In this story, we look at parent coaching for Amelie, whose marriage almost fell apart during her daughter Maggie’s eating disorder. Maggie started showing disordered eating behaviors when she was eight years old, and the couple almost immediately locked horns over what it meant and how they should handle it. Maggie is now 12 and is in treatment for anorexia.
“As soon as I noticed Maggie weighing herself every day, I knew something was wrong,” said Amelie. “That was back when she was eight. I tried to talk to Jake about it, but he was dismissive and said it was normal and healthy. I disagreed, but it seemed like no matter what I said, he wouldn’t listen to me.”
Jake is an avid triathlete, and has trained almost every week of their marriage. “Even during our honeymoon, Jake still made sure he was training,” said Amelie. “It seemed to relax him, so I never complained. But now I wonder whether all his training and rigid eating has impacted Maggie.”
Things came to a head when Maggie turned 11. She lost weight, and refused to eat most of what Amelie served her. A pediatrician confirmed her worst fears: Maggie needed urgent care for an eating disorder. Amelie couldn’t help but blame Jake for the emergency. “I felt like if only he weren’t so obsessed with his own body, and if only he had listened to me, we wouldn’t be in this situation,” she said.
Maggie has been hospitalized and is now participating in outpatient treatment for anorexia. But it doesn’t seem like treatment is sticking, and Amelie reached out to me because she was afraid both for Maggie’s life and her marriage with Jake. “I’m so angry with him,” she said. “It’s as if I’ve put all of my fear about the disorder onto his shoulders. I know it’s not healthy, but I feel trapped.”
The family setup
Amelie described Maggie as a nervous, shy child. From birth, she was highly reactive to stimulation, especially noises and touch. “A lot of times I felt like I couldn’t do anything right,” she said. “I just couldn’t understand how to soothe her, and it was frustrating.”
Amelie was a high achiever who had worked as an attorney before Maggie was born. She decided to stay home and care for Maggie during her maternity leave, after which she intended to return to work. Jake’s career provided enough income to sustain their family. And Amelie automatically began to take on almost all household chores and childcare responsibilities.
On weekends, Amelie often felt lonely and bored staying home with Maggie while Jake trained for hours. “Sometimes he was gone all day,” she said. “And even if he was home by lunchtime, he was exhausted. We used to do things together, but slowly that went by the wayside.”
The eating disorder
When eight-year-old Maggie started weighing herself and worrying about calories and macros, Amelie became concerned. “I’ve always watched my weight, and of course Jake is very rigid with how he eats,” she said. “But I didn’t know what to do when Maggie started copying some of our behaviors. I knew it was wrong, but since we did a lot of the things she was doing, it was hard to put my finger on the problem.”
Maggie’s weighing and food behaviors began to seem more compulsive with time. She also showed signs of anxiety and began refusing to go to school. “Honestly, I was a complete mess,” says Amelie. “I really didn’t know what to do. And it seemed like Jake was checked out. When I would try to talk to him about it he just shut down.”
Maggie’s weight plummeted and she was hospitalized. Then she entered an outpatient eating disorder treatment program. It was close to home and allowed Maggie to attend school remotely and come home at night to sleep. But Maggie’s weight didn’t suggest she was recovering from her eating disorder. Amelie was still deeply concerned about the behaviors she was observing.
I really need help!
The more Amelie focused on Maggie’s eating disorder, the more estranged she felt from Jake. It seemed to her as if she was shouldering the burden of their child’s illness while he was continuing to live as if they didn’t have a child in crisis. “It seems to me like our marriage fell apart with the eating disorder,” she said. “But I’m not sure he’s noticed.”
Amelie and Jake were barely talking to me when she reached out to me. “I have a feeling we’re headed for divorce,” she said. “But frankly, I can’t even deal with that right now. All of my energy is going into Maggie.”
Maggie was being cared for by a qualified treatment team. This meant that while I provided advice for parenting Maggie and managing the eating disorder, my main focus was on Amelie’s mental health. Amelie wanted to be a better parent and help Maggie recover, and that had to start with Amelie herself.
An identity crisis
It seemed like Amelie had lost touch with her identity. She went from being a highly-respected lawyer to a full-time mom. And the result was a lack of identity as a human being in her own right.
We explored Amelie’s history, and discovered that she, too, had been an anxious child. She had funneled all of her anxiety into performing well at school and then at work. As a result, her identity was formed around how well she performed and external validation of her worth. She also managed her weight and appearance as a way to feel worthy and secure.
When Amelie became a full-time mom, she naturally expected that she would succeed at mothering. But parenting doesn’t include grades and includes few accolades. Maggie’s highly sensitive personality meant Amelie felt like a parenting failure almost from Day 1. When her marriage seemed like it fell apart when Maggie got an eating disorder, Amelie’s sense of failure and doom just got worse.
So the first thing we did is start to build Amelie’s sense of self apart from work, parenting, and marriage. Amelie got in touch with the parts of her identity that she had forgotten or never developed.
And she reached out to friends and family members that she had not been in touch lately. She had felt that investing in those relationships would take away from her parenting. But in fact, not having her own fulfilling relationships put an unnecessary burden on Maggie.
A marriage crisis
As we worked to strengthen Amelie’s sense of identity, we also explored her identity as a wife. She hadn’t realized that her perfectionism has transferred from work to home. She had automatically assumed the role of a 1950s housewife when she quit work.
We discussed the assumptions she made about being the full-time parent while Jake went to work. We explored feminist theory and unpacked what it means to be a woman and a wife in today’s culture. While it seemed like her marriage fell apart with the eating disorder, the roots of the problem began with our cultural assumptions about worthiness and what it means to be a woman.
As we uncovered Amelie’s assumptions about marriage and Jake, she began to approach conversations with him differently. At first he was resistant to her tentative attempts to rebuild their marriage. The truth is that her housewife persona had suited him well, and he wasn’t aware of how much it was threatening their future together.
After a few tries, Amelie finally was able to tell Jake how she was feeling and asked him to go to a few counseling sessions with her. Although he was reluctant, he agreed. Meanwhile, they sketched our a division of household chores and a schedule that accommodated his training but also made room for family activities and dates for the couple.
Where to focus?
When a child is in crisis, it can seem as if the focus needs to be entirely on the crisis itself. But since eating disorders are impacted by the family environment, it’s important to address family dynamics. Couples that are disconnected from each other will struggle to create a healing environment for their child. Thus, while it may feel like a luxury, working on identity and strengthening the marriage can speed up a child’s eating disorder recovery.
Amelie deserved to have an identity as a woman as well as a mother and wife. And in fact, not investing in her own identity was harmful to her child and her marriage. Luckily, she quickly recognized the issue and began to build a life that she felt proud of that was filled with activities, friends, and self-care.
While her marriage with Jake is still a work in progress, Amelie can see that putting of the work they need to do together until Maggie recovers from her eating disorder puts too much pressure on Maggie.
“I guess I thought we have to focus on Maggie first,” said Amelie. “But now I can see that it was a burden for her to feel as if I was waiting for her to recover to get on with my life. I feel like she is happier and more secure now that Jake and I are prioritizing our marriage. She also seems proud of me for investing in myself and doing things that don’t revolve around her or the house.”
If you have a child who has an eating disorder and need some help, please reach out for private coaching.
This story is a composite, which means that it is based on several true stories. For the sake of privacy, I have changed names and identifying characteristics as well as merged a few different cases together for the sake of sharing the story publicly.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.
She’s the editor of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.