In the last blog, I introduced you to Lindsay Stenovec, Registered Dietician, and her experience healing disordered eating and becoming a dietician. Lindsay is now a Mom who works with women recovering from disordered eating. Here is some of the fabulous insight she shared with me during her interview:
What are some of the things you work with that are specific to moms recovering from eating disorders?
Something that has become more and more apparent to me is that there’s a lot of shame when a mom who’s in recovery has an increase in disordered eating. They could be in recovery for 2 years, 10 years, 15 years, but if they start to realize during their perinatal journey, they’re struggling, it brings up shame. They forget to take into account that this is actually one of the riskiest times for recovery. And a small or large amount of eating disorder behaviors or thoughts that can come back into the mind are not uncommon.
When I get initial calls for support, a lot of the self-talk I hear from recovering moms is “I feel so stupid,” or “This shouldn’t be happening,” or “I can’t believe this is happening again. I thought this was far behind me.”
I’m always really quick to say:
“This is actually something that a lot of women in recovery experience. It’s one of the riskiest times for recovery. And it doesn’t say anything about your recovery or how much work you put into it. And look here you are on the phone with me! You have totally recognized what’s going on. You’re getting support. That’s you taking care of yourself. This is exactly what you need to be doing: reaching for and getting support!”
Right off the bat it’s important to make sure that they know they didn’t do something wrong; that there is nothing wrong with them. A lot of the times disordered eating thoughts and behaviors come up as a result of the hormonal changes that women experience. And pregnancy/postpartum, are big life changes. It isn’t surprising that disordered eating “coping skills” come up.
I also see that there’s a lot of worry around body changes during pregnancy and postpartum. This is a big time of change, not just physically, but also emotionally. What I have noticed is, for women in recovery, it may take a little while to open up about that. I’ve notice a trend with not wanting to say out loud or fully express the distress around body changes, because they don’t want it to be there. They don’t want to be feeling this way about their bodies. They feel shame about feeling bad about the change in their body. And so keep that really close to their vest. But over time it starts to organically come out. For moms in recovery, just know that this could be a risky time, and seeking support can help.
(Side note: shame is such a big obstacle for recovering women. I tell my clients shame stands for the false message of SHAME= Should Have Already Mastered Everything. Let’s challenge that message, again and again. You get to be human and in-process, just like the rest of the world. And you deserve compassion, just like you offer your little one.)
How can pregnant and postpartum women sort through all the food recommendations that are in magazines, doctor’s offices, and diet-culture and find what works (and doesn’t) for them?
We do have some changing nutritional needs during the perinatal period. However, oftentimes they are presented in a way that reinforces diet culture. And so there’s some work to be done regarding how we consider nutrition. How do we incorporate that into our own bodies’ wisdom? For example, if I’m working with someone who is early in pregnancy, the first trimester is often survival mode for many women who have pregnancy nausea. The cues from your body are so strong, they are very chaotic, and they are not to be messed with. So if I were to say, as a dietician
“Hey you know you should really more broccoli during your first trimester because vitamin C is very important and broccoli has lots of vitamin C,”
and then you go home and you can’t even look at broccoli because you’re going to be sick, that nutrition information is not that helpful for you! You have to say to yourself:
“OK, vitamin C might be important, so I could probably take a vitamin supplement to help myself during this time.”
And then, in the meantime, you might be eating saltines and apples. It’s a really interesting time to explore, because the cues from your body are so strong. You have really very little choice other than to go with the flow of what your body is asking for. This level of intuitive eating- of listening to your body’s cues- can be very scary or it can be very empowering. I’ve seen it go both ways.
I believe it’s very helpful to have that dietitian with you to say something like this:
“Oh, you got this piece of nutrition information. Let’s look at whether it’s supportive or not supportive to you and how could we use it in a way that honors what your body is telling you right now.”
We really have to learn what intuitive eating calls gentle nutrition. We have to learn how we can incorporate that gentle nutrition into our lives. We have to think about the different stages someone’s at, and to realize that healthy eating doesn’t mean rigidity. Healthy eating doesn’t mean restriction or not allowing yourself to enjoy food. There is no such thing as a right way to intuitively eat. There’s only listening to your body and going by what it needs. Your body does have wisdom, and it is going to be giving you different information every day. The only way you’re going to know what it needs is to is to pay attention to it and just do the best that you can.
In conclusion? Pregnancy (and postpartum) are great times to practice:
*letting go of perfectionism and shame,
*eating intuitively and listening to your body’s needs,
*being present what what-is (rather than what your fantasy wants it to be) and
*receiving support and practice being good enough.
To connect with Lindsay’s Nurtured Mama podcast, Facebook group, and resources, click HERE
I’m in the process of interviewing professionals and recovering women for my book, Good Enough Mama: Taking Care of Yourself and Your Recovery During Pregnancy and Postpartum. And I’m being blown away by the amazing women I am meeting. So I’ve decided to share some of the experience, strength, and hope they are offering in their stories.
But first, a bit on Advanced Maternal Age (and how it relates to eating disorders):
There are many reasons why women are delaying having a baby until later in life, including: effective contraception, gender equality, women reaching higher educational
levels, cultural value shifts, divorce or partnering later in life, lack of childcare support, an absence of supportive family policies in the workplace, economic hardship, job instability or work in male dominated fields that are not supportive of or understanding of motherhood.*
Along with reaching higher educational levels, many recovering women want to do personal growth work and solidify their eating disorder recovery prior to becoming a parent. However, delaying childbirth until after age 35 can further inhibit fertility for women that may already have fertility problems leftover from their eating disorder history.
Twenty million women and 10 million men have an eating disorder at some point in their lives, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. Fertility problems, though they can be overcome, are among the potential long-term consequences of such conditions, with some studies suggesting that eating disorders account for about 18 percent of patients seen in infertility clinics, says Dr. Leslie A. Appiah, associate professor in the University of Kentucky College of Medicine’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. **
OK, enough with the stats. I’d like to get to the stories of hope because the purpose of this blog (and the upcoming book) is sharing hope: hope that recovery is possible, hope that motherhood is possible, hope in the knowledge that you are not alone.
So without further ado, let me introduce you to Sheira Kahn, MFT. Sheira is a marriage and family therapist in private practice with two decades of experience in treating eating disorders and three decades of her own recovery. For those of you struggling with hope that you can still be a mom later in life: She had a baby at age 50.
Here is her recovery story:
When I was a teenager and I was bulimic. The house where lived was filled with turmoil that I literally couldn’t stomach. Thankfully, when I moved out, I stopped purging. However, hatred of my self and my body persisted. I still hated my body and I hated every bite of food that I ate. The mental part of the disorder persisted. I was in pain and I knew that I didn’t want live that way. So I joined a meditation school where they taught us about how to work with the critic. And since my critic was always criticizing me about my body, I did what they said to reduce your critic. Every time my inner critic was loud and mean, I practiced. And my relationship with my body changed, because there was less hatred being channeled from a critic toward myself. Then, a book on hunger and fullness signals taught me how to listen to my stomach, not my critic, when making food decisions.
What inspired and motivated you to get into recovery?
I was in so much pain. I wanted the pain to be reduced. I think with some people, the coping mechanism (of the disordered eating) works to keep them numb to the pain, so they keep doing the coping mechanism. But for me I was in pain. It wasn’t a hard decision for me. I felt so bad. I thought recovery was going to make me feel better, so I threw I threw myself into it.
Did you always know that you wanted to be a mom or did that desire come later?
I always did growing up and then, in my 20s, I thought I didn’t. And then it came back. And then it came back very, very strongly. I assumed that would happen for me, as it seemed to happen so easily for other people. I had no idea that it that I would have to go through a lot actually to become a mom.
For me it was a combination of factors. I wanted to be partnered. I married someone that I had fallen in love with when I was 21. He wanted to have kids, and I didn’t. Then I changed my mind, but then he had changed his mind! That relationship wasn’t working out for several reasons. Then I got married again. I was in my I was 40’s when we started trying, so I was on the late side as far as far as fertility. It might have happened if I had felt safer in the relationship. However, I didn’t feel safe in the relationship to bring in a child. I believe this influenced my already shaky fertility. However, I knew I really wanted to have a baby, and I was ready to do whatever I needed to do. I was ready to have a baby or have a family, even without a partner who is willing to do it. I just knew that I had to go for it.
By that time there were some things in place that showed me I could be successful being a mom. I felt healed enough in myself. I had a sense of inner strength and I had support. I was making good livelihood on my own at that point, so I knew I’d be able to provide for a baby.
What happened in the decade between 40 and 50?
Three things during that decade: internal readiness, emotional clearing, and practical steps.
There was an internal readiness that I didn’t achieve until I was 48 years old. I came from a family where there was emotional trauma. There was extreme disconnection: fighting, antagonism, conflict, and fear between my parents. That set me up to have very few skills for building long term relationships. It gave me a layer of fear. When there are emotional injuries like this, it’s like a layer in your body. It felt like a layer of beliefs that went along with this fear. I thought that I would never be able to have a family. Or that it could happen for other people, but not me. I saw it happening for other people, and I believed it couldn’t exist for me. There was all this evidence that had confirmed the belief I held: Sheira doesn’t get to have family. I had been divorced once and then was getting divorced a second time. I had miscarried…
(Don’t worry! Remember this is about hope. The story doesn’t end here! Stay tuned next week for part two where we get to the Hope part of Experience, Strength, and Hope)
Sheira Kahn, MFT, is a marriage and family therapist in the bay area who gave birth to a beautiful baby girl at age 50. To read more about her professionally, you can visit her website here
*Mills M, Rindfuss, RR, McDonald P, Te Velde E,“Why do people postpone parenthood? Reasons and social policy incentives,” ESHRE Reproduction and Society Task Force: Hum Reprod Update, 17(6):848-60, Nov/Dec 2011.
** Medaris Miller, Anna “The Lasting Toll of An Eating Disorder: Fertility Issues,” US News and World Report, March 31, 2016.
I had one of those moments today. As I was pulling on my jeans, I could feel they were too tight. My midriff was mid-drifting. And that first automatic thought – “I’ve gained weight!”- was quickly followed by a shitload of culturally conditioned fat-shaming judgements. The good news is that then I took a deep breath. And remembered this voice comes in when I am suffering in some way that needs tending. That I have over twenty years of eating disorder recovery behind my back (and in my stomach). That this fearful voice doesn’t pop up very much any more and I have another way of being with myself now. Compassionate-Curious-Recovery-voice kicked back in.
Might these jeans be tight because they just came out of the drier?
If you did gain weight, so what?
Here’s how the rest of that conversation went down:
Anxious-part-of-self: What do you mean so what? SO WHAT? My body is supposed to stay the same. This is my recovery body and it’s not supposed to change.
Compassionate-Curious-Recovery-Self: Interesting. Where did you hear that? Actually, your body has changed many times over the past two decades. Most people’s bodies do. Who told you your body is supposed to stay the same? I think I remember your very first recovery mentor telling you twenty years ago (when I was a young adult and she was middle-aged) two things:
1) The size of your body is not your business.
2) The only constant is change.
When I work with women on body image suffering, often there is a correlation with the uncertainty that come with the life-passage transformations such as young adulthood, marriage, pregnancy, postpartum, middle age, and elderhood- and body image. Life transitions can be challenging, and the culture we live in doesn’t have a container for women traveling through these rites of passage. We do have a body-shaming culture that tells us there is something wrong (with our bodies) and it is our responsibility to fix/change them (our bodies). In the absence of community, and of rituals that assist us in crossing these thresholds, a fearful body-shaming voice can come in to keep us “safe.” Safe from what? Safe from the scary changes of the unknown by assuring us that If you can keep your body from changing, then this (life-change) will not be distressing. Safe from having to go through it alone. Safe from facing all the mixed messages in a culture that feels ambivalent at best, and actively disdainful at worst, about supporting women through the rites of passage into adulthood, motherhood, middle age, and becoming a crone. But in practicing hating our bodies, we miss out on appreciating how wise they are in leading and guiding us through these life transformations.
Midlife Mid-Drift (and other women’s body/life changes)
In perimenopause, the ovaries produce less estrogen, which can cause the body to store extra fat (because fat cells can produce estrogen, which offers the body a safety net). Interesting. Thus the thickening around the middle. Pretty smart, body!
In adolescence, a hormone called GnRH (gonadotropin-releasing hormone) is released, and then forms two new hormones that signal the body to gain weight and become fertile. Smart body!
In pregnancy, weight gain is distributed in all kinds of useful ways, including: increased
blood, breast tissue, fat stores for future breast feeding, amniotic fluid, the placenta, oh, and the actual baby! Wise body.
Just like postpartum, when the stomach carries shapes and marks that show it grew to hold a child. Successful body!
My body is changing again. It’s what happens for women throughout the life cycle. By the way, when I was researching reasons why a woman’s body changes in adolescence, the perinatal period, and midlife, guess what popped up on Google? You got it: 10 Ways to Diet That Away. (“That” being the inevitable changes in your body.)
A Recovery Reminder
If you are in recovery from an eating disorder, or any form of body image hatred (aka if you live in this culture), DO NOT visit Dr. Google for your answers to questions about life transitions. Dr. Google will always tell you that losing weight is the answer to complex life problems. Stop dieting, start rioting, and find your people. Find your support team of friends, professional help, and spiritual sustenance to help midwife you through your life transitions. Listen to the wise, fiercely compassionate and sometimes as* kicking part-of-you-that-knows and act on that voice. Now is not the time to let the weight on your stomach go. Now is the time to let the weight of holding up unrealistic expectations of who-you-are-supposed-to-be vs. who-you-actually-are go. Or, as Brené Brown so eloquently states about midlife:
I think midlife is when the universe gently places her hands upon your shoulders (or your midriff), pulls you close, and whispers in your ear:
I’m not screwing around. It’s time. All of this pretending and performing – these coping mechanisms that you’ve developed to protect yourself from feeling inadequate and getting hurt – has to go.Time is growing short. There are unexplored adventures ahead of you. You can’t live the rest of your life worried about what other people think. You were born worthy of love and belonging. Courage and daring are coursing through you. You were made to live and love with your whole heart. It’s time to show up and be seen.
“It is true that there are skeletons hiding in our closet, but there is treasure
hiding there, too.” -Teal Swan
OK moms and recovering women, as we all know, bathing suit season is fast approaching. In my work as a therapist for moms and women recovering from eating disorders, sessions are starting to revolve around:
- How to hide body parts while wearing summer clothing
- How to avoid wearing a bathing suit
- Comparing and Despairing
I encourage moms, and anyone with body image issues (so basically everyone) to let that shit go. Of course I mean emotionally (I’m a therapist 🙂 ) But I also mean literally: Bring in the old bathing-suit/pair-of-short-shorts/sleeveless-little-red-dress and we will have a goodbye ritual.
Marie Kondo, in her famous (and clearly written BC: Before Child), The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up (2014) writes:
The best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in hand and ask Does this spark joy? If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it.
Although easy-sounding, this can be tricky. When I ask my clients to bring in their clothes from their pre-pregnancy or pre eating disorder recovery days and ask,
“Does this [shirt/dress/pair-of-jeans] give you joy?” they almost always say unequivocally,
And then I ask “Is it REALLY the [shirt/dress/pair-of-jeans]?”
To which they say “YES.”
Then we sit there and look at each other in a staring contest. However, since therapy is expensive, this usually only lasts a few minutes at most. Then they might say something like:
“Well, maybe it’s the memory if wearing this pair of jeans and feeling confidant.”
“I wore this dress on my first date with my husband.”
“When I was [this size], I didn’t ever feel anxious.”
“I was happy when I wore this.”
Then I ask them where the happiness came from.
“The shirt/dress/pair of jeans” they say.
“No,” I say. “From you. The happiness came from inside of you.”
Them: “No, it was the dress.”
Me (Their Best-Self): “Go buy another.”
Them: “I’m not the right size.”
Me (Their Best-Self):
“You are the right size. You are the right size. Right now. Your stomach is the right size. Your thighs are the right size. Your arms are the right size. Your JEANS may be the wrong size, your DRESS or your BATHING SUIT or THE CLOTHING INDUSTRY may be the wrong size, but not you.”
“But what about the happiness I felt when I wore these jeans (dress/bathing-suit)?”
More staring, but with compassion and softening. And then we cut up the clothes. Sometimes we make them into journal covers. Or toddler clothes (because that is who size zero is made for).
Then we get to the tears and the grief. Because motherhood, and eating disorder recovery, is not only a whole new body. It is a whole new life. Do you really want the life you had when you were wearing that dress/bathing suit/jeans? You may have had more freedom (moms), or you may have had a thinner body, but were you really happy? Were you not just as- if not more- obsessed about food or worried about somebody finding out or seeing “the real you” (because under the dress you were feeling anxious, insecure, and lonely)? So your tummy was smaller. Did you wake up in the morning filled with joy about everything in your life, your relationships, your career, and your connection with meaningful purpose because your stomach was free of stretch marks or your arms were thin? I doubt it.
Happiness, in my opinion, is more about being in acceptance with what-is rather than what-you-would-like-to-be. If you have a little red dress that you used to wear in your pre-mommy or pre-recovery days that doesn’t fit (and never will because spanxs-are-for-women-who-willingly-subject-themselves-to-torture-and-isn’t motherhood-already-hard-enough), let that shit go. Is it really making you happy hanging there in your closet? Or is it looking at you every day saying:
“You used to wear me. Now you are a hippo-that-wears-sweat-pants.”
That doesn’t sound like it’s sparking joy. That sounds like a shaming, mean voice that should not be allowed in your house and definitely not in your closet.
Saying goodbye to the illusion of happiness being tied to an unattainable body shape/size can often bring up grief…which then can lead to freedom, which feels like, yes, you guessed it, happiness. Maybe not full-on joyful euphoria, more like self-accepting contentment. But isn’t that good-enough? Isn’t that what you wanted all along?
Oh, and more space in your closet for new clothes.
Every morning my little one pulls up my shirt, kisses you, and says, “I came from there!” You are fleshy now, stretched. I feel warmth and softness when I touch you. Mother. You hang over my jeans a bit. My sagging muffin top. I try not to mentally airbrush you out of pictures- the little traces of shame that still linger, the empire cut shirts, even though I haven’t been pregnant for five years.
Twenty years ago disgust for you filled my world. And crushed my spirit. All the self-loathing, anger, fear and shame were stuffed into you. I’m sorry. So many apology letters written to you in those first years of eating disorder recovery. But I did grow to accept you! And fed you. And then you created an amazing child! (Ok it was my womb, but you are the flesh that stretched to accommodate). You grew and stretched beyond what I thought was possible
Belly, I’m sorry that there are so many images in the world that don’t look like you. I know those images make you feel unloved, disgusting, flabby. I’m sorry those images make you feel wrong.
Those images tell you all kinds of crazy sh*t:
“Be smaller! Be flatter! Do this to be loved! Be big and full of yourself until age seven and then be flat and hungry. But don’t feel hungry! Just look thin! Don’t get angry! Hide your intuition. Don’t listen to it. Be attractive by not being yourself! Don’t get stretched. If you get stretched, get sucked and stitched back in.”
I just want you to know, Belly, they’re wrong, those messages. Contrary to what the images tell you, there is nothing wrong with you. Let me say it again as you have received those other brutal messages so many times.
Belly, there is nothing wrong with you.