Pregnancy and motherhood can be extremely daunting. The “what-ifs?”, “can I manage it all?” and “what will my body do?” internal dialogue often begins quite early in the process of parenthood, even among women without eating disorders. When a woman struggles with body dissatisfaction and disordered eating, normal concerns throughout pregnancy and parenting can escalate into major anxiety. They may also fuel a new or renewed focus on weight and shape that can lead to harmful behaviors like restriction, purging, bingeing or obsessive exercise. Co-occurring depression – or postpartum depression – can also be risk factors for disordered eating.
According to data from the CDC, the average age at which women have their first child is 28 and this has been steadily rising for decades. As of 2016 however, the demographic with the highest birth rates are actually women in their early thirties (ages 30-34).1 This holds true across all fifty states as well as all racial and ethnic groups.
Interestingly, women between the ages of 30 and 40 are also increasingly seeking treatment for eating disorders. Eating disorders affect about 10% of women during their reproductive years and this number may be growing. With this in mind, it has become exceedingly apparent that there is a need to tailor treatment to mothers and mothers-to-be in order to effectively assist women during this stage of life.
Pregnancy-related body image concerns combined with the extra stressors of parenting – and feeding – young children can complicate eating disorder recovery efforts. But there are also opportunities and strengths in this new role and certain things moms-to-be can do to stay recovery-focused during the adventures of pregnancy and parenthood. Below are three very basic tips to help provide a starting point for a healthy transition.
1. BE HONEST.
If you’re currently pregnant, tell your OB or midwife that you have a history of an eating disorder and about your current or past symptoms.
Some women say they feel shame or guilt in expressing feelings of body-dissatisfaction or disclosing ED symptoms to their medical providers, especially during pregnancy and post-partum. If you find yourself battling these thoughts, it’s helpful to remember that eating disorders thrive on silence and secrecy. Keeping symptoms a secret usually means things get worse, not better. Being open with your OB or midwife allows them to better care for you and more accurately monitor the health of your baby. When your providers know about the eating disorder they can also do more to support your recovery efforts; this could include connecting you with a local support group or tailoring discussions about food and exercise appropriately. Remember, eating disorders are serious illnesses – not simply a choice or lifestyle. It’s okay to let go of the guilt and shame so you can move forward with help.
2. EMBRACE IMPERFECTIONS.
You can’t do it all perfectly—nobody can (even if it looks like they do on social media).
More mothers than ever are raising their children while managing full-time careers outside of the home and trying to keep up with ever-increasing expectations for the always perfect outfit, an exquisitely clean house and an expertly planned family vacation.On top of it all, posting finely tuned photos on social media to prove it all happened can almost feel mandatory.Moms who internalize this pressure are understandably overwhelmed because perfection is a race that no one wins. Remember, even the people who look like they have it all together online, are only sharing what they want people to see. It’s essentially a person’s curated highlight reel; the behind-the-scenes shots may not be so picture perfect.
Given that the trait of perfectionism is an established genetic risk factor for the development of eating disorders, it’s easy to see how these increasing expectations and media pressures can create extra challenges for pregnant and parenting moms working on eating disorder recovery. If you find yourself constantly comparing your house, your body, your parenting or your life in general to people you see on TV or friends on social media it’s important to discuss these influences with a therapist or treatment team. You can also do a self-audit of your feed and make some changes to ensure you are cultivating a body positive presence across your social media platforms.
3. PRIORITIZE RECOVERY
Self-care isn’t selfish.
There’s a reason why the flight crew on every plane instructs parents flying with children to put on their own oxygen masks in an emergency before putting one on their child. It might feel counterintuitive or even selfish to do so but we know it’s not. Why? Because it’s much harder to take care of other people – especially infants and toddlers – if you’re not caring for yourself. When it comes to mental health and eating disorders, you may need to prioritize your recovery efforts now so that you have the physical ability and mental clarity to prioritize your family in the long-term. Seeking therapy, keeping up with appointments and staying connected to other moms who talk openly and authentically about the challenges of motherhood are integral to recovery.
At The Center for Eating Disorders, we recently launched an outpatient therapy group to help pregnant and parenting moms with eating disorders do the hard work of prioritizing recovery while caring for their families. The group, which meets weekly, focuses on skills for balancing recovery and motherhood, addressing body image concerns and strategies for feeding the family. In addition to building recovery skills, this group can also be a way to help moms recharge and gain support. It is open to pregnant women and parenting moms of any age and stage.
The Moms’ group is held on Thursdays at 10 a.m. at outpatient department in Physician’s Pavilion North, Suite 300. Please contact Kristen Norris for additional information or to enroll in the group. She can also be reached by phone at 410-427-3904.
Mathews TJ, Hamilton BE. (2016). Mean age of mothers is on the rise: United States, 2000–2014. NCHS data brief, no 232. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.