Last night, at around 8 p.m., I opened the fridge to find that there was just about enough milk left in the container to fill one glass. With a box of cereal in my hand, I threw my head back and let out a sigh, because that last bit of milk belonged to my 3-year-old for breakfast in the morning. She never explicitly claimed the milk, of course, but I knew how the morning would play out if she didn't have it. So, I grabbed a few potato chips and called it dinner. This scenario has played itself out, in various forms, nearly every day since quarantine started, and this habit of putting myself last isn't doing my mental or physical health any favors. Being a mom in quarantine has made it harder to love my body.
Trigger warning: This article contains details about eating disorders which may be triggering to some.
I spent more than a decade of my life hating the way I looked and struggling with disordered eating and exercising. I’d step on the scale once, twice, sometimes three times in a row each morning and the number that flashed back at me would determine my attitude for the day. Meals and snacks were carefully planned and portioned out as I tried to stay under 1,000 calories total for the day, 1,200 if I ran my usual three miles. I was constantly hungry, and after a few days of the rigorous restriction, I’d eventually give in to the hunger and binge. Then, the cycle would start all over.
It took five years of therapy to bring me to a place where I make my mental health a priority and rely on my body to tell me what it needs, whether it’s food, rest, or some yoga. And it only took three months of quarantine to blow my carefully constructed recovery to pieces.
Like so many other moms, I've been working from home full time alongside my husband while we tag-team childcare. Everything is a priority, so I skip meals in an effort to complete other, seemingly more important tasks. Then, by the time my girls are in bed for the night, I'm too exhausted to make anything for myself beyond a bowl of cereal or frozen pizza.
It took five years of therapy to bring me to a place where I make my mental health a priority... And it only took three months of quarantine to blow my carefully constructed recovery to pieces.
My inability to prioritize myself has manifested in a number of ways, but the one I have the hardest time sitting with is the effect it's had on my body image. Lately, when I look in the mirror, all I can see are flaws. While I know most people are complaining about having put on a few extra pounds in quarantine, my body has had the opposite reaction. All those skipped meals have caused me to lose weight, but with the missed workouts my muscle tone has started to wither, too. I pinch the skin on my now-softer tummy, stare with frustration at my thighs that are now simultaneously thinner and more saggy. I sigh with pain and exasperation as I analyze my shrinking rear-end, where there is so little muscle that it physically hurts to sit in hard chairs because my tailbone will dig into them.
A negative body image can lead to a number of secondary mood problems, reported Psychology Today, including depression and anxiety, when the pandemic has already put everybody at increased risk of developing depression and anxiety. Maybe that's why I can feel myself becoming more anxious about my appearance, pulling out the scale more often and worrying about the way I look in my bathing suit as I play with my kids in our blow-up pool. This anxiety is starting to steal what little joy I have left.
I'm not alone, either. A friend of mine, a working mom with 1-year-old twins, tells me she's been so physically ill throughout quarantine that she's lost an unhealthy amount of weight, but can't find time to get to the doctor. In a parents group on Facebook, one woman wrote, "I am still paying my monthly yoga membership for online classes, and I haven't attended more than one since March." Another friend says she's living off her kids' scraps, grabbing a few goldfish crackers here and there. Still another says she's lucky to get five hours of sleep in a night because she's up worrying about whether or not to homeschool her rising kindergartner. Each gets a daily physical reminder of their situation when they look in the mirror because, instead of seeing a woman who is still standing during a global pandemic, all they can focus on are the dark circles under their eyes from exhaustion or the way their body looks in clothes that a few months ago fit just fine.
For me, my reflection highlights the fact that even if I ticked off every item on my to-do list for the day, the one thing I didn't accomplish was taking care of myself. My muscles appear to be non-existent, serving as a reminder that my sagging clothes and decreased weight have nothing to do with health, but rather quite the opposite. My cheeks are sunken in and my skin is dull. It's infuriating.
It's also a way of being self-centered while neglecting myself. I get so caught up in my body dysmorphia that I don't realize how it affects the people I now spend every minute of every day with. When I make an unkind comment about my body in front of my husband, I can see the look of sadness and helplessness in his eyes. I can't read his mind, but I know it's filled with worry for me and for our two impressionable daughters. I can also see his frustration every time he suggests I do some yoga and I snap back, sarcastically asking which essential obligation I should remove from my list in order to make room for the physical activity I love.
My reflection highlights the fact that even if I ticked off every item on my to-do list for the day, the one thing I didn't accomplish was taking care of myself.
At the beginning of all of this, I believed that quarantine, and my associated survival-mode behaviors, would be short-lived. As the coronavirus rages on, it's become clear that this is everyday life for the foreseeable future, and I need to find ways to rejuvenate myself and avoid new triggers that have developed in this environment.
I'm not sure where to begin. What priority on the ever longer list do I drop to slot myself in? Perhaps it starts with a promise to make my own lunch first, even if it means eating it while I make the kids their food. Maybe I cut my 3-year-old’s 20 minute bedtime routine in half, then turn on a podcast to drown out her tantrum as I take those precious extra 10 minutes for myself. If nothing else, I can set aside one minute of each day to gently remind myself that my protruding collar bones and cracked lips from dehydration are proof of how hard I'm fighting to keep my family safe and healthy.
None of us know how long this pandemic will last or what the next phase of our lives will look like. But I know that making myself a priority needs to feel normal, no matter what's going on around me. When it's 8 p.m., and there's just enough milk for one bowl of cereal, I need to feel like it's okay to grab a spoon. When I look in the mirror, I want to see a woman who takes care of herself, not just her family. A woman who, despite everything going on in the world outside, is doing more than just surviving.
If you or someone you know has an eating disorder and needs help, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237, text 741741, or chat online with a Helpline volunteer here.