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.