I had spent more than 17 years trying to not gain weight, so pregnancy was the scariest time in my life.
Tess Jones / Johanna Kandel
It’s common for a woman to feel intimidated by the body changes—like stretch marks, swollen feet, and the eventual bowling ball belly—that are associated with pregnancy. The idea of being a human incubator is not a small undertaking. But the tension mounts when those everyday concerns are paired with those of someone who’s spent several years, sometimes decades, battling an eating disorder.
Most women gain between 25 and 35 pounds when pregnant. While those numbers might (it’s debatable) reflect a healthy pregnancy, the idea of gaining weight may be a disconcerting experience for a woman who is recovering from an eating disorder. For many of those women, weight check-in at routine OB/GYN appointments will be the first time they’ve seen a number on a scale since their recovery. Others will sense old tendencies at their backs when strangers offer unsolicited comments about “how huge” (why do people say this to pregnant women to begin with?) they’re becoming.
Here, we spoke with women who describe their experience with pregnancy and eating disorder recovery, and how many of them found it to be their last step toward healing.
Tess Jones, 31, Pittsburgh, PA
I had never thought I wanted to have a child, mainly because I didn’t think I could. I assumed that, surely, not having a menstrual cycle for over ten years must have done irreversible damage that I did not think could be fixed. My husband and I had loosely talked about having children during our engagement, but it wasn’t until after we were married that we decided to try. In February of 2017, I had a positive pregnancy test. We were elated.
But pregnancy was also the scariest time in my life. I had spent more than 17 years trying to not gain weight. I knew that sugar-free gum had five calories and the carbonation in Diet Coke made me less hungry, but gaining weight to be healthy for myself and my baby was a completely foreign concept.
I lost more than eight pounds in the first trimester as a result of morning sickness. And I admit—I had been so nervous about gaining weight that it felt like a victory at first. Losing weight, after all, had been my addiction. But I knew I had to turn my thoughts around if I wanted to have a healthy baby. I gained 17 pounds during my pregnancy, but the shame of my eating disorder lingered, especially when people told me I “didn’t look pregnant” or that I would have the “world’s tiniest baby.” Those comments made me feel like I was a bad mother for still dealing with my illness.
Being a mom is hard—there is no other way to say it. I love Madeline and I am so grateful that she is in this world, but shifting my focus from myself to her has been an adjustment. Most days, I have some sort of bodily fluid on me, and I am lucky if I am able to shower and brush my teeth before 4 pm. I’m still struggling and know I will continue to struggle. But I refuse to be defeated because I never want my daughter to go through what I have. I don’t want her to see me worrying about six grams of sugar in a box of cereal or the size of my pants.
Melainie Rogers, 48, New York, NY
I had concerns about becoming pregnant even though, at the time, I had been recovered for 12 years. So, I planned ahead. I spoke to my partner, my family, my therapist and psychiatrist and said: “Listen, I know I’m fully recovered, but the chemical shifts in my brain during this pregnancy could affect my recovery. So, let’s plan for the worst and hope for the best.”
But there was no return to my eating disorder during my pregnancy or after having my daughter. If anything, the pregnancy gave me a really great appreciation for my body which was an incredible feeling. It was amazingly validating to take the focus off of what my body looks like and focus it instead on what my body can do, like growing a beautiful baby.
Working through the postpartum phase proved to be more difficult in terms of my mental health. Knowing my history with anxiety and depression, I knew I was at risk to develop postpartum depression and worked closely with my psychiatrist and therapist to have a plan in place. But PPD found its way to me anyway and, three months after having my daughter, I had to make the difficult decision to go back on medication and stop breastfeeding. I definitely felt cheated from that intimate experience, but knew it was important to take care of the things impacting my mental health.
Lauren Hill, 28, Wilmington, NC
Becoming a mother was one of my biggest motivations to recover. At the time, my fragile body could not have carried a child, nor would I have been a fully functioning mother. Four years into my recovery and almost a year after trying to conceive, two pink lines appeared on a pregnancy test.
Most of my concerns about my changing body were focused on the postpartum period. I felt that I would be able to justify the weight gain during pregnancy due to having a human life growing inside me. I would think, How could I hate my body when it was doing such a miraculous thing? But the idea of my post-pregnancy body seemed scarier.
Seeing my postpartum body in the mirror is sometimes difficult for me. In our society we constantly see celebrities "bouncing back" from pregnancy ridiculously quickly and are encouraged to work as hard as possible to "get our bodies back" as new mothers. But I know the moment my priorities shift to losing weight—working out and counting calories—is the second that I start to let my eating disorder creep back into my life.
My daughter is now three weeks old, and is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. I hope I’ll be able to help her have a balanced view of food and exercise, and send different messages to her than the ones that I had sent to me by my own parents regarding food, exercise, and the importance of being thin.
Johanna Kandel, 39, West Palm Beach, FL
By the age of 17, I had never menstruated. And, even though I had been struggling with an eating disorder since I was 11, my doctors seemed more concerned about my lack of a period than actually treating me for an eating disorder. They told me I would never be able to have kids because I had compromised my reproductive system so much.
Because I didn’t get the intervention I needed, my eating disorder continued. During my senior year, I was struggling with a binge eating disorder and I called my parents and said, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m going to die.” I struggled to find a therapist who could give me the help I needed and, even when I did, my recovery was one step forward, three steps back. Recovery is not perfect. You definitely don’t recover to utopia, you recover a life.
Throughout the years of building my organization [The Alliance for Eating Disorders], I was constantly reminded that my eating disorder had cost me my ability to have kids. I met a wonderful man, we got married and he knew those were the terms—and then I got pregnant.
For me, pregnancy was the indicator that I could heal and that complete recovery is absolutely possible. It gave me this level of respect for a body that for so many years I had hated and my eating disorder had caused me to abuse, and here I was at a place of healing that allowed me to take that step I was told I never would.
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