Having a baby is a joyous occasion that can also be fraught with challenges for women who struggle with eating disorders or other issues related to body image. Dena Cabrera, PsyD, CEDS, is a licensed psychologist, clinical director for Rosewood Centers for Eating Disorders in Wickenburg and co-author of “The Mom in the Mirror: Body Image, Beauty and Life After Pregnancy.”
What inspired you to write a book specifically addressing post-pregnancy issues?
As a clinical psychologist licensed in eating disorders, I have treated hundreds of women and girls. After having my own children, I was highly attuned to the life transition of parenting and I thought, “Gosh! What a struggle it must be to honor your role as parent while suffering from an eating disorder.”
It is truly an all-consuming illness that can distract patients from everyday life and make relating to their children even more difficult. Mothers who struggle with this often have difficulty feeding their children. Cooking in general can be problematic—and they can find themselves feeling distracted from playing or bonding with their child.
But things can also go the other way. Some moms become too selfless and don’t take care of themselves because they expect perfection in everything they do. They forget to think of their own needs. They also tend to constantly compare themselves to other mothers and feel like they are somehow failing. There’s an old saying: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
The key is to find peace within themselves, to feel comfortable with being “good enough.”
Do these issues tend to develop after childbirth or do they usually stem from a pre-existing condition?
Eating disorders often start in the teenage years or when there are particularly drastic life transitions, such as the onset of puberty, going to middle school, starting high school or heading off to college. Motherhood is a major life change. Some mothers have dealt with their eating disorders for years. Others find it a new problem that arises after pregnancy.
Risk factors include genetics, perfectionism, low self-esteem and anxiety. There’s a strong association between body dissatisfaction and eating disorders. It can also be caused by a significant trauma that leads to shame.
What advice do you have for women when it comes to diet, exercise and a healthy attitude?
Every New Year’s resolution tends to be about dieting. But diets don’t work! People usually gain the weight back—and then some.
We need to get away from the notion that we need to diet…no skipping meals or restricting calories. Instead, look for lifelong changes that will give you some freedom with food without feeling guilty. It’s about getting your life back in balance with a healthy lifestyle: connecting with friends, making healthier choices because you want to feel better, exercise because you enjoy the movement of your own body. This is how you become healthier—physically and emotionally.
How does a mother avoid transferring her own struggles with food and body image to her children?
Be careful with your words. Don’t criticize your own body or others, especially your children’s. Take a hard look at your attitudes toward food and how you treat yourself. Your children are watching and listening. You need to be a role model of healthy behavior.
What is your message to moms struggling with these issues?
Recovery is possible. You just need to reach out for help. The key to recovery is finding meaning in the pain. Reconnecting with yourself and others is crucial. On the other side of recovery is a life of freedom—freedom from judgment from oneself and others.