Postpartum relapse: reaching towards a nourished motherhood

After twelve years of daily struggle with food, I could finally say in my mid-twenties that I was approaching something like recovery from my eating disorder. Countless hours of therapy, hard work, hospitalizations, some great escapes from treatment programs, and the deep love of those who cared for me, cemented into a kind of healing I could hold on to. Lifting heavy weights with other super strong woman shifted my focus away from the ever elusive “thin enough” and introduced me to a body that could exist boldly and lean fully into all the joys and challenges life brought my way. 

Despite all the ground I had gained, I looked ahead and wondered how I would navigate pregnancy and postpartum. Something within me remained truly terrified of how much “losing control” that would require of me.

I found myself surprised a number of years later, pregnant with my first daughter, and much more comfortable than I ever imagined possible. While I wasn’t anxiety or behaviour free, I wasn’t suffering. I was learning new things about the purpose and mystery of this body I had abandoned so many times. I was hatching plans for how my daughter would never hear the whisper of diets in our house, or be subject to comments on her size, or well-meaning trips to Weight Watchers when she was ten years old. 

It was in the first few weeks following her birth that I was ambushed. Knee-deep in the familiar muddy waters of my mind, I added anxiety about my body to the growing list of anxieties I had for my baby and how I was caring for her.  

With my partner returned to work, I scrambled to find a way to use the bathroom while looking after a newborn, let alone fix myself something to eat. Nothing seemed within my control except the food I did not consume. My thoughts about how to make up for the exercise I didn’t have time to do were intrusive and painful. Even though I felt terribly isolated, I also felt watched and judged in my mothering, just like I had always felt watched and judged in my body. Before I slipped much further into this hungry shell of a human, I knew I needed to call my old coping mechanisms into question and get help. 

The earth-shattering physical and spiritual transformation into motherhood represents one of the purest dichotomies I have ever encountered. Blissed out and desperate, totally whole, completely lost, grieving one moment and then knowing in the next you would never go back now anyway. In short, it is a perfect storm of stressors. 

As I reflect on what the key stressors were for me, I noticed how similar cultural constructs of a “perfect” motherhood mirrored culturally ingrained expectations of woman’s bodies. I saw slim and supple postpartum mothers in my feed, getting back to business, wearing it all so well, making my midnight tears look like ungratefulness. Deep down I was terrified of failure and desperately needed to win in this one way.  

Breastfeeding, and the pressure that surrounds it, is also identified as a trigger for relapse. I found this to be the case for myself. I do not think it is a coincidence that the intensely physical act of feeding our babies brings up all sorts of complex questions and experiences around the meaning we attach to food, the time we can make for ourselves, and how we find rest and restoration in some of the most depleting months of our lives. 

How could I meet the demands of another when I could barely meet my own? Yet it is in this struggle, this experience of near total selflessness, that we need to resolve our doubts about what we deserve. As mothers we are meant to be at the table too, sharing deeply in the nourishment and enjoyment we wish for and provide for our children. By modelling passionate care for ourselves we invite our children into the freedom we always longed for, to be completely loved for who we are and emboldened to love others.   

Shedding our old identities is painful and slow. The old me isn’t going without a fight. No, kicking and screaming she reminds me of how she helped me survive all that rejection and sorrow in the past. It takes work but I tell her I don’t need that kind of surviving anymore; I need a fresh and messy thriving.     

What I want most of all for other mothers is for them to let go of the shame that keeps so many of us silent around these issues. What if people think I am depriving my baby of food because of my illness? What if I am depriving my child? Are they crying and waking because my supply is low? Why can’t I get better? 

All those worries can fill the silent nights with shame, when what we need is connection and reassurance. To be fed as we are feeding. 

I am here to say that you are not failing mama when you are asking for help, and you are far from alone.

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