After A Lifetime Of Struggle, Pregnancy Was The First Time I Felt Real Joy In My Body
I waited for the familiar shame and dread to set in, but they never did.
Content note: This essay discusses eating disorders.
From the moment my wife, Liz, and I decided to have a baby, we knew we were signing up for a logistical nightmare. There would be frequent visits to the fertility clinic, battles with insurance, and long conversations with lawyers — not to mention a big favor to ask of a dear friend we hoped would lend his sperm to the cause. We approached the task in typical lesbian fashion: with research, determination, and lots of processing of our feelings. Eventually, with an assist from science, it worked: I was pregnant.
That’s when I started to worry.
I’d been so focused on getting pregnant that I never thought about how it might feel to actually be pregnant. I’ve been in recovery for anorexia and bulimia for more than a decade, which made the idea of gaining weight — an inevitable part of growing a human — an uncomfortable prospect. For years, I equated my sense of self-worth with the numbers on the bathroom scale, convinced that if I were thinner, I would be happier, smarter, generally better. In high school, a psychiatrist once asked me what it would take for me to appreciate my body for all of the amazing things it could do, especially as a competitive figure skater. I’d just blinked at her; that was unfathomable.
Ultimately, with years of therapy and a caring support system, I got healthy. I threw away my scale, worked on political campaigns where staffers survived on pizza and beer, ate croissants in Paris, ran marathons. But once I got pregnant, the body-related horror stories started to pour in — not about childbirth or the nightmare of postpartum recovery, but about stretch marks, doctor’s office weigh-ins, and maternity clothes so unflattering it was better not to leave the house at all. A friend told me that a nurse instructed her to drink Gatorade to deal with her morning sickness, but that it had better be sugar-free so she wouldn’t gain extra weight (never mind that she was struggling to keep anything down). My own petite mom recalled how doctors and strangers alike freely remarked on how “huge” she had gotten — comments that still bother her more than three decades later.
The first obstetrician I saw confirmed my fears. At our appointment, I explained that I had struggled with an eating disorder in the past and didn’t want to know how much I weighed. She looked me up and down, seemingly assessing every ounce of fat on my body, and skeptically asked: “Which eating disorder?” When I told her, she frowned and shook her head. “It’s important to track your weight,” she said. “Because for some women, they should be gaining 25 to 30 pounds, but based on your BMI, that’s probably going to be less.”
Trying to ignore the sting of her words, I explained that however much weight she told me I should gain, I’d shoot for less. It would be the opposite of healthy. “Well we have to weigh you,” she replied incredulously, as though I had suggested otherwise. On her way out the door, she reminded me to download the practice’s app; its main function was tracking weight gain between visits.
I waited for the familiar shame and dread to set in, but they never did. One day, at an ultrasound, Liz and I saw the baby’s spine, all those tiny vertebrae. “My body made a spine,” I whispered, awe-struck.
I came home in tears, kicking myself for not managing to lose the weight I’d put on during the pandemic before getting pregnant. Liz wasn’t having it; she told me to ditch that doctor. Thanks to the good advice of a friend, I wound up at a midwifery practice with a nutritionist on staff and a commitment to mental health. Katie, my midwife, didn’t miss a beat when I shared my concerns. “I’m really sorry that happened to you,” she said. “Pregnancy can be complicated for people who have dealt with eating disorders. Here, our focus is on a healthy pregnancy, not numbers on a scale.” I let out a sigh of relief so loud it made us both laugh. (I found out later just how common my experience with the first doctor had been: According to one study, 65% of pregnant women have experienced weight stigma, with health care providers listed as some of the top offenders.)
In the weeks that followed, I found myself looking in the mirror every morning, eyeing my swelling stomach. My runs got slower by the day. I stopped being able to squeeze past Liz to get up from the dining room table. I waited for the familiar shame and dread to set in, but they never did. One day, at an ultrasound, Liz and I saw the baby’s spine, all those tiny vertebrae. “My body made a spine,” I whispered, awe-struck. I remembered that therapist from twenty years ago, and was stunned to realize that for the first time, I did, in fact, appreciate the miracle of my body.
When even my sweatpants started to dig in at the waist, I nervously ordered my first maternity dress. After I put it on, I ran into the room where Liz was working. “Look!” I shouted. “It’s built to accentuate my belly! See how the horizontal stripes draw the eye! And it’s stretchy, too — there’s room to get even bigger!” (She nodded politely and kept typing.) For the first time since I was 7 years old, I stopped sucking in my stomach. I bought clothes specifically designed to fit me: pants with elastic panels made to accommodate my middle, button-down shirts that didn’t gap over my breasts. “Is this how men feel all the time because they don’t have to be constantly self-conscious about their bodies?!” I asked a friend. “Probably!” she said.
I’d expected to feel awful about the fact that my body was changing in a way completely outside of my control, and the knowledge that it would probably never go back to the way it was. I’d felt slightly sick imagining it. But now that it was happening, I felt strangely, unexpectedly liberated. It was a simple equation: As the baby got bigger, so did I. I was gaining weight, and I was enjoying it.
None of this is to say my pregnancy was a delight from start to finish. I spent much of the first trimester hunched over a toilet (“morning” sickness is a complete misnomer). I had migraines, sciatica, round ligament pain, Pubic Symphysis Dysfunction, and, just for good measure, hormonal acne. And that’s the best possible outcome, the promised land after months of invasive medical tests not covered by insurance, estrogen patches, vaginal progesterone suppositories, trigger shots that had to be shipped on ice from a specialty pharmacy in Arizona, and paperwork that left Liz no choice but to fill out her information in the section marked “father.”
One stormy August afternoon, Liz and I welcomed our son, Remy, to the world. As I recovered from an emergency cesarean birth and we pivoted to the daunting task of raising a brand-new person, my relationship to my body became more complicated than ever, just as the stakes skyrocketed to astronomical heights. Reclaiming the sense of freedom I’d experienced during my pregnancy was a laughable thought while spending hours each day plugged into a breast pump. I cried the first time I saw my abdomen in the mirror, bruised, bleeding, and held together with surgical tape. I cried when I realized that my next marathon training season would have to start with working up to a slow walk to the bodega on the corner. The day I laced up my skates for a nostalgic spin around the rink only to discover that it felt as though my weight had been redistributed and my bones and muscles rearranged, I — you guessed it — cried again. (Come to think of it, I was hardly ever not crying; those postpartum hormones are a wild ride.)
When I think about the life I want for my son, I think about the love and admiration I felt watching my body expand to encompass all of his limitless possibilities.
At the same time, I was now responsible for someone else’s body. I was terrified of projecting my own struggles onto Remy, saddling him with a lifetime of anxiety around food and weight. If finding joy in my body wasn’t going to come as effortlessly as it had for those nine months, there was only one real option: to do the work.
So I tried to treat my healing body with compassion. I donated the clothes that didn’t quite fit me anymore and wore what made me feel good. Once I could make it past the bodega, Liz and I trained for the New York City Marathon and ran/walked it together, hand-in-hand. I read Virginia Sole-Smith’s Fat Talk and was overwhelmed by grief and rage — and hope.
When I think about the life I want for my son, I think about the love and admiration I felt watching myself expand to encompass all of his limitless possibilities. I think about the happiness of pulling on a maternity dress with a print so loud it made me laugh, never wondering whether or not it was flattering. I think about the relief of understanding for the first time that the problem was never my broken brain or deficient body — it was the rest of the world.
And that, somehow, seems easier to fix.
If you or someone you know has an eating disorder and needs help, call 988 or text “NEDA” to 741741 to be connected with a trained volunteer at Crisis Text Line. Another resource is the Alliance for Eating Disorders.