I have found myself doing a strange kind of algebra, calculating what I need to lose to off-set what I might gain during pregnancy. What am I so afraid of?
As my husband slept on a beach towel beside me, I admired my hip bone and ribcage. Some women would hate to lose inches from their ass or drop a cup size but not me. I was happy—ecstatic, really—to be eight pounds thinner. It seemed like a last hurrah: How much longer would I be able to enjoy shrinking my body?
“We won’t always be able to just hit the beach on Thanksgiving,” I said as we walked to the car, flip-flops sandy and necks scorched. “This was so much fun.”
“It could be our family tradition,” he said, reminding me of something I’d said on a hike earlier that morning when I’d talked around the hazy possibility of maybe, someday, kind of almost being ready to have kids.
I tried not to get quiet as we drove away from the ocean, but, of course, I did. Whenever children are the implicit or explicit topic of conversation, I clam up. My worries are so manifold, they could span the beachfront: If we begin a family, will I regret having children? Will I feel like I’ve succumbed to some weird evolutionary pressure that I often feel my generation should’ve outsmarted? Will I have enough time to continue developing as a writer? Will I be able to think through the storm of hate I assume I’d feel in response to my body’s changes? And if I don’t have children, will I grow old and sad, ponderous as I ruminate over who I could’ve been as a mother?
Still, even though I sometimes say otherwise, I don’t like to think about adding a child to our family of two (OK, three with our dog). The inevitability of this decision makes me anxious. In fact, I had become so stressed about it that I’d unconsciously gone on a pre-pregnancy diet.
There was no cataclysmic thing that set it off—just a sense of the big picture calendar. The ticking of the clock is less a ticking than a toll. It’s not like we have firm plans, but every day I grow more aware that my time is running out. I am getting older, my husband is getting older and, if we want to have children, it will have to happen.
And so, a few months ago, when the busyness in my life was piling up, I let myself fall back into my favourite old habit: losing weight. I could invent some guiding principles (no gluten or sugar), but the truth is, my diet is simpler than all that. It’s just this: Eat as little as you can stand and work out as much as possible. On my best days, I run eight miles or do back-to-back classes at the gym, eat a handful of almonds and call it lunch, scrape the sauce off my noodles at dinner and throw away the pasta and avoid alcohol.
Pregnancy is the eating disorder trigger that no one ever talks about
None of this is unfamiliar to me. For the past 20 years, I’ve lived with an eating disorder. And for the most part, I’m better now—and happily so. I’m glad that I no longer purge. I count spending less than three hours a day on the elliptical machine a success (now, my gym trips are an hour). But I’d be lying if I said that the way I’m eating and exercising isn’t, in some ways, in line with my disorder.
And it felt good—it feels good. It’s comforting to return to a habit that has seen me through parts of three decades. It feels good to devote my time to shaping a series of rigorous schedules (writing, work and working out) and let food fall to the wayside. I like being someone who needs less. How would that work in motherhood, when my need for the love of a human stands to be a biological force that might sway me from my plans? How will that work when I don’t want to control another body? Or when I don’t want that potential person to control me?
I want my tiny parcel of space. I want to keep making myself proud. I want to keep eating, even if it’s the bare minimum. The behaviour is called restricting, and it is the clearest expression of control in the eating disorder. A restriction, after all, is a barrier, a boundary or a rule—in this case, self-imposed, self-designed, self-assessed and self-sustained. If you’ve had an eating disorder, you’re supposed to move beyond this rigidity. You’re not supposed to use a scale, and you’re certainly not supposed to keep one in your bathroom. And that’s the most frightening part of spending so much of my time making sure that I don’t eat. By restricting my calories and the hours I allow myself away from the gym, what else do I restrict? In other words, what else do I lose access to?
I wonder those things as I worry over hypotheticals. According to the calculators at MomJunction.com, BabyCenter.com, and BabyMed.com, based on my current weight, I should gain between 25 and 35 pounds during pregnancy. The chart output at BabyMed.com is the most terrifying. Week by week for 40 weeks, it spells out how many pounds I should mentally prepare myself to add.
How much of my weight loss is a weird sort of algebra? If I begin my pregnancy at my usual weight (x) less eight pounds (x – 8) and gain the minimum, then (x – 8) + 25 = x + 17. If the baby with its amniotic fluid comes out and takes away, on average, 11 pounds, then (x + 17) – 11 is really only x + 6. And x + 6 still puts me under where I was last spring.
Worrying about the numbers is easier than worrying about the physical changes: swellings, protrusions and tearings. When I was a girl, my mother would tell me how her shoe size grew with each child she had. In the realm of changes a body might undergo, this one seems about the most minor—but still.
I tell myself that the thinner I am before it happens, the less my body’s changes will ruin me. I believe that the less my body changes, the less my identity will change. I’m convinced that’s what I should be fighting for—preserving the me I’ve always been—when sometimes I wonder if that’s wrong and if parenthood means surrendering control. Does it mean letting life’s surprises tumble forth? Is it all about letting new traditions—like going to the beach on Thanksgiving—take hold, based on the new people that my husband and I become as parents to the new people that come into our lives?
It’s easier to focus on the physical. After all, our culture celebrates the miracle of gestation and the way women glow. The other day, I was on the treadmill and watched a very pregnant woman head toward the locker room. She looked gorgeous: glossy hair, luminous complexion, voluptuous curves.
I looked at her admiringly and then I upped the speed on my treadmill. If I ran fast enough, I wouldn’t just slim my thighs; I would, maybe, possibly, become another person, someone who was brave enough to be a mother.