Eating disorders and pregnancy

It's no secret to most sufferers that eating disorders don't magically go away when a person turns 25. Or 30. Or gets pregnant.

It is certainly possible to get pregnant while deeply engaged in an eating disorder (although situations like this are very unusual). So what does a future mother do? Many people are under the impression that women who are unable to stop ED behaviors during pregnancy are sacrificing the health of their unborn child so that they can "look good," which is frankly BS.

But women with an eating disorder--or even a history of one--are at very high risk during pregnancy. An interesting article titled "Dying to Be a Good Mom" from Brain Blogger examines this phenomenon, looking at risks during pregnancy and after the birth of the new baby. What makes this article stand out is not only its good look at medical risks, but also the conflicting feelings and ambivalence many new mothers with EDs face.

One thing struck me as a little ludicrous, however. "Researchers are now finding that mothers with eating disorders may place their children at increased risk for developing an eating disorder, also." Obviously, environment is important. But what puts the child most at risk is the genes predisposing the child to an eating disorder that were passed down from the mother.

Otherwise, I have to recommend it quite highly.

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anon mom said...

Pregnancy and the post-partum years were my most healthy and happy. I was neither depressed nor "desperate" to lose weight, and I didn't feel out of control of my body.

Conversely, I felt very powerful and in awe that my body could do such miraculous things, and I was humbled and honored to be my baby's "everything." I had decided early in my first pregnancy to trust that my body would do its thing, and that was a new and affirming experience for me.

Emotionally, during that period of time, I realized that, even if I turned out to be a really flawed mother, I was the only one my child/children would have and that they loved me.

I felt very important and a heightened sense of responsibility to the whole world, it seems. I think those nursing hormones nurtured a "feel-good" effect in me.

I truly marveled at and reveled in my new role, and I still appreciate so much that I was able to conceive and deliver children.

I was weight-restored and recovered for seven years, and it was during that time that we had children. I don't believe the anorexia ever "went away" but that it was deferred to the back-burner -- not unlike the conversations I often had with myself prior to hospital admissions: "Well, you can always go back to the eating disorder. You have the rest of your life to starve to death, so why not wait, give it a try, see if something can be better and different."

And for a long time, it was (better, that is). But "it" went away and the other "it" in my brain gathered back like a looming thunderstorm on the horizon. I could almost literally see and feel it coming and felt powerless to stop it.

I have spent a lifetime trying to focus on re-discovering the young mother I once was and whatever her "secret" to stability and wellness was.

I also believe that the privilege and responsibility of parenting has kept me alive. Life and interaction with my kids feeds me in a way that *has* been able to keep anorexia from completely consuming me. Just barely, sometimes.

I feel relieved to not have any daughters, and I am thankful for the male role-model my sons have in their father. I know that my behavior and physicality affect them and put them at risk for skewed ideas about women, size, food and maybe even their own bodies ... but so far, they are in their teens and thriving, without anxiety or obsessionaity.

I am fortunate in that I don't shrink from food shopping or preparation, and it doesn't bother me to cook or be around food and others (eating themselves or with me). I think that helps, b/c I know those issues are a struggle for some.

I am among those for whom the study pointed to motherhood as an overall positive experience with remission of symptoms. I wish that it had lasted, but some residual wellness stays with me, and it is the awareness of those good times and my ability to live well without anorexia or ED symptoms that motivates and encourages me to continue fighting for better now.

Libby said...

Pregnancy terrifies me, plain and simple. Even being around pregnant women weirds me out... as if it's catchy or something! At this point, I think that if I decided I ever wanted to raise children (which I really don't know), I would adopt. I'll leave room to change my mind...

But what I'd be curious to know is how many women with eating disorders opt not to have children at all (their "own" or adopted)... for fear of "passing them on"... however grounded that fear might be.

Libby (now with blog! baby blog, but blog all the same!)

Anonymous said...

Because I know you like them too--a couple free, full text articles. The first on the cycle of risk and the second on practical concerns of women with ED histories.

Anonymous said...

I had an eating disorder when I was a teenager and have struggled with some eating problems for a few years now (I'm in my 40s) related to losing weight because of food intolerances. I have two daughters. I loved being pregnant and love being a mom. I never feared having daughters. Sure, so many things can go wrong in life; I'm a worrier and I worry about many things for my children. But passing on EDs hasn't been one of them. I worry about driving, the economy, the war, the environment, people treating my children badly.... I could go on and on. But despite having had an ED and despite being a worrier, I love my children and being a mother more than anything else. I'm not saying that everyone should be a mom. But don't NOT be a mom just because you've had an ED.

Carrie Arnold said...

I'm sorry some people may have misinterpreted my post. I think pregnancy can be wonderful, whether you've had an ED or not. But I think that it's not always the case, and there are risks even if your ED is in the past.

Thanks for the links, Jane. I meant to link to one of them, but I was dead tired by the time I finished writing and so I forgot.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Carrie. I don't think that I misinterpreted your post. Of course, pregnancy can be risky. But it can be risky for many people and for many reasons totally unrelated to EDs, as well as reasons related to them. I don't think that anyone should go into parenthood with her or his eyes shut. It is a monumental commitment. My point was just that having an ED should not make a person afraid to have children. I'm much more concerned about my children's genetic risks for depression, anxiety, Alzheimer's disease, and strokes than I am about their genetic risks for EDs, not because I take a light attitude toward my own ED but because I know that there are genetic components to many disorders.

anon mom said...

I was just responding to the article itself and my personal experience, not trying to argue anything in your post.

I think EDs in pregnancy ... and in people with an ED history ... are inherently risky. It just requires diligent awareness of health, self and the physical and emotional health of the child (unborn, as an infant, and throughout life). A woman also might surprise herself in finding that she copes well.

I also think it's a brave thing for a woman to know if she doesn't want children and to choose not to bear them or raise them. There are also probably people who have biological children but couldn't/wouldn't "pass" an adoption home/background study.

Anonymous said...

Pregnancy can be risky for anyone. My sister (non-ED) developed preeclampsia and had to be on bed rest before and after her son was born. He weighed about 5 1/2 pounds when he was born. I had absolutely smooth and uneventful pregnancies and deliveries. Weight gains and labs were right on target; I was in labor for about nine hours with each child and didn't even to go the hospital until 3 hours before my second daughter was born. First child weighed 7 1/2 pounds, second weighed 8 pounds, 3 ounces. I don't think that I'm a perfect mom, but I do think that my experience with having an ED has given me a lot of insight into emotions and psychology that many parents don't have.

Carrie Arnold said...

I guess part of this post stems from the fact that many people think pregnancy is supposed to be "wonderful"- and indeed it can be. And I'm glad it has been for so many of you.

But I also think it's important to balance that with the fears that many women have, fears that can be compounded by an ED.

Oh, and the last anon- I read research that pre-eclampsia may be an autoimmune reaction. Random little tidbit. My mom had that with my bro, and she has no history of an eating disorder, though other people in our family do. I don't think it's related, though.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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