Mothers with an eating disorder: ‘food comes before anything’



Accessible summary

  • Mothers with an eating disorder (ED) are a neglected clinical and research group.
  • Nine mothers were individually interviewed to discuss how their ED might impact on family life, and how being a parent might impact on their disorder.
  • Mothers' relationship with food and children was complex – some prioritized food over their children, but were simultaneously concerned about the impact of their disorder on their children.
  • Clinicians need to identify the parenting status of those with an ED and support them in their parenting role.


There is little research that has presented the voices of mothers with an eating disorder (ED). The aim of this study was to clinicians present the experiences of mothers, drawn from the community, who have an ED and their perceptions regarding how their ED impacts on their children and parenting. Semi-structured, individual interviews were conducted with nine mothers with various EDs. Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis, alongside member checks and inter-rater reliability, was employed to analyze data. Six themes were identified: (1) the impact of an ED on children; (2) modelling disturbed eating behaviours; (3) prioritizing food before children's needs, or as described by one participant, ‘food comes before anything’; (4) children motivate recovery; (5) secrecy within families; and (6) treatment needs. Overall, mothers juggled to balance the competing demands of an ED and the needs of their children. The need for clinicians to acknowledge and support a mother's role when treating EDs is highlighted.