I'm A Formerly Anorexic Mom and I'm Struggling To Help My Underweight Daughter

That feeling of exalting in tininess -- no matter how perilous to health it could be -- is as familiar to me as it is horrifying.
Publish date:
February 7, 2014
children, parenting challenges, anorexia

As I poured the supplement drink into my 15-month old daughter’s sippy cup, its cloying smell immediately summoned to mind vivid memories from the hospital where I spent months in treatment for anorexia as a teenager.

Long considered recovered, I thought I’d seen the last of those nutritional milkshakes that were so loathed by me and my fellow patients and equally beloved by our doctors for their quick injection of calories. But when my tiny daughter was officially diagnosed with a failure to thrive, it was with a bizarre sense of nostalgia that I set out to purchase those same shakes.

My daughter wasn’t born particularly small at six pounds and 10 ounces, but I was so accustomed to the solid presence of my three-year old son that she looked terrifyingly delicate to me. I made my husband change her first few diapers for fear I’d inadvertently break one of her tiny limbs.

Since then, she’s always been on the lower end of the pediatric growth chart, and her weight percentile has slightly decreased as the months flew by, but I wasn’t too concerned. She has a good appetite and eats fairly heartily, and can admirably match her active big brother’s antics. In short, the kid’s got real pluck, and I was skeptical of the growth chart’s significance in determining overall health.

“So she’s a little small,” I told my husband. “We are, too.”

Still, I noted the way her 12-month size clothing often overwhelms her small frame, and the way other children her age tend to tower over her. When I recently visited my 6-month old niece, my daughter toddled next to her, and it was sobering to realize their difference in size was negligible. By the time the normally unruffled pediatrician’s brow began to furrow, I was officially concerned.

But what has really given me serious pause in all this is the smug pride that rose unwillingly as I listened to the pediatrician discuss my daughter’s apparent inability to gain enough weight by listening to her own body cues, and outline his suggestions for increasing her caloric intake. That feeling of exalting in tininess -- no matter how perilous to health it could be -- was as familiar to me as those supplement drinks, and I was horrified as soon as I recognized its unwelcome presence.

My daughter’s health is certainly the most important factor here, and I haven’t hesitated to attempt and bulk her up through supplements and tempting presentations of high-calorie foods. But I still find myself struggling with my repugnance at my relief that the weight problem I am dealing with is one of too little instead of too much, for we all know which situation is more socially acceptable.

And I’ve not yet succeeded at suppressing that internal voice congratulating me on my tiny daughter, and its suggestion that her inability to gain weight easily will only serve her advantageously in a society with skewed perceptions on beauty but which seem unlikely to change anytime soon.

I’m frightened by the lingering presence of this voice -- once so strident it controlled my entire life and consumed much of my adolescence -- for I had only ever thought of it in terms of my own unresolved issues. Though anorexia has been reduced to just a hint of a presence in the distant abyss far outside my normal life, it is still always there, looming, and I am sometimes drained from the perpetual demands of keeping watch for its potential attempts to return.

It can come after a busy month where, unintentionally, a couple of pounds slip away, their absence magnified on my petite frame. It can check in eagerly with a hopeful smile when I’m under great stress, suggesting itself as a panacea to ease the pressure I feel, a comfortable clutch on which to fall familiarly. The easy sway of its promise to make everything better can be mesmerizing.

As a mom now dealing with an emphasis on her daughter’s weight, the challenge to consciously reject thoughts I know are unhealthy has taken on an added sense of urgency.

Outwardly, I can start by gently adjusting the compliments of many well-meaning onlookers who exclaim over my daughter’s adorably tiny size, thus implying it is primarily her size that accounts for her cuteness. I can be more aware of presenting food to my children in terms of energy and nutrients for our bodies, as opposed to ascribing qualities to different foods like good and bad. But these things are easy compared to the inward effort I’m undertaking to silence the looming influence of my “anorexic” brain.

It might be healthier that I recognize its perverse presence and actively fight it, as opposed to submitting to it instantly as I did when I was sick. I wonder, though, if it will ever be completely silenced, or if it will always pop up and take me by surprise at inopportune times as it has now with my daughter’s diagnosis.

And I wonder if a woman who is not wholly free of the distorted ideas of beauty and self-worth that haunt her can really avoid passing these ideas on to the next generation.

This experience has been a distressing reminder of the inherently fluid nature of recovery from an eating disorder, but now, more for my daughter than for me, I will always be trying to get there.