Liz agreed to meet me at a local library after I called explaining my project. Carolyn Hodges had given me her telephone number after getting Liz’s permission to be contacted. Liz’ oldest daughter Amy, sixteen at the time, was still in treatment at the Nutrition Clinic. A small, slender woman with long dark hair, Liz bounded into the reception area on a cool gray Saturday morning, and we settled into a cluster of chairs in a secluded corner to talk.
“When Amy was twelve, she started throwing up over the summer and self-mutilating, and dropped into a deep depression,” Liz began. Despite the family genetics and patterns that might predispose Amy to emotional and food issues, Liz thought that she could counteract that legacy. She had grown up in a family that suffered mental illness and eating disorders—her brother was bulimic and her mother’s life was the tale of one diet after another, chronic abuse of diet pills, agoraphobia, and poor self-image. Liz was determined not to repeat that story and die, as her mother had, without doing any of the things she wanted to do. But she was worried about Amy, who seemed to mirror many of her grandmother’s patterns and, like Liz, was very sensitive.
Liz continued to discuss how, despite her knowledge and intentions, there were factors beyond her control. “We grew up with mealtime being a war zone. I really wanted to make it different for my kids…When I had Amy, I thought all that would change with my knowledge about child development and how I was planning to raise my family. When we sit down to dinner it’s always very emotional, with lots of yelling and arguing about eating enough. So even now we have to struggle with that constantly, reminding each other of the roles we’re playing.” Despite all her intentions and efforts, Liz is back in the battle she was so determined not to repeat.
Not only was Amy genetically loaded from Liz’ family background, but she was also born into her father’s generational relationship to food. In contrast to her own upbringing, Liz “...married into an Italian family where food was the most important thing in the world and the foundation of love. My in-laws would pay the girls a dollar if they would finish all their food. This raised red flags and I knew this wasn’t good, especially coupled with my history and Amy’s poor self-image. I remember her saying to me one time, ‘I never feel full. I don’t know when I’m full,’ and she would keep eating because that was her way of pleasing them.
We spoke about the helplessness of seeing your child follow the course you were determined to prevent. When she witnessed Amy’s refusal to eat, Liz told her daugher: “People are starving! What’s wrong with you! You need to eat! This is ridiculous! I didn’t raise you this way! You’re doing this for attention!” She continued, “I was very mad at her because I had done everything I could to try to make sure she wouldn’t have an eating disorder. I felt like I was on a train, and I couldn’t stop it.”
What’s really frustrating is to realize that I can’t save Amy. I can help her and give her the tools she needs but she has to do that. The more I tried to save her, watch what she was eating, and control her behavior, the worse she got.” Haunted by the myth of all-powerful motherhood, Liz said, “I thought I could raise the perfect child and be the perfect mother if I just followed all the rules. And I really believed that.”
When I asked Liz what those rules were, she described a difficult childhood: “When I grew up my parents were abusive, we moved all the time, were on welfare, and they divorced. So I thought if I married this wonderful man from this wonderful family unit I would be able to have everything and give her everything, and she wouldn’t want for clothes or friends. And I did family daycare so I could be home, and she would have a warm, supportive environment with friends.” With a wry smile, Liz added, “So she has lived here her whole life and doesn’t have one good friend.”
“So you tried to give her the life you never had,” I said. And she answered, “Exactly. It backfired.”
Yet Amy’s younger sister “has a wonderful self-image and eats appropriately. She’s always happy. If she’s down for twenty minutes, she yells, screams—just like my husband—and then it’s done. But me, I’m thinking about it months later, even writing about it, and that’s where Amy gets her stuff.” When I said, “It sounds like Amy’s a cranked up version of you,” Liz nodded, adding, “It’s like she got the worst of both of us, and my younger daughter got the best of both of us.”
Despite her awareness of how powerfully all the family and genetic patterns contributed to Amy’s eating disorder, Liz said she still struggled with criticism from other mothers who told her she should have gone to work—that staying home only fostered Amy’s dependency. She hoped to go back to college and pursue a teaching career at some point, but she wasn’t ready to leave Amy home alone: “If she’s alone she will throw up or cut herself. She’s afraid to be home by herself, and if I’m out I need to tell her exactly when I’m going to be home, because if I’m late, she panics.”
When Liz discussed her grief at seeing Amy’s life so limited by fear, I recalled my sadness when Erin panicked about being able to find her classes at our small local college, or when she became overwhelmed working as the clerk at a small video rental shop. Liz said, “She grew up with all these friends who are living their lives, going out, playing basketball, and she’s not. She’s either stuck to me or sitting at home, watching television in her room all day…And when she looks at her younger sister, she’s jealous of her. She wants to be her. My husband has given Amy a job three times, but she just can’t do it. She wants to, but she can’t.”
This wasn’t the story of being a mother Liz or I had expected when we began to raise our firstborn child. “I wanted my children so badly,” Liz said. “And I loved being a mother, but now I want it to be over. I want to do the things I’m passionate about, but I can’t. And part of me feels guilty about that. I think I should love every minute I have with her, but it’s not good for me, and it’s not good for her.” When Amy was hospitalized, Liz said, “I could feel what it was like to be on my own and in a normal family. And Amy actually liked it, too, because she felt safe. What she ate was controlled, and what she did was controlled. And it makes so much sense, because that’s what it was like when she was young.”
She talked about the collateral damage to her marriage, wishing she and her husband could go on vacation to rebuild their deteriorated relationship. With Amy ever-present at home, Liz was reluctant to even discuss that possibility with him: “She’s always in the next room and hears what I say. She really has her finger on the pulse of him and me.” She wondered, “if there will ever be the time when I’ll be separated from Amy, unless it’s the death of one of us…I don’t know…we’re working on it, and hopefully, we’ll get there.”
Despite all her intentions and efforts, Liz is still in the battle she was so determined not to repeat. But unlike her mother and her in-laws, Liz is aware of the patterns instead of unconsciously playing them out. It’s not the same, even though it can feel discouraging and impossible to leave those legacies behind. Like the stone that’s dropped in a pond, the ripples on the outer edge disrupt the smooth surface much less than where it fell.
Though her struggle and uncertainty continue, Liz was able to express gratitude for what she had learned. Before the problems with Amy were apparent, Liz said she thought she was “the perfect mother,” quick to assign blame to a mother whose child she saw misbehaving. “Now, I think about what that child might be good at, and that that parent is trying her best…As hard as it’s been I wouldn’t change anything. I feel like I’m a better person.”