My daughter struggled with an eating disorder during Covid and has now gone very far away to university where she knew only a few people.
I know that she is asking advice from my ex-husband’s girlfriend as she sees her as a friend. I am very hurt that she is asking this woman for advice as she was someone her father had an affair with.
How do I feel better knowing that my daughter can ask whomever she wants for advice and it may not be me? I am worried about how she will cope at school.
These are important and tender concerns. The many elements you mention — your daughter’s Covid year and its impact on her emotionally, physically and academically, her recent move to college where she knows only a few people, her relationship with your ex’s girlfriend, your relationship with your ex’s girlfriend, your hurt feelings from wounds old and new — sound like they are logs on the bonfire of your worries.
And P.S.: Your ex’s relationship with your daughter, and your relationship with him, are meaningful and necessary elements that are more central than you may realize.
These many elements present two central issues. First, and I think more immediate, is your daughter’s eating disorder and how she will cope at school. The second is both of your relationships with your ex and his girlfriend.
I’m not an expert in eating disorders, so it is essential that you seek out and work with professionals whom you trust to guide you in supporting her.
Similarly she needs to find professionals she trusts who can guide her in redefining her relationship with food.
One resource that several of my students have gotten a lot out of is the book Life Without Ed, which you may find useful as well. And most campus health and counseling centers are able to provide assessment and treatment of eating disorders as well as continuing care for previously diagnosed disorders. There may be a nutritionist on staff, and workshops and peer support groups that your daughter can explore.
My understanding, gleaned from what students have shared about their issues with food, is that their relationships with food have fundamentally expressed their issues with control and anxiety. As she enters college, your daughter will experience the normal challenges of new and inexperienced independence, friend-making, academic demands and identity-building. How she copes will depend in large part on where she’s at with food, control, anxiety and comfort in getting help.
Some questions that will reveal a better picture of what her inner resources for coping are:
And since this is all happening in the context of being a college student:
I suggest asking your daughter if she’s open to having some conversations with you. If she is, approach her with love and curiosity, and leave all judgement and advice behind. This conversation should be one in which you are, unless asking a deepening question, listening attentively. If she’s not, say okay, and take whatever confusion, disappointment, concern, envy and hurt to your best friend or even better, a coach or therapist.
The second issue in your question is about your daughter’s relationship with your ex’s girlfriend.
There are tricky dynamics in there, but at the end of the day, Girlfriend is in your life. The complicated circumstances that brought her into your orbit are between you and your ex (and your coach or therapist!). Great care should be taken in extricating those dynamics and complicated origins from the present-day, in-the-moment, what’s-happening-right-now relationships you have with your daughter, your ex and his girlfriend.
There is great wisdom in your admission that she should ask advice from anyone whom she feels she can learn or get support from. And great vulnerability in revealing that it hurts that it’s sometimes not you. Her ability to seek advice is a marker of her independence, so try not to take her efforts to grow up, solve problems, connect with other people, or forge her own identity as something that is a rejection of you. Think of it as an expansion of her support system, in which you get to be mom, and someone else gets to be advice-giver, reality-checker, accountability partner, etc.
The mom job is about feeling the love and admiration for her as she has emerged from infancy to today. You get to focus on marinating her in love, believing in her, and having faith in her future.
The more you can keep your wounds out of your relationship with your daughter, the better. I’m talking not only about the wounds you experienced in your marriage, but the new ones in witnessing your daughter connect with an accessory to those wounds. Your daughter didn’t make those wounds and she can’t mend them. You will be doing her a huge service by working through your feelings with someone other than her.
Your ability to work through your hurt is like throwing a new spice into the marinade of love that you provide. It frees her from feeling responsible for you or focusing her attention on comforting you when in truth she needs every last bit of her attention and energy to be focused on her own wounds, aspirations, challenges and opportunities as she maintains her health and pursues her education.
So how do you feel better about knowing that your daughter can ask whomever she wants for advice and it may not be you? By stepping back from the hurt and deciding that what your daughter is doing is developing her own independent relationships with other adults, and probably finding some way to reconcile her own feelings about her dad. And if your ex’s girlfriend has some good advice about eating disorders, fantastic. It takes a village. And you are a founder of that village, who did a wonderful job creating a daughter who knows how to ask for help, even if it bothers you.
Your mom job with your daughter has been a full-time gig for many years. Having a daughter at college means that your hours have been greatly reduced. I imagine that wise woman inside of you knows full well that it’s supposed to be that way.
So what do you do with that newfound spare time? Not to mention the big pot of marinade she left behind. You conjure terrifying and painful scenarios and ruminate about how your sweet girl will experience challenges you can’t help her with. You’ve dived into that pot: The marinade of love you have for her now turns into your marinade of worry about how she will cope at school.
That’s potentially a lot of energy pointed at her. If the glaring light of parental worry shines on your daughter, it may distract her from her task of coping with being at college. So concentrate on the challenge at hand, which is how YOU will cope with her being at college.