Christina Kelly struggled for years with eating difficulties, but her relationship with food worsened during pregnancy. Here she tells us what happened…
How long have you had a difficult relationship with food?
Since being a teenager I have struggled with my eating. I was admitted for inpatient treatment for anorexia when I was at university and continued to struggle following my admission.
I spent the following decade trying to live with – and manage – eating difficulties in various guises, asking for help and receiving different types of support including medication, counselling and peer support.
Did it get worse when you first became pregnant?
Despite support from services, family and friends and my husband (a friend since university), along with a decade of insight and awareness from therapy, I was wholly unprepared for the demands and changes of pregnancy.
I didn’t trust my body. I doubted its capabilities and I had never managed to look after it. The thought of a baby growing inside my body terrified me. How could I possibly look after a baby if it was inside me?
"I didn’t trust my body. I doubted its capabilities and I had never managed to look after it"
I quickly found my eating disorder behaviours increased in severity, despite my deep worry about the impact on my baby. Morning sickness was particularly challenging, along with appetite changes and cravings. My previous ‘safe’ foods seemed repellent. Foods that had always been forbidden by the eating disorder suddenly seemed appealing. I didn’t know what I was ‘allowed’ to eat anymore and felt paralysed and confused.
Smells became intolerable, and sometimes I was so nauseous I was sick. I became increasingly unsure of what was acceptable and what was an eating disorder behaviour. I distrusted my thoughts, feelings and body more than I ever had done.
Did you get any help regarding your eating disorder during the pregnancy?
I desperately wanted help and asked for it repeatedly. I spoke to my midwife at my booking-in appointment. She reassured me I would be fine and gave me leaflets about foods to avoid in pregnancy. This just added to my confusion and increased the severity of my intrusive thoughts.
I was continually worried about the impact of my eating on the baby and asked for a referral back to the Community Mental Health Team. But when I had those appointments, I was told that concerns about the baby and development should be discussed with the midwife.
At each antenatal appointment, I saw a different midwife. Along with time constraints of clinics, I struggled to have a meaningful conversation and was asked to speak to my Community Mental Health Team. I felt like I was trying to coordinate my own care.
My eating deteriorated and became increasingly chaotic and I was referred to a specialist eating disorder service. I was seen as an outpatient but continued to deteriorate and was admitted as an inpatient. As an inpatient the focus was on eating and I spent a lot of time crying and ashamed.
"The day I was discharged from the inpatient unit I had my first NCT class. I felt like I’d been catapulted from one world to another…I felt like an alien"
The day I was discharged from the inpatient unit I had my first NCT class. I felt like I had been catapulted from one world into another and sitting in a room of what I perceived to be healthy mums and their perfect partners, I felt like an alien.
We were invited to talk about our hopes and fears for parenthood but I could find no way to articulate what was going on, that I’d woken up that morning in an eating disorder unit and felt like a selfish mother who wasn’t looking after her baby in the womb.
I didn’t feel able to say that I was certain I would suffer from postnatal depression as I was already on anti-depressants, or say that I was scared my bones would shatter in childbirth because of osteopenia (and so couldn’t be reassured that it wasn’t true).
I felt increasingly guilty and unable to communicate, but absolutely desperate for my baby to be born and for the misery of pregnancy to end.
How did you feel after your first child was born?
When my daughter was born it was like an epiphany, the changes in hormones and the release from pregnancy were such a relief. I felt able to fully feel love for the first time in my life and felt like my heart and soul had been cracked open. I felt able to manage my eating and breastfeed, and my identity as a new mother brought me so much joy.
After about nine months cracks began to show. I started training as a midwife and away from the safety and security of my role at home with my baby, difficulties with my eating started to develop again. The changes were gradual and at first I didn’t notice.
What happened during your subsequent pregnancies?
Rather than things improving when I became pregnant for the second time, things got worse. My eating deteriorated rapidly and my mood plummeted. This time admission to the eating disorder unit was swifter, and once admitted I was told I couldn’t leave.
When my daughter came to visit I felt so desperately sad that this is where her mummy was that I struggled to connect with her. My son was induced a month early and we stayed in transitional care for a week. Once we were home and we together as a family, I felt hopeful again.
When I became pregnant with my third child we had moved house, which meant a new GP and new mental health care team.
My mood was lower in this pregnancy and my eating similarly difficult. However with support from the Children’s Centre I had a family support worker who believed in me, and my ability to manage my mental health and be the mother I wanted to be.
My third child was due to be induced but came of his own accord, beautiful and healthy.
What advice would you give to other pregnant or new mums struggling with an eating disorder?
One of the most difficult things was feeling like I was the only person who had an eating disorder whilst pregnant, and feeling alone made things worse. Peer Support helped me so much; talking to people who had similar experiences was such a relief and I felt understood and I would recommend Peer Support groups, whether online or in person.
"Struggling with eating isn’t an indication of your love for your child; it’s a sign that you need support and kindness"
I really needed support, compassion and encouragement, although I didn’t feel I deserved it and was scared of being judged. I’m so grateful for the care and support I did receive and I would encourage any woman to ask for help, and keep asking, and not struggle on her own: what you are thinking and feeling is important and deserves attention and compassion. I would also emphasise that struggling with eating isn’t an indication of your love for your child or your ability to be a wonderful mother; it’s a sign you are struggling and need support and kindness from people around you.
I would also encourage partners to ask for help and would recommend Skills-based Caring for a Loved One with an Eating Disorder (Treasure, Smith and Crane); it made such a difference to us as a family.
Our support line offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby and general enquiries for parents, members and volunteers: 0300 330 0700.
We also offer antenatal courses which are a great way to find out more about birth, labour and life with a new baby.
You might find attending one of NCT's Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.