Me, My Son, and My Eating Disorder

I had the honor of appearing on a HuffPostLive segment with Jennifer Rhodes where we discussed various topics related to pregnancy, parenting, and eating disorders. You can view that segment here. I invited Jennifer to write a guest blog post for Exchanges, and she wrote this wonderful piece sharing her experiences of being the mother of a boy. Thanks to Jennifer for sharing her very honest story with our readers. You can read more by Jennifer on pregnancy and eating disorders on the website Babble.  -Cynthia Bulik, PhD

*Trigger caution: We care deeply about the well-being and comfort of the readers of this blog. If you are prone to being triggered by reading about others’ eating disorder-related thoughts or experiences, you may choose to exercise caution and/or seek support before reading this post. The take-home message is very important; however, the author is explicit about her struggles.

Me, My Son, and My Eating Disorder

I awoke in a draped-off recovery area, groggy from an unplanned C-section. Due to a dramatic plummet in my blood’s platelets during labor, the procedure had to be performed under general anesthesia. Next to me in a bassinet, my newborn baby slept soundly.

“Is my baby ok?” I called out, half-panicking, to anyone who was within earshot.

“He’s perfect,” answered a nurse, making her way through the curtains.

“He? It’s a boy?” I had resisted the urge to find out the sex of my baby, instead wanting to be surprised.

“It’s a boy!” she smiled.

It’s a boy. I can stop fighting my anorexia, I remember thinking. I don’t have to worry about passing my eating disorder on to a boy. Sure, boys aren’t immune to disordered eating but, I figured, he would not be nearly as prone as a girl to inheriting my preoccupation with thunder thighs, muffin-tops and a bloated belly. I’d continue the sound eating practices I’d established during pregnancy so as to stay physically healthy but even if the neuroses lingered, with a boy, nothing would be passed on. It’s safe to stop fighting, I decided.

I decided wrong. While the likelihood of a boy developing an eating disorder is statistically lower than that of a girl, I hadn’t factored in one very important fact: regardless of whether or not my son developed an eating disorder himself (which, admittedly, he still could), the way I sized myself up was going to have a lasting impact on the way my son sized up other women.

After my son was born I was able to drop the pregnancy weight rather quickly; when I was discharged from the hospital I had only 5 pounds left to lose. However, even after those extra pounds were gone, my weight had redistributed and my body was irreversibly changed. I suddenly had love handles, which I’d never had and did not love. My stretched-out stomach bloated to second trimester-proportions after eating. My still-swollen c-section scar formed a sausage-like ridge, visible under my jeans.

I spent many days weeping over the loss of my anorexic figure, which I knew I’d never regain, not just because of the pregnancy but because it wasn’t in the best interest of my son (or myself) to starve down to a “comfortable” size.  In those early days I’d spend naptimes scrutinizing my new body in great detail, pinching, poking and prodding the unwelcome lumps that were now a permanent part of me. “I’m a fat cow,” I’d announce to my husband several times a day. “My body is ruined.” And while I would never take back the birth of my son in exchange for my pre-baby body, I was still grappling with how to accept what I now looked like.

“You’ve got to stop talking like that in front of him,” my husband would say. And I knew I had to, but I couldn’t. And besides, I rationalized, what’s the worst that could happen? He grows up acknowledging that his mom has an imperfect body? It’s the truth, after all. What’s so wrong with that?

It took nearly a year for me to realize what’s so wrong with that. Just as my attitudes about other things are going to influence my son’s thoughts and opinions, my attitudes about weight and what a woman should look like are going to color the way he sees the world. In essence, what I had been inadvertently preaching is that a woman’s value is inversely proportional to her size. And while I was holding myself to unhealthy and unrealistic standards, I would never want to teach my son to be as hard on other women (and, for that matter, himself and other men) as I am on myself.

This realization has ushered in an entirely new feeling of responsibility. My eating disorder is not exclusively “mine” anymore. As a parent, the boundaries of disordered eating blur; the risk of dysfunction spilling over into one’s children of either sex— in even in the most abstract and obscure ways—is always there.

So, while I still struggle with my appearance, I am taking a more proactive role in conquering the negative self-talk and the looming thoughts that are detrimental to my recovery. I would do anything for my child, and this is my chance to prove it. That starts with acknowledging that just because ‘it’s a boy’, it doesn’t mean my fight with anorexia is over; really, it means it’s just beginning.

By: Jennifer Rhodes

Photo by: Marina Caprara