When food controls a mother's love: 'My love depends on her weight' (CORRECTED)

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Penny, 36, became bulimic when she was 21. She is obsessed with the weight of her eldest daughter.

I FIND myself constantly weightwatching for my eight-year-old daughter. If I think she's overweight I get strong feelings of rejection towards her. Sometimes she runs up to me for a hug and I just can't bear to touch her. I get all ratty and she can't understand why. I feel so guilty and sad about it yet I can't help it. It's a terrible thing for a mother to admit, but she doesn't feel as valuable to me as my two younger children because she's fat and they aren't.

I have these strong feelings that no one will want to be her friend, that people will reject her like they rejected me when I started putting on weight when I was six. Everyone called me 'fatty' and that's how I think of her.

Gemma was such a needy baby. Right from the start she wanted to be held and fed non-stop. She used to feed and feed at my breast until she was sick. It frightened me because it reminded me of my own bulimia. My two younger children always stopped once they'd had enough, but nothing was ever enough for her.

Gemma loves food so much she almost climbs into it. She was a fat baby and a plump toddler. Now she weighs almost five stone and she's got a great sticking-out tummy. For the first seven months of her life she was sick almost every day through over-eating. Then when she was a toddler she threw up every time she got upset.

She seems to derive all her comfort through eating, just like I did. I want to give her what she needs, but - and this is a really hard thing for me to say because it makes me feel evil - I'm terrified of her becoming fat and depending on food like me. Gemma gets into these terrible panics for sweet, delicious things. I always make sure we have very few cakes and biscuits in the house - partly because as a dance teacher I have to keep trim, but mostly because she'd scoff the lot. Chocolate's completely out. I became allergic to it because I loved it so much; in the end I gave it up.

When we go to friends' houses I sometimes want to die of embarrassment because she goes into this terrible panic around food. People must think I starve her. When she's offered a plate of cakes or biscuits she looks and looks to make sure she takes the biggest. She goes into a fit if anyone gets there before her. If she's left alone with food, she goes wild, scoffs the lot in seconds. People can't believe it.

I've tried all sorts of treatments. I noticed she was getting ugly rashes on her skin, so I took her to a diet therapist who said she was allergic to wheat, tomatoes, you name it. For a while I went along with her advice and made Gemma cut those things out of her diet. Her skin improved but she became terribly difficult. I think she felt deprived because she couldn't have the same as everybody else.

Then I started having psychotherapy to sort out my own food problems and got a referral to the local hospital. They tried to help me find a way of manipulating her behaviour. We introduced this system of star charts - she got a star every time she was able to resist something. But I grew to hate the system myself. It felt all wrong.

The irony is that history is repeating itself. I can see myself in Gemma. As a child I felt unrecognised for who I was by my parents and ate for comfort.

At 21 I left home for a year and worked as a cook-cum-housekeeper. I was five-foot tall and weighed a massive nine stone. The job was stressful - the only way I could assert myself over it was by controlling my intake of food. I started bingeing on ice-cream and overdosing on laxatives. Later, through therapy, I realised I remembered my mother's breasts as being icy cold, full of frozen milk just like ice-cream. Within months my weight dropped to six stone.

For the first time ever, I felt my mother gave herself to me. She took me to a woman GP who told her to stop pampering me. I moved to a flat, got a job. Soon after I met my husband. He knew I was bulimic, but we never spoke about it. I wanted children; nobody warned me against it. I conceived easily. Being pregnant with Gemma was marvellous. I stopped counting calories and being bulimic because I didn't want to damage her.

Aged 28, just as my food problems were coming under control, she came along and put me into a panic. She's made me realise just how much of a problem I still have. Recently she went on a diet. I helped by finding low-fat alternatives. Then I realised what a comfort that was for me.

Often I'll tell her to hop on the scales. She's very calm about it. She knows she gets plump easily like me. I say I'm the 'weights-and-measures man', checking up on her. If she's lost a few pounds, it makes me feel good at first, then guilty because I know my love depends on her weight.


EATING DISORDERS Yesterday's Focus page on children affected by their mothers' eating disorders was written by Christina Kent. We are very sorry that her byline was left off the page.