Are You a Mother Suffering from an Eating Disorder? You are not Alone!
As mothers and women, we don’t have it easy. On a daily basis, we have to battle society pressure, we have to fight for equality, while at the same time we do have to be interesting, driven but humble, beautiful and classy, and we have to be “good girls”.
More and more women are breaking under this (sometimes self-imposed) pressure, which is why the number of mothers suffering from postnatal depression and eating disorders are on the rise.
Until 30 years ago, phycologists didn’t even know what an eating disorder was; 10 years ago, it was deemed as a “disease” affecting teenage girls (“they will grow out of it” kind of thing). Unfortunately in 2019 eating disorders are the most dangerous mental disorder (Anorexia nervosa has the highest death rate of all mental illnesses), which is affecting females and males of all ages, sizes, and backgrounds.
The pregnancy and postpartum period can be an incredibly vulnerable time for women, especially those with a history of previous mental issues. Some of the changes that mothers are facing include biological, emotional, and environmental challenges, all which can be potentially triggering. For example, a new mother faces rapid changes in body shape, hormone levels, and weight, as well as an overall lifestyle change after giving birth and bringing a new baby into the world. The combination of these many stressors can be difficult to cope with, triggering some new moms to fall back on eating disorder behaviors that create an artificial sense of control (Melissa O’Neill 2019).
A Norwegian cohort study reports note that eating disorders affect ~5% of pregnant women. 5% !!! Those women normally have more complications during pregnancy, including smaller-for-gestational-age babies, preterm delivery, higher rates of cesarean section, and lower Apgar scores. Moreover, the risk of postpartum depression is generally higher (Watson et al. 2014).
This is a topic that is very close to my heart, as I have been commented on my physical appearance since the day that I was born, and if I have to do only one thing in life, is to start the conversation on how we have to stop judging other human beings, especially when we don’t know shit about what is going on in their lives.
If you are one of those mamas that have battled disordered eating, or if you know one of them, and you don’t know how to help, or if your daughter is one of those women, and you are scared to death about her future, please keep on reading.
We are mothers, but it doesn’t mean we have it all figured out. This rings so true to my heart. I used to dream about the day I would give birth to the love of my life; I was 100% sure I would instantly get my shit together. Far from it. The day I came home from hospital, after giving birth, I started weeping like a baby; I understand that my body was taken over by a hormonal shift, but I also had the sudden realization that my life, my problems, my hopes, my ideas where still in my brain, waiting for me to have a quiet time to address them. The only difference was that all of a sudden, I also had another creature to take care of. The first few months were overwhelming as I tried to make the old me merge with the new life I had adopted; until one topic day when my baby looked at me, after having savaged my super packed calendar, and smiled. She smiled. My calendar was ripped in zillion of pieces, I felt I was juggling life instead of living it, and she thought it was funny. This is when I had one of those “Eureka” moments: my daughter wasn’t an addition to my family and my life, she was part of it. I didn’t have to keep spreading myself too thin, as I could choose to prioritize and live in the moment. And I didn’t have to figure it out, as there was no point, and no one really does anyway. My daughter quickly became the best teacher I have ever had. She taught me it was ok to just sit and read the same books over and over again, she taught me it was ok to skip veggies for one meal, and it was also ok to forget to reply to that important email. She taught that some days it was ok to eat until explosion, and to not feel hungry later on. And most of all, she taught me it was ok to spend an entire afternoon playing with dirt and kiss each other, without being concerned about what the rest of the world was doing, and how we were perceived by the public. Let go of control, let go of expectations, and as new age as it sounds, start living in the frigging moment.
Prioritize nourishment over dieting. I got complimented about my skinny body a week after I left the hospital. I hadn’t eaten for 9 months because I suffered from Hyperemesis Gravidarum and I was shockingly emaciated; still, I got complimented on how I was looking. Of course, deep inside I was flattered, but I didn’t get why I was getting a compliment for having been sick. No one would praise the weight loss of a cancer patient, right? Funnily enough, people do, because thinness is held as a prize, a value, something to admire and aspire to. But how come people thought I was so amazing looking and yet I couldn’t hold my baby and climb the stairs at the same time?
It took me a while to understand how screwed up society is, and I finally managed to create new neural pathways. I threw the scale, the calorie counters, the fit bit and the chest monitor and I started nourishing myself. I wanted to be that kind of mum that has the energy to play with her kid, that mother that is able to mindlessly share and eat the food with joy, I wanted to be a role model for my child.
Stop the comparison trap. We simply have no idea what is going on behind closed doors. So stop comparing yourself to that well dressed, good looking mother; she may look strong and happy, but you really don’t know. And do me a favour, throw away all the trash magazines; I love being inspired by other people stories, I enjoy reading snippets of the lives of women who fought, made it, or tried to. I don’t give a shit which kind of body they have, but I do care about their personalities, their willingness and resilience to work and make a difference. Our body is not a value, is not something we will be remembered for, which is why it’s better if you dive deeper into yourself and start sharing your story, not your selfie.
Start following accounts that make you happy. I call this a social media weeding; if I come across an account that triggers my insecurities, or that doesn’t make my soul happy, I unfollow. Yes, this means fewer followers in the short term, and also freedom and happiness in the long term. Look out for inspiring women from all backgrounds, of all shapes and sizes. And to go back to the previous point, stop judging or comparing.
I also joined body positive groups on FB, and they are my support net whenever I need a quick pick me up!
The same concept can be applied to real friends, although it can be slightly more challenging. The bottom line is, if you are not inspired, supported, and loved, look somewhere else, as you deserve better.
Listen to podcasts of women who have gone through the same. I have a list of podcasts that took me to the next level; I used to listen to them whenever I could, especially on days where I was feeling unheard and unworthy. Those women, speaking softly through my ears, made me realize I wasn’t alone at all, and that we can all do it if that’s what we want.
Stop mirror checking. The fear of gaining weight is never about the weight in itself, let alone about the food. It is about what is brewing underneath, the issues we haven’t dealt with. It’s all about past experiences and how we manage through tough situations. I find that looking at myself in the mirror when I’m having a shit day makes me feel even worse because I focus only on what is wrong. So I have come to the conclusion to look at myself in a full-length mirror only when I’m happy, or ready to speak to myself nicely. And whenever I get stuck in a negative mindset, I always make it up with 5 positive compliments.
“My body is allowing me to write this article, has given me the chance to become a mother, it allowed me to breastfeed for 14 beautiful months, it walks me wherever I want and it digests all the foods I eat”. How amazing is that? Go body!
Eat, drink, move, rest…a LOT. It is not simple, but that’s what you need to do. Even better, that’s what you choose to do. Your body needs the right nutrients to heal, grow, and have enough energy. To avoid injuries, to nicely heal your pelvic area, to produce enough milk, the best thing you can do is drink plenty of filtered water, eat the right foods and rest whenever you want to. In the spare time, move your body, get some juice flowing through your veins, but don’t overtire yourself. And as always, trust the process and…
Trust your body. Your body wants desperately to go back to homeostasis, which means that it wants to go back to balance. If you give it the chance, it won’t fail you; your body is not your enemy, it’s simply your bestest friend, so start treating it that way. Repeat after me: eat well, drink loads, sleep whenever you can, meditate, and move for fun.
Stop the diet talk. You are allowed to be different! You can choose what you want to talk about, you don’t need to conform. If a friend or an acquaintance, or a co-worker share their experience with the keto diet, you can simply move away from the conversation, or even leave the room. No apologies needed. Keep reminding yourself that your health is top priority now, for you and your bub. There are so many women out there going through the same, so reach out for help, start a different type of conversation, be honest with someone that you can trust. Talk, talk, talk.
Counselor “uber alles”. If you are dealing with disordered eating behaviours, you would benefit incredibly from talking to a paid professional. Doing it on your own is going to be extremely difficult, and it will feel almost impossible at stages. Get help, is out there for you to take. A counselor can support you nurturing the relationship with yourself and your loved ones.
Claudia is a Qualified Nutrition & Dietetic Consultant (BHSC) specialised in hormonal balance, women’s health, and disorder eating behaviors. She sees clients online and in clinical practice; you can find more about her or the Hypothalamic Amenorrhea recovery program by following her on Instagram, Facebook, or by checking her website.
Watson, H. J., Torgersen, L., Zerwas, S., Reichborn-Kjennerud, T., Knoph, C., Stoltenberg, C., … Bulik, C. M. (2014). Eating Disorders, Pregnancy, and the Postpartum Period: Findings from the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study (MoBa). Norsk epidemiologi = Norwegian journal of epidemiology, 24(1–2), 51–62.