I am a reproductive and perinatal psychiatrist and a mom of three kids -- ages 8, 5 and 7 months old -- and I know I'm not the only one juggling between being spending quality time with my kids and husband, working, being involved with my kids' school, and finding a balance that also allows me to support my passions. Many moms are familiar with some form of my experience, trying to make it work in a way that hopefully is fulfilling and, dare I say, enjoyable.
Kate, a composite of several of the women in my practice, is a healthy, active woman. To many, she is on the thinner side of normal, but she doesn't see herself that way. She has always scrutinized her curves, exercised a bit harder and eaten a bit less when her clothes felt snug. Now, Kate is pregnant. She and her husband have been planning this baby, and she has enjoyed sharing the news with family and friends. As Kate's pregnancy has progressed, she has become more self-conscious, more aware that her thighs and butt are growing along with her belly. Kate loves the idea of being mom to this new baby but is increasingly anxious about what motherhood is doing to her body.
Kate enjoyed her first few OBGYN visits. She was excited to see the baby on ultrasound and to hear her baby's heartbeat. She still feels this way, but she focuses increasingly on the first part of the visit: the weigh in.
She eats particularly lightly before her appointment so that her weight isn't "too high." She has taken to weighing herself daily at home to know how much her weight is changing. She agonizes over the number staring back at her, and then at the person she sees in the mirror. She doesn't see her bump as a positive representation of her baby anymore, but now perceives it as one of her growing imperfections, and the joy in her pregnancy is slipping away.
Kate continues to eat because she knows she has to for her baby, yet she does so in a more calculated way, with her waistline in mind. She begins to think a lot about how she will lose her 'baby weight' postpartum, planning diet and exercise regimens to start shortly after she delivers. Social media fuels her obsession, and she finds some solace in knowing she is not alone in her growing fear of her body and obsession with her weight. Yet, she also finds herself growing more unnerved each time she sees that others have gained less weight than she has, and look slimmer, or "healthier."
If one more person tells Kate she is having a boy because her face is getting round, or a girl because her whole body is expanding, she thinks she may burst into tears. Or worse.
No matter how much women might love being pregnant, this is one aspect of pregnancy that most could do without: weight gain. And frankly, why wouldn't pregnant women resist gaining what feels like so much weight? Yes, a growing fetus requires nutrients to survive, and fine, some extra padding beyond the enlarged belly is expected, but who gave the world permission to talk about a mom's body, her body, all day long?
The thing is, as soon as a woman's baby bump appears, even the most well-bred among us seem to lose all their manners, not to mention their common sense. Everyone from strangers to loved ones feel compelled to touch a woman's belly, and provide unsolicited advice on all things related to gestation, including weight gain and postpartum weight loss.
Our society's obsession with women's bodies, especially when it comes to pregnancy and postpartum, is not just offensive, but may also reinforce a woman's insecurities rather than support her experience.
Not many women would sign on to a public journey of weight-gain, where everyone from strangers to loved ones helps her clock the pounds. After all, women are pushed from a young age to strive for the perfect (translation: thin) body and encouraged to go to unhealthy lengths to achieve that goal. This obsession with thinness begins early with over 60% of elementary-aged girls expressing concerns about their weight, and 81% of 10 year-olds expressing fear of being fat. The media glorifies being thin, with only 5% of American women possessing the body type portrayed as ideal in mainstream advertising. 91% of college age girls report dieting to control their weight; 35% of dieters will develop 'pathological dieting,' and 20-25% will develop partial to full blown eating disorders. Suffice it to say, body image issues are rampant, and women more frequently than not are hyper-aware of their bodies and how they measure up, so to speak.
So, what changes when a woman is pregnant? Not enough.
The women I work with are willing, in fact eager, to engage in motherhood as soon as they find out they are pregnant; they make countless life changes to try to ensure their future baby's health. Yet, they are conflicted by the messages they receive from people ranging from strangers to loved ones to be careful not to gain too much weight or they will 'never be the same,' and by the anxieties that often arise as the numbers on the scale edge up.
Women are caught in a bind between their maternal instinct to protect their babies by eating well in pregnancy, and their fear of losing control of their bodies in the process.
Obsessing over every pound and focusing on losing the "baby weight" is a tempting way to deflect from anxieties about new motherhood; society reinforces these concerns every day, with every comment and every headline about baby bumps and post baby bodies. Indeed, the message that weight is the most important concern is hammered home over and over. Yet, this is not what we as a society, let alone as women and mothers should be thinking about. By obsessing over the external, superficial concerns, we lose touch with the much deeper, internal strength we call upon to grow, give birth to, and raise our babies.
If you are pregnant, please, try not to be so hard on yourself. Don't miss out on your pregnancy by worrying about a few pounds. And everyone else -- please, give new moms a break. Don't "feed into" her anxiety. Instead, give her something good to eat, and remind her that she's glowing.
To learn more about what I do, please see my website: www.carlysnydermd.com