Anorexic and PregnantJennifer Rhodes
“I don’t think getting pregnant right now is in your best interest.” The nutritionist eyed me skeptically after I told her my plans. It was winter, I was in treatment for an eating disorder, and I’d just gotten my first period after a long, anorexia-induced hiatus. “The weight gain associated with pregnancy is difficult. I don’t think it’s a good idea for you.”
And I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to be wearing those elastic-waistband pants ordered straight from the newspaper’s coupon insert, but you don’t hear me saying anything, do you? I didn’t say this, although I thought it. A few weeks later I stopped working with that nutritionist, who had agreed we were getting nowhere. I insisted I knew what was best for me, whereas she only knew the extent of the Gold Clipper’s selection in pants.
That summer, I was thrilled to discover I was pregnant. Although still in therapy to deal with my deep-seated body and eating issues, I felt certain pregnancy would magically turn everything on its head. I was not going to fail my baby. I was going be healthy throughout my pregnancy and beyond. After 13 years, I would give anorexia the final heave-ho, making that nutritionist eat her poorly chosen words.
But it turns out, she may have been right. As my pregnancy gained momentum, so too did my compulsion to fight my body’s natural response to grow round, gain weight, and nurture my developing baby. I vacillated between awe over the life growing inside of me – a life that I, at one time, never thought I’d be able to conceive or sustain – and horror at the pockets of fat affixing themselves to every inch of my body. I’d once spent inconceivable amounts of time crying, “Why me?” over my inability to have a baby. Now I spent incalculable amounts of time in a silent panic over the daunting amount of food I had to eat each day to keep that baby healthy. I felt lucky to have conceived, yet undeserving and irresponsible for having conceived before completely ironing out all my issues. Now more than halfway into my pregnancy, I’m still struggling to reconcile the paradox: How do I grow a healthy baby when growing is what I fear the most?
For many, anorexia is a difficult beast to wrap the head around. I’ve been called shallow, vain, self-centered, selfish. I’ve been told repeatedly to “just eat.” I’ve been reduced to a woman who values her figure over all else. While our culture recognizes addictions to drugs, alcohol, and sex, most people can’t understand how one can become addicted to self-starvation.
The key to understanding anorexia is to accept that it has little to do with vanity. For me, anorexia fulfilled a need for control and balance. In an otherwise unstable world, I grew addicted to the stability that controlling my weight provided. If I ate (or didn’t eat) something, I took comfort in that I could accurately predict what the outcome would be on the scale. Anorexia became my source of validation. Watching the number on the scale drop became a daily victory. When I felt defeated in other areas of life, the scale congratulated me, reassuring me that diligence paid off. While I now admit anorexia controlled me, at one time I believed it made me powerful. While those around me caved to the temptations of – gasp! – lunch, I was fine to sip diet soda and chew a stick of gum. I am so strong, I’d tell myself, that I can transcend the human need for food.
While my addiction reduced me to just my self-image, I still had desires beyond what I saw in the mirror. I’d always wanted to have children. And I was quickly learning that all the control and balance and daily scale victories and faux strength in the world were not going to aid my pursuit of motherhood. In fact, they were going to make it impossible. I sought treatment for my eating disorder solely because I wanted to be a mom.
When I learned I was pregnant, I initially approached eating with the best of intentions. There would be vegetables – lots of vegetables, tofu, whole grains and some healthy (albeit still intimidating) fats. I would get the extra calories my baby needed but in a healthy, controlled manner. I intended to do things my way. My former nutritionist could take her elastic waistband pants and shove ’em.
My plan worked for about a week before the aversions kicked in. No one warned me about those. As someone used to subsisting exclusively on lettuce with vinegar, steamed vegetables and coffee, the distress of being able to eat nothing but the previously forbidden rice, pasta, and potatoes without vomiting consumed me. Even more alarming was the notion that my “control” had been stripped from me. I had to eat on command, six, seven, eight times a day or become violently (and embarrassingly loudly) ill. I panicked as the lines of my once-defined abs became blurry, my hips widened, and my thighs outgrew every pair of pants I owned. I constantly reminded myself that I had to keep eating; I was nourishing the baby. But if the calories were going to the baby, why could I see traces of last night’s mashed potato dinner on my own ass? And why does the What To Expect When You’re Expecting application on my iPhone caution me on a thrice-weekly basis that “Some fat is healthy, but too much just makes you, well, fat“?
Just shy of six months along, I am learning to take things day by day. Instead of focusing on control (which I realize I will have even less of when the baby is born), each day I consciously choose to focus on my baby and giving him or her what he or she needs in that moment. If that means French fries, so be it. While I loved the false feeling of worth anorexia gave me, I love this baby more. And just as I work to eat each day, I work to treat my eating-related anxiety as if it were food – I take it in, distill from it what I can, and then get rid of it. I’m not magically healed of my neuroses, but I recognize I have been given a precious gift and a second chance. I intend to make the most of both of them.
And it is in that same spirit that I’ve surrendered to something else I never thought I could: maternity pants. With elastic waistbands.