Feeling Beyond Words: Exploring the Relationship between Mothers with Eating Disorders and their Toddlers
Literature on mothers with an eating disorder diagnosis has focused almost exclusively on identification of deficits, for both the mother and the infant. This literature suggests that, from conception through to the postnatal period, a mother with an eating disorder may experience challenges. These may be difficulty conceiving or problems with mood and eating disorder behaviours, both in the pre- and post-natal period. However, few studies provide a context in which to understand the challenges identified for mothers and their infants. This study aimed to counter this by exploring the intersubjective experience of the relationship between mothers with eating disorders and their toddlers. This qualitative psychosocial study conducted three in-depth case studies with mothers with eating disorders and their toddlers. Using psychoanalytic research methods, two infant observations and one free association narrative interview were analysed and interpreted against the backdrop of a robust supervision structure. The case study findings suggest that each mothers’ eating disorder can be understood as a response to relational isolation early in life. Despite these difficulties, each mother found ways to cope with motherhood, and to maintain a ‘good enough’ relationship with their toddlers. Specific aspects of parenting appeared difficult for mothers. These related to underlying difficulties manifested in their eating disorder presentation, and were often seen in interactions around food. These findings have clear clinical implications to rethink training for health professionals as well as supporting the benefits of taking a holistic and inclusive family focused approach to interventions for the treatment of eating disorders.
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