Eating disorders such as bulimia, anorexia and binge eating are often thought of as “teenager problems.” That’s a mistake. Millions of women struggle with disordered eating; millions of women are mothers. This means that a highly significant number of women who have eating disorders are also moms. I don’t have exact statistics, but I do have a research study.
How do you know if your mother has an eating disorder? The signs of bulimia, binge eating or anorexia are similar in most women. Below are the most common signs of eating disorders, plus tips for helping your mom overcome disordered eating. It’s important for you to know how difficult is is for a mother to tell her child or children that she has an eating disorder. Eating disorders are often accompanied by shame, guilt, and even self-hatred. Talking about an eating disorder is painful – even to a therapist or doctor. Telling your kids you have anorexia, bulimia or a problem with binge eating can be humiliating and even terrifying.
Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia, binge eating, or sleep eating problems aren’t just problematic for teenagers or young women. Many mothers — even women over 50 with adult children and grandchildren — struggle with eating problems. They may be even more reluctant to seek treatment or ask for help because they should “know better.”
This article is inspired by researcher Kristine Rørtveit’s work at the Stavanger District Psychiatric Centre in Norway. She studied eating disorders in mothers as part of her PhD thesis at the University of Stavanger. This summary of the causes, signs or symptoms, and treatments of eating problems in women who are mothers will help you see your own mom in a different light.
3 Reasons for Eating Disorders
1. Perfectionism is a common trait of women with eating disorders. Some moms want to parent their kids perfectly and raise happy, well-adjusted children. Their need for perfection can lead to feeling out of control, which in turn can trigger control issues with food. Instead of being perfect mothers, they feel ashamed and inadequate, and fearful that their children might inherit their eating problems. So, mothers may turn to food for comfort and control. Food – and mealtimes – can become a source of shame and guilt.
2. A second possible cause of your mom’s eating disorder is body image and weight obsession. Women may fear they’ll gain uncontrollable amounts of weight if they eat even the tiniest piece of food. According to Rørtveit, some women compare their bodies with everyday objects that surround them. For instance, one mother thought she was too big to pass through the doorway.
3. A third reason is the thrill of secretly binging and purging. Some moms get a “kick” from their eating binges. For example mother said she enjoyed the excitement of planning her food binge. She compared eating to doing drugs.
In Should You Tell Your Boyfriend About Your Eating Disorder? I describe how one wife enjoyed hiding her bulimia eating disorder from her husband. She found it challenging and risky to binge and purge without him finding out.
3 Signs Your Mom Has an Eating Disorder
1. Avoiding food and family mealtimes. Mothers with food issues often dread meal times, even though they know how important family dinners are to their children’s upbringing. One mom said she’ll pretend to eat, only to throw up at the first chance she gets (bulimia or binge eating and purging).
2. Exhaustion and self-involvement. Another mother says she is too exhausted to participate in her children’s everyday life. Sometimes she only manages to utter one-syllable words, such as “yes,” “no” and “good night.” A third mom couldn’t take part in her adult daughter’s wedding, saying she was “too trapped in my own system. Everyone else was full of emotions and expectations, but I was completely the opposite.”
3. Body image and inferiority issues. Other symptoms of anorexia include distorted body image, disturbed thought patterns, and feelings of inadequacy. Many of the mothers in Rørtveit’s study are pleased with the way they manage to keep up appearances and live a seemingly normal life. One the other hand, their double lives are stressful and demanding.
“Eating difficulties, such as extreme dieting, compulsive overeating, and vomiting, are usually kept under the surface,” says Rørtveit. “Keeping up appearances, even in one’s own home, requires a lot of strength.”
3 Ways to Help Your Mom Overcome Anorexia, Bulimia, or Binge Eating
1. Learn more about the eating disorder your mom is struggling with. According to the Norwegian Board of Health Supervision, between 0.2 and 0.4 per cent of the population is affected by anorexia nervosa, and 1-2 percent by bulimia nervosa. The majority of sufferers are women between the ages of 15 and 40.
2. Consider your mother’s motivation to get healthy. Does your mom want help overcoming the eating disorder? If not, she’s normal. Only 30 percent of anorectics and less than six percent of bulimics receive treatment for their condition. Women who struggle with eating disorders may not feel motivated to seek psychotherapy. Also, feelings of guilt and shame may prevent mothers in particular from seeking help.
3. Get help. For some mothers, a child – even an adult child – is the worse person to help with an eating disorder. Being honest about her food addiction will be difficult and painful, even if she’s talking to a counselor or doctor who has experience with disordered eating. Talking to her own child might be far more than your mother can handle. Seek professional help and support. An eating disorder is a painful emotional health issue. It’s also not easy to overcome something as powerful as bulimia, anorexia, or binge eating.
Whether or not you confront your mom about her eating disorder depends on your relationship, personality, and family history. Just be aware of how painful and shameful eating disorders are. Also, know that your mom wants you to love her and look up to her. She may worry that her eating disorder will change how you feel about her as a mother. Talk about this with her; reassure her of your love and respect no matter what emotional issues she’s dealing with.
“Although eating difficulties are associated with shame, I believe a lot of women would like to be able to talk about their problems,” says Rørtveit. “Increased awareness and better care may mitigate the stigma, and inspire more women to seek help.”
Are you struggling with a difficult mother-child relationship? Read When You Can’t Forgive Your Mom – But You Want to.