I Recovered, With A Little Help From My Kids
By Sara Cohen
I’m very open about my eating disorder history. Something that has resulted in people coming to me privately and saying, “So how did you finally recover?". I’ll start off by saying that I personally don’t think that you simply recover. I feel like recovery is more of a constant continuum. I had been actively recovering from anorexia and bulimia for 10 years before I started trying to have children. I felt strong, I felt decent about my relationship with food, exercise, my body, and I felt ready. My biggest fear…more than gaining pregnancy weight or the birthing experience or how to take care of a baby…my biggest fear, was that my child would grow up and have a disordered relationship with food and struggle the way I had. Maybe that sounds dramatic but the way I saw it, spending so much of my life fighting an eating disorder and struggling to have “normal” food experiences was exhausting and not what I wanted for my child.
Fast forward several months, and my son was born. My husband and I were delighted, and I was grateful that I did not have reproductive sequlae related to my eating disorder…very grateful in fact. He grew fast (time seems to fly when you are watching a tiny human develop), and he was suddenly a toddler eating real food. That is the point that I decided firmly that I would do everything in my power to do this part right. To teach my son to have a healthy relationship with his body and with food. Part of me worried that by trying to create a healthy eating culture in our home, I would inadvertently focus too much on food, thereby creating an unhealthy one. In order to decide how we would do this, I looked back at my experiences growing up and what parts were not helpful. I paid attention to phrases and actions I experience in the world around me and which ones made me cringe or triggered an eating disorder thought. Eventually I had a good grasp on how I wanted to move forward.
Here is a list of how we do things in our house. Some have been altered over time. We have two boys now and these come naturally to us, after 10 years of practice:
- We don’t use the words fat or skinny. We also don’t comment on body size or shape. I have two very different boys, one who is built like me (sturdy and broad shouldered) and one who is built like my husband (small boned and narrow build). We talk about our bodies in terms of being strong and healthy and meant for us alone. My oldest son wishes he was taller, but knows that genetics are not in his favour with that wish. He also knows that genetics determined that he would be built differently than his brother.
- We adhere to the concept of variety and moderation. We don’t have any foods that are termed “junk” food. I have taught them that all food has value. Eating nothing but candy is not healthy for your body, but neither is eating only lettuce. Eating a balanced selection of foods, all in moderation, will ensure that their bodies stay healthy and that with that, they can eat a little bit of everything.
- Exercise is something we do to keep our hearts healthy. My mother-in-law died at a young age after a series of heart attacks. We have taught our boys that we exercise to keep heart healthy. We do not exercise to lose weight or to burn calories. I am a distance runner, and have taught them that exercise can be a form of stress relief (case in point) and a way to challenge your body to do something you didn’t think was possible. Exercise has never been about losing weight in our house.
- We have taught them to listen to their bodies to determine when they are done eating. We do not make them clear their plates or eat everything that was given to them or deny them second helpings. We helped them make decisions about portion sizes when they were much younger and now they do a great job on their own.
- My husband and I are very careful not to talk about our own bodies in a self-deprecating way.
- We do not have a scale in the house. When the kids are weighed at the doctor’s I say “wow, look how well you are growing!” My youngest asked me recently why the doctor weighed him and what it means. I told him that it is just one of the ways that the doctor can see how his body is growing over time.
There may be more, but these are the main ways that we have worked to create a healthy, balanced environment for our kids to grow.
In a surprising twist of fate, all of this has actually cemented my recovery status. About 5 years into modelling these healthy behaviours for my kids, I found that I was no longer acting for them. I was no longer putting on the healthy face for them, while struggling with it in my head. Watching my kids thrive and grow, I started believing what I told them…about myself. I started looking at food as fuel to keep my body healthy and active. I allowed myself to eat foods that I haven’t eaten in 20 years, because I could do so in moderation. I started looking in the mirror and liking what (and who) I saw. I don’t want to say that my kids were the reason that I am so firmly in recovery…that seems like a lot of pressure to put on them…but it’s true. I’m not saying there aren’t days that I struggle, but they are so few and far between and very manageable. I am also not naïve to think that my kids will never develop an eating disorder. I feel that I have laid some solid foundations for their future experiences with food and am modelling good behaviours. It is the best that I can do for them, and as it turns out, for me as well!
Sara is a neonatal nurse, with a master's degree in nursing education. She lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (US) with her husband, 2 young boys, and 2 dogs. She openly speaks about her recovery from anorexia and bulimia with the hope that she can be a positive influence to anyone who needs it. Her passions include her kids, distance running, reading, turtles, and all things purple.