Mental health speaker, Carolina Mountford, shares a personal blog based on her experience of eating disorder recovery alongside her pregnancy and motherhood. For Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week.
Congratulations, you’re pregnant! Cue dreamy thoughts of completed or expanding families, cooing babies and beautifully decorated nurseries. Plus slightly less dreamy thoughts of do we need to move house, change the car, buy a warehouse full of baby goods? For too many women, however, this usually welcome news at the prospect of the patter of teeny tiny feet is quickly followed by an intense fear of how much weight we are going to put on, how ‘tidy’ our bump will be, how soon will we be needing maternity clothes and how quickly after birth will we be back in our skinny jeans.
The vast majority of women, especially, but not exclusively, those who have experienced disordered eating or had an eating disorder, will feel this to a greater or lesser degree. In addition, this may well be magnified a hundred fold for anyone who has undergone fertility treatment as the stakes feel significantly higher.
What is supposed to be a joyous season (apart from the usual morning sickness, heartburn and aching hips and pelvis) soon becomes nine months of either increased or renewed body image hell with a bonus serving of guilt because our sole focus ought to be the wellbeing of our precious cargo, not what we look like.
Pregnancy is a common time for old and unhelpful thinking and behaviour patterns to resurface, as our headspace is increasingly taken up with natural thoughts of nourishing our bodies and babies. Such a focus on food can be a trigger for many. Add to that the confusing messages that are sometimes out there such as “you are eating for two” and “you don’t need to eat any differently” and it’s not hard to see how things can quickly become problematic.
“Exercise just like you’ve always done”, we are told. Except many GPs may be unaware of quite how extreme some of our fitness regimes have been. The temptation to keep going is strong and even “the doctor told me to carry on”. The urge to suddenly embark on a new fitness programme may also feel overwhelming, for reasons mentioned above, despite the advice to not start anything new in pregnancy. We erroneously think that by suddenly walking a bazillion steps each and every day we will give this pregnancy the best chance of success.
Another source of distress can be other people’s, apparently incessant, preoccupation with how we look and the size of our bumps. Comments such as “you’re how many weeks?” or “how many have you got in there?” whilst said with little prior thought but no ill will, can be incredibly distressing. They can fuel unhealthy thoughts thus kickstarting destructive habits which we may have thought we’d long laid to rest. Nevertheless, we have to acknowledge that those around us will naturally take an interest in our bump; family and friends care about us and pregnancy is a significant life event.
My own experience of pregnancy encompassed much of this. With my first baby especially, everyone, and I mean everyone either did a double take when they saw me or commented on the size of my bump. Friends and strangers touched me (a bad idea on any day let alone with raging hormones), I was asked if I was carrying twins or more and I faced conflicting messages of “eating for 2” and “don’t change anything”. Fears that my first baby was going to be too big (he was under 9lbs) and fears of gestational diabetes were all overwhelming and drove me to eat rather recklessly. Which goes to show, it doesn’t always end up in restriction. I remember feeling very cross and concluded, I will just eat what I want. Monster munch cravings anyone?
Second time around, people would take it upon themselves to compare my now pregnant body with my first pregnant body. “Oh you’re not so big this time round!” they would exclaim.
If only we could be left alone without the interference of others (friends and strangers alike!), we’d have a much better shot at navigating pregnancy with less concern for our appearance and more time appreciating the life we are carrying. Given hermit life is unlikely and impractical for most of us, we will have to find ways around this. It takes more strength than many of us have to spare, to stay on track and not be derailed by old habits.
The reality is we are all different and our bodies respond differently. One hundred women can all eat and move the same and we will still look different. This is certainly true outside of pregnancy and perhaps even more so when we are pregnant. There are so many things that influence our body shape including genetics, sleep, stress, movement, nutrition, hydration and that’s before we consider the baby we are carrying.
The reality is we are all different and our bodies respond differently. One hundred women can all eat and move the same and we will still look different. This is certainly true outside of pregnancy and perhaps even more so when we are pregnant.
Some are able to acknowledge the emergence of negative thought patterns and be able to silence, or at least quieten, them. For others, however, it means a very stressful pregnancy could lie ahead. If we’ve reverted to restrictive eating, bingeing or purging, we may feel added guilt and shame for not doing what’s best for baby even though we want to. Self-condemnation can come thick and fast alongside perceived failure. As with most things, the latter can vary in degree starting with lapsing (a single performance of a destructive behaviour), relapsing (two or more lapses in quick succession) or collapsing (abandonment of all that keeps them safe from a previous eating disorder).
Whilst not an officially recognised eating disorder in its own right, “pregorexia” is a term that’s been coined to refer to a woman’s drive to control pregnancy weight gain through extreme dieting and exercise. The desire to be “healthy” because of who are we are carrying can be an easy cloak for disordered, yet sadly normalised, behaviours. I would urge anyone who is struggling with this to reach out for support and help.
Finally, the day comes when we are holding our baby in our arms. Yet we still look 6 months pregnant. “How is this possible?!” we cry. In case no one’s told you and you haven’t stumbled across it in a book, it takes an average six to eight weeks for the uterus to contract postpartum. Though we all know at least one person to whom this rule doesn’t apply, right? We love them nonetheless… albeit it through slightly gritted teeth and swollen boobs.
We are usually given a few weeks’ grace if you’re lucky, before the murmurings start and the pressure builds. When will be back in our old skinny jeans? The pandemic has made leisure wear far more acceptable attire than it ever used to be so there’s that to be grateful for but it hasn’t eliminated the race-to-the-old-clothes completely.
Etched in my mind is clothes shopping for a beach holiday when our first was just 3 months old. I remember coming home from the shops feeling miserable, defeated and rather wretched wondering how I was ever going to make it to the beach or the pool. Thankfully, my memories of the holiday are happy ones of time spent with friends, wonderful in-laws and of course our new addition to our family.
So how do we move forward, either in pregnancy or post birth, with these negative thoughts and behaviours?
Here are some tips:
- Educate those around you: when you are on the receiving end of unhelpful, hurtful or ill-informed comments, try and set the record straight. Tell the person that you know they mean well, but actually you find their words difficult to hear. When you’re on your own again, instead of going over those comments in your head, replace them with positive affirmations about who you are
- Reach out to those who walked your path before: talk to older generations as their perspective can be hugely helpful, they can offer good advice and share positive stories (rather than the unsolicited horror stories we are sometimes subjected to)
- Don’t shut yourself off from close family really want to help and support you. Remember, they love you
- Have a small support network who you can message when things get hard: it might be the same group of people as you might have had when you were recovering or they may be completely different. It doesn’t matter so long as they people who you trust and who you feel understand where you’re at. You can send a quick “SOS” message to let them know you’re struggling and could do with a helping hand or encouragement
- Adopt coping strategies that have helped you before: you may not have needed them for a while but they could really come in handy now in helping you to navigate the harder days when tiredness may tempt you down the wrong path. This could be breath work or other distraction techniques to ride out the wave of an intense urge to binge or purge, it could be journalling to help process your thoughts and feelings, it might be getting out for a bit of fresh air or it could be something entirely different
- Be kind to yourself: do something you love to get a bit of a natural dopamine hit. Read a book, spend some time diving into a hobby or meet up with a friend. Again, this will look different for everyone
- Just like in recovery, think about your “Why?”: Why did you want to recover last time? The answer to that will likely still apply today
- Curate your social media feed: if ever there was a time to have a timeline clear-out, it’s now. Mute or unfollow any accounts which leave you feeling anxious, worried, worthless, like a failure or not good enough. Stop listening to celebrities and their so-called wellness routines. Society has for too long normalised disordered eating behaviours and this is being peddled by influencers and famous faces, causing so much harm in the process. Instead, fill your social media space with positive accounts that are encouraging, genuinely helpful and uplifting
Finally, and most importantly, appreciate your body for what it’s either doing or has done. It’s growing an actual human being!
And that is magnificent x
About Carolina Mountford:
Carolina Mountford is a Mental Health Speaker and writer travelling the country delivering talks and workshops on various aspects of mental health but she is particularly passionate about raising awareness & reducing the stigma around eating disorders & body image. With an academic background in psychology and counselling and 15 years lived experience of anorexia and bulimia, Carolina understands well the dark places an eating disorder can take you to and the journey to freedom that is possible.