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My Mother, My Munchhausen?

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Stopping the cycle of Munchhausen by proxy.

* Editor's note: Munchhausen by proxy syndrome, or MBPS, is a condition where a caregiver -- usually a mom -- deliberately makes their child (most often a preschooler) ill in order to gain attention for themselves. The mother will take their "sick" child to the doctor and often ask the medical provider to run tests, try different medications, or even hospitalize the child to diagnose "what's wrong" -- when nothing is. This is one woman's story.


Guest Blogger Jennifer Tillman: I guess you could say that my mom's obsession with illness came to her rather naturally. As the oldest of six children, she spent her junior high years bathing and nursing her emaciated, cancer-ridden mother until her death, when my mom was only 14. To this day, illness dominates every e-mail and phone conversation she has. Take this excerpt, for example: "Brenda Fox's dad is fighting for his life at a cancer center in Tulsa, OK, and her mom had a stroke in April while her brother just finished six months' worth of chemo and both her brother and parents lost everything in the tornado." That's four tragedies in one sentence!

When a guest at my parents' Easter party this year fell ill with mysterious intestinal symptoms, everyone joked that she had poisoned the pâté. In the back of my mind, though, I honestly wondered if she had. I wouldn't put it past her. You see, my mother has a textbook case of Munchhausen by proxy, where a mother makes her child sick to gain sympathy and attention. So I grew up with a ton of made-up health issues. My childhood was a miserable parade of unnecessary hospital visits and medications.

In a nutshell, I was rushed to the ER for a cough (borderline pneumonia!) or a stomach ache (life-threatening food allergy!). The list of foods that caused my rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, neither of which I have ever had a real symptom of, included wheat, chocolate, peanuts, barley, oats, beef, gluten ... basically anything besides rice, potatoes, and a handful of vegetables. I was really fun at birthday parties! When I asked my mom what would happen if I ate something I was allergic to, she told me rather bluntly, "You could die." I guess my fear of mortality was lying dormant, because I constantly snuck all of the things on the list whenever I could and shoved them down my gullet. I never even got a rash, and no, I didn't die.

Right now I'm six weeks pregnant. I am far too aware of the threat of Munchhausen to ever repeat the pattern, but after trying to get knocked up for nine months, I find myself having moments where I am unable to enjoy being pregnant because I'm so concerned that something will go wrong.

If it's any indication, I recognize that my pets are all pretty healthy. A small part of me, however, is afraid of being paranoid about their health. I'm a little afraid of overcompensating for the Munchhausen and overlooking it if they were to truly have problems. And if I'm paranoid that I am paranoid about my dogs being sick, how am I going to walk the line of making sure my child is healthy without becoming either antipathetic or obsessive?

Of course, expectant mothers everywhere worry, but I don't think many of them have to worry that their worrying is overboard. And while most women can say, "I just want a healthy baby," not me. I know that my vigilance against passing the torch of Munchhausen is what stops it in its tracks. I want a healthy baby and the wherewithal to relax and realize that my baby is healthy.

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5 comments so far | Post a comment now
vanessa June 5, 2009, 10:39 AM

I know a mother like that, she drives me nuts with all the runs to the hospital because her kids have a little cough or anything for that matter. to be honest i just want to smack this woman in the face. its to the point where i dont even talk to her much anymore due to all the visits to the hospital with her kids.. she is making herself crazy and hurting the kids in the long run, why cant she stop… i feel so bad for the kids that have to deal with things like this.. they can never just be kids..

b June 5, 2009, 10:56 AM

The key will be finding a really amazing pediatrician that you can trust completely. During the first few months of my baby’s life, I felt like I was going in for everything, but he was always calm and reassuring that the things I was doing were right, and that my fears were understandable. You need to find a Dr. that will treat you, those first months, as well as the baby. And the more he reaffirms that you are doing ok, and that you’re a good mom, the less you will stress about things and over time, you’ll learn to discern between the seriously ill, the treatable at home with tylenonl, and the “i just feel like crying for 3 hours” phase.

Dr. Leah@ June 5, 2009, 11:14 AM

My heart goes out to you. Anyone who has suffered this terrible emotional and physical abuse and is now pregnant should be receiving counseling from a psychologist with special training and experience with this disorder. I’m sure the entire Mom Logic Community joins me in wishing you well.

Formerly Gracie June 8, 2009, 6:11 PM

Your story sounds a lot like my childhood, except my mom’s a pediatrician (!!!) No trips to the hospital. All of the over medicating happened at home.

In addition to the great doctor, I would also suggest surrounding yourself around a solid group of mommy friends. I found that hearing things from their prescriptive brought my personal hysteria back to Earth.

I wish you tons of luck. It’s taken me years to overcome my childhood. :-)

AA June 14, 2009, 8:47 PM

I’m involved with a man whose ex takes the children to the doctors on a regular basis. Over the last three months they have all had blood work (done yearly); allergy testing; desensitization which resulted in an emergency visit; GI series testing; nutritionist referral; xrays; orthopedic referral; ADHD testing… where does it end. The youngest child looks for reasons to ask his mother to take him to the doctor; the oldest child asks for medication whenever he has an ache or a pain. These are healthy kids!!!!

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