Understanding the unique challenges of eating disorder recovery as a mom

Navigating eating disorder recovery can be a challenging journey, and being a mom adds on so many extra layers of complexity. There is often a “hush hush” experience for mothers who are struggling with eating disorders, or truthfully any mental health issues. This is because culturally, there seems to be a strong message that mothers be perfectly “healed” lest they damage their children. There is currently a lot of emphasis on cycle breaking, and ensuring that we work on not passing down intergenerational trauma to our children. While this messaging is incredibly important, and the work of cycle breaking is profoundly powerful, it has a side effect of mothers feeling as though they are not allowed to struggle. 

In this blog,  I will share insights for mothers, from the perspective of a clinical psychologist in the Philadelphia area who specializes in eating disorder treatment. Whether you’re seeking an eating disorder therapist in Pennsylvania or looking for resources to support your recovery journey, this blog will provide valuable information to help you navigate recovery as a mom.

Why The Struggle is Complex

Eating disorders are admittedly a different ball game once you’re a parent. There are many reasons for this. Firstly, research shows that if you are a parent with an eating disorder, there is a high likelihood that you have been struggling with it for many years. A long-term struggle can, of course, impact the course of treatment and can make the recovery journey trickier and lengthier. 

Additionally, mothers with eating disorders often do not have the privilege of being able to “fully invest in the recovery process” (as many professionals tend to put it). his is because mothers are responsible for other humans! It can feel so frustrating to hear people suggest that you “put yourself first” and prioritize recovery when this simply is not an available option for many mothers. For example, if a mother needs to attend a higher level of care, she needs to make childcare arrangments (research shows that the bulk of child-rearing still tends to fall on mothers, even as the beams of our society groan and creak with the slow shift towards more egalitarian marriages and parenting.)

Furthermore, mothers who decide to go to higher levels of care will often be in treatment with a population of folks who are younger. The struggles shared in groups may not be relatable. It may not always feel like an environment that validates the unique demands and struggles of this season of life. 

And it’s not just the demands of higher levels of care that can be difficult for mothers to navigate. Even taking an hour a week for outpatient therapy can be a daunting task, especially when you are in the trenches of early motherhood. These are real and valid challenges. It doesn’t do mothers much good to simply tell them to “prioritize recovery no matter what” if it is simply not feasible. 

The Importance of Allowing Ourselves To Be Vulnerable 

For mothers who are struggling with eating disorders, it is first and foremost incredibly important to be able to allow ourselves to acknowledge that the struggle is present. It is all too easy to get caught up in the day-to-day grind of child rearing and immerse yourself in your kids’ struggles at the cost of ignoring your own. But acknowledging that there is a personal struggle present, both to yourself, and then to a trusted safe person if possible (partner, friend, family member, ect) is so important. Acknowledging the struggle comes first. Next, it is important to move towards the idea that you are worth the effort that it might take to work towards recovery in whatever way that feels most meaningful to you in this season.

The Importance of Seeking Professional Support in Eating Disorder Recovery 

Though it can be daunting and hard to make time for even that one hour a week of individual therapy, seeking professional support is crucial when navigating eating disorder recovery, especially as a mom. The complexities of being a mother make it essential to have guidance from professionals who understand the unique challenges and responsibilities that come with this role. If possible, try to seek out someone who has expertise in BOTH eating disorders and maternal mental health.

Professionals specializing in eating disorder treatment can provide valuable insights, strategies, and resources to aid in your recovery journey. They will have the knowledge and expertise to help you develop a personalized treatment plan that takes into account your specific needs as a mom. Professionals who specialize in both eating disorders and maternal mental health will be able to offer you creative ways to engage in the recovery journey. Do NOT let any professional tell you that there is only one approach. There are a million and a half ways to heal, and to be blunt- empirical evidence for the efficacy of manualized eating disorder treatment is quite weak. So any professional worth their salt is going to get down to business immediately to help you construct a creative, individualized treatment plan that takes into account the unique demands of this season of your life.  For example, going back to the higher level of care dilemma- I have personally helped mothers get connected to intensive outpatient programming (IOP) while providing additional individual therapy in place of pursuing a higher level of care. This is the type of team that worked better for their season of life, and was much more reasonable, and thus accomplishable than taking a break and going to a residential treatment program. 

Therapists, dietitians, and support groups can offer a safe space for you to discuss your struggles, explore underlying issues, and develop coping mechanisms. There are some unique, specialized support groups available specifically for mothers in recovery. You just have to seek them out in your area. 

Remember, seeking professional support is not a sign of weakness, but rather a demonstration of strength and commitment to your recovery. If you are in the Philadelphia area, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, Virginia, Florida, or Massachusetts, we at Wildflower Therapy are ready to assist you on your journey to healing and becoming the best version of yourself for both you and your family.

 Building a Community as a Mom in Eating Disorder Recovery

Recovering from an eating disorder while being a mom can feel overwhelming to say the least. It can feel isolating and impossible in the hardest of times. So building a strong support system is crucial to your journey of recovery. One super impactful way to find support is by reaching out to therapists and counselors who specialize in both eating disorder recovery and motherhood. These professionals can guide you to those unique support groups that were mentioned above. Additionally, it can be helpful to consider joining online communities or spaces dedicated to moms in eating disorder recovery. These platforms offer a sense of camaraderie, understanding, and a safe space to share your experiences.

As you build your support system, remember that you are not alone in this journey. There are other mothers who understand and relate to your experiences. Even though it may feel like the only people talking are the ones who “are already healed,” please know that there are so many who are in the fight alongside of your and continue to find recovery to be a daily struggle. 

Reflecting on the Importance of Self-Compassion For Mothers in Eating Disorder Recovery 

In the journey of mothers who are pursuing eating disorder recovery, self-compassion is essential. I know this is so easy to say, but as a mom navigating this path, it is crucial to remember that your well-being matters. And you are ALLOWED to struggle. You do NOT have to be healed to be an incredible mother. Let me say that louder for the people in the damn back: YOU DO NOT HAVE TO BE HEALED IN ORDER TO BE AN INCREDIBLE MOTHER. 

Practicing self-compassion means treating yourself with kindness, understanding, and forgiveness. Instead of criticizing yourself for slip-ups or setbacks, or calling yourself a “bad mom,” embrace the idea that recovery is a process filled with ups and downs. Remind yourself that you are doing your best, and every step forward is progress. 

Importantly, remind yourself doggedly that you are the best mom for your kids. Your awareness of your struggle is the most protective element that your kids could ever have. I personally do not believe that having your own eating disorder means that you will automatically be damaging in any way to your children’s relationship with food and their bodies.  I think this is a harmful society narrative that needs to be interrupted. In fact, the mothers whom I have met that struggle but are also seeking therapy tend to be the most thoughtful when it comes to ensuring that their children are experiencing a positive relationship with food and their bodies. They tend to exert a lot of energy into ensuring that they are not saying their negative thoughts about themselves or about food around their kids, and instead are focusing on fiercly protective their kids’ experiences with food. 

In Conclusion…

Remember, your journey is unique, and it is important to be patient and gentle with yourself. Celebrate each step forward and acknowledge the progress you are making. As you continue on your path to healing, know that you are not alone. Reach out to your support system, connect with other mothers who have walked a similar path, and trust in your own strength and resilience.

Thank you for joining me in this exploration of eating disorder recovery as a mom. I hope that the insights and strategies shared in this blog have been helpful and empowering. Remember, you are deserving of a more peaceful relationship with food and your body. And you are a good mom. Yes, YOU!

By: Dr. Colleen Reichmann, practice founder and Licensed Clinical Psychologist

How Can Wildflower Therapy in Philadelphia, PA Help You?

If you’re looking for someone to come alongside you to help you unpack and approach the complex set of emotions you may experience during eating disorder recovery, our therapists in Pennsylvania are honored to help! In fact, you can get to know a little bit more about them here and book a free consultation here.

Other Mental Health Services Provided by Wildflower Therapy in Philadelphia, PA:

Life is a unique and sometimes messy journey for each of us; we all have our own individual battles to fight. Our therapists know there is no one-size-fits-all approach to any of life’s challenges and because of that, we offer many unique perspectives and approaches to help meet you where you are with our Philadelphia, PA Therapy services. We offer in-person therapy in Philadelphia, and also offer virtual therapy to anyone in PA, NJ, DE, or VA!

We offer services for eating disorder therapy, body image struggles, services for anxiety, and depression, and have practitioners who specialize in perinatal mental health , maternal mental health, therapy for college students and athletes. We also celebrate that we offer LGBTQIA+ affirming Therapy. As you can see, we have something to offer just about anyone in our Philadelphia, PA office.

Reaching out is often the most difficult step you can take to improve your mental health, so please do not hesitate to contact us with any questions you may have! We look forward to partnering with you on this journey!