face real mental health issues and I hope my instincts will sound an alarm. Until then, I’ll continue to do everything I can to sustain my child – and not feed my own fears.

Amy Molloy is the author of The World is a Nice Place: How to Overcome Adversity Joyfully and the creator of the Healing with Children Online Workshop Series. You can follow her here.

For help and support for eating disorders, contact the Butterfly Foundation‘s National Support line and online service on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673) or email [email protected]. You can also visit their website, here.  

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