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How pregnancy and breastfeeding cured me of disordered eating

At the end of high school, I gained a bunch of weight: 30 extra pounds on my already curvy frame. The weight gain was as a result of a period of anxiety attacks I’d suffered when I was 16, and food became an easy source of comfort, a way to suffocate my panicked thoughts and feelings.

Once my emotional life was a little more stable, I decided I wanted to lose the weight. I started exercising and trying to make healthier eating choices. But food had already become a charged issue for me — something to fill the empty (and often terrified) places inside — and I couldn’t easily make that association go away.

I continued to have extreme feelings about food, so I had to diet in an extreme way as well. I would skip breakfast (maybe eat a piece of fruit if I was starving), eat something very small and compact for lunch (a roll or a small muffin) and then — finally — a large, comforting dinner.

Numerous studies have shown that diets like these simply do not work — or they work for a time, and then participants slip back to their prior weight, many of them gaining more weight than they started out with. Even more disconcerting is that many of these diets actually lead to eating disorders.

More: What is disordered eating?

I fell into a pattern of what is called “disordered eating.” I almost never ate to fullness, depriving myself for most of the daytime hours, often getting to the point of feeling dizzy or unwell. My weight yo-yoed up and down, and that pattern of starving all day and eating all night continued throughout my 20s.

When I was 28, I became pregnant with my first child. It was clear early on that skipping meals was not an option. Doing so didn’t just result in passing dizziness — there were a couple of times in the first trimester that I actually fainted. Plus, I now had someone else who was dependent on my nutrition.

So I changed tactics, and happily used the pregnancy as a chance to eat whatever the heck I wanted. As stereotypical as it may sound, ice cream was my major craving, and I helped myself to a giant bowl (or two) of peanut butter chip every night. But I didn’t just wait to gorge in the evening, as I might have in the past. I’d have ice cream for lunch if I felt like it. Chocolate chip cookies worked equally well. I may have gone overboard, but it was like I was making up for years of regimented eating. I was free.

I gained almost 40 pounds, and about 25 of those pounds were still on my body after my baby was born. But then I was breastfeeding, which made me even hungrier than before. Sometimes I’d wake up in the middle of the night ravenous, and heat up a bowl of pasta. And if I waited too long to eat breakfast, I’d end up feeling light-headed. I needed all the energy I had to care for my son.

I breastfed my first son for several years, and although my caloric needs gradually diminished, I found that I never really did slip back into my disordered eating patterns. I wasn’t always happy with my weight, and I still did spend some time chastising myself for not being thin enough, but it was hard to focus on that too much when motherhood required so much of my attention.

I was honestly surprised that I continued to eat somewhat normally during those first years of motherhood, and when I became pregnant with my second child, I was worried that I might slip back into disordered thoughts again.

But I didn’t. During the pregnancy, I ate normally, truly, for the first time since I could remember. I trusted that I could eat what I needed, not more, not less. I gained an appropriate amount of weight, and wasn’t tempted to overeat like I did the first time.

That feeling of ease surrounding eating lasted beyond the pregnancy into the first years of my second son’s life, and still today, four years later. I eat what I want, and I stop when I’m done. I can eat one cookie without feeling the need to eat every cookie in the box.

I’m not exactly sure what caused the shift, but I think much of it had to do with the fact that for almost a decade, I was pregnant or breastfeeding. I nursed my first son until I became pregnant with my second son, and then continued to nurse my second son for several years after.

For years, I shared my body in some capacity with my children — physically, nutritionally and emotionally. Although it was exhausting sometimes, and I was prone to feeling irritated and “touched out,” I see that the experience was healing.

More: Talking about my weight hurt my sons more than I realized

My children relied on me for nutrition and for closeness. They never saw my body as something that took up too much space or was anything less than a warm place to snuggle. In fact, the softest, fleshiest places were where they found the most comfort and love.

I’ve grown to accept my body type. I am not meant to be skinny. No one in my family is. My grandmothers weren’t. Neither were my great-grandmothers. We are all busty, short, curvy women.

I want my sons to grow up with the model of a woman who has body confidence, who eats healthfully and freely. I want them to see a woman who snacks on a bowl of nuts and fruit, but who also steals licks of their ice cream cones — maybe even serving up a heaping dish for herself. It’s important for them to know that it is possible for women to feel this way because our culture will certainly tell them otherwise.

These years of motherhood have given me a new closeness to my own hunger — and not just the hunger that is tied to gestating and breastfeeding. It is my hunger, not based on fear or a need to extinguish that fear. It’s real, deep and deserving of care and attention.

Oh, and ice cream too. Peanut butter chip, to be precise.

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