It was only when I realized I might die, and leave my three children without a mother, that I was able to get help.

mom parenting with eating disorder illo
Yeji Kim

While 86 percent of people with an eating disorder develop it by the age of 20, a smaller number of individuals develop their disorder later in life. I was one of them: I was 41 and a mother of three when I was diagnosed with anorexia.

In many cases, a difficult or unexpected life event triggers the late onset of an eating disorder (ED). "Sometimes the eating disorder seems to develop with no history of disordered eating," says Malia Sperry, Psy.D., and founder of La Luna Center, an eating disorder treatment center in Boulder, Colorado. "Almost always, in hindsight, women can identify the emotional triggers that led them down the ED path."

In my case, it was my mom's diagnosis and subsequent death from brain cancer. Her sickness, along with other unexpected life hurdles, resulted in my condition. My eating disorder was my coping mechanism during the most difficult time of my life.

While many people think of anorexia as the eating disorder where people starve themselves, my anorexia manifested in another way. I started small at first, purging after meals I deemed “too big” or “too fattening.” But soon, I was purging after every meal and snack.

More and more people commented on how small I looked. Each comment and each new article of clothing in XS, was more motivation to keep purging. And if I was concentrating on the numbers of the scale, it was easier to cope with my mother's rapidly disintegrating health.

The side effects of losing more than 30 percent of my body weight were significant. In addition to constant and overwhelming lethargy, I had debilitating headaches and my thinking was cloudy and frenetic. At the height of my disorder, my heart started showing signs of irregularity. My heart rate was very low, and doctors put me on a total activity and exercise restriction.

Eating disorders thrive in secrecy. After every meal, I'd come up with a new reason why I had to go immediately to the bathroom. For many months, my co-workers attributed my bathroom time to an upset stomach. But at home, with three little kids and a husband, it started to become obvious that I was going to the bathroom a lot more than I ever would. My 5-year-old twins began to ask why I was always disappearing after meals. And many times, they wanted to accompany me.

Though my thinking wasn't as clear during this time, I knew I didn't want my children to be aware of my situation. If they came to the bathroom with me, I would skip purging. Even if they were on the same floor, I wouldn't. Even when I was really sick, I knew that I didn't want my kids to ever struggle like I was.

My exercise restriction coincided with my family moving to Colorado—the land of hiking and skiing. Because of my heart issues, I was on the sidelines watching my husband and kids discover and explore the beautiful mountains near our home. It was sobering to have them beg me to go with them and have to say no continuously.

Doctors had been telling me for months that anorexia could kill me. (Anorexia has the highest death rate of any psychiatric illness.) I was withering away in front of everyone close to me. But most importantly, my children. It was only when I realized I might die, and leave my children without a mother, that I was able to get help.

My biggest motivation as I began recovery—and still today—are my children. Specifically, the two young girls whose body image ideas are still being formed. The idea of them struggling the way I was or believing that type of behavior is normal breaks my heart.

Parenting while battling an eating disorder is hard. When I'm feeling overwhelmed, my first instinct is to gain control of the situation by hustling to the bathroom. When I drop the ball—which is common since I'm juggling kids, work, and marriage—I want to find solace in my eating disorder. And at times, I've slipped. But what gets me back on track, time and time again, is remembering that this is not what my children should emulate.

"Parenting prompts us to evaluate what we model to our children," says Dr. Sperry. "A mother struggling with her own ED runs the risk of modeling her troubled relationship with food and her body. Even when mothers try to encourage healthy eating patterns and positive body image, children are perceptive, and they notice Mom's own eating patterns. This can be stressful for a mother dealing with an ED, wanting to be a healthy model for her children, but in a painful struggle with food herself.”

As my girls get older, they've started to compare their body size with each other. "I'm the bigger one" and "I weigh less than her." I remind them constantly that their body size is irrelevant and that they have more important traits. That it's what’s on the inside that matters. "Let your daughter know you see her as a whole being," Dr. Sperry advises. "She is strong, intelligent, sensitive, kind, and courageous. She is beautiful because of those qualities, not because of specific body parts or physical attributes."

I tell myself these same mantras, too. Because the truth is, I'll battle this eating disorder for the rest of my life. And I want to do whatever I can to make sure my girls and son don't end up fighting this same battle.

Tips to recover from an eating disorder

If you’re a parent struggling with an eating disorder, Dr. Sperry suggests the following:

  • Get help. Having a therapist or treatment team can be a valuable source of support and accelerate your recovery process.
  • Work on developing healthy coping tools that work for you. Share those (as developmentally appropriate) with your children. For example, if you’ve had a stressful day at work and feel really overwhelmed, tell yourself, “I'm going to take walk and be in nature to help my system relax.” And then go do it.
  • Speak kindly to yourself, and that includes to your body. This helps model positive self-talk and body image to your children. It will also help in your own recovery.