Feeding my daughter completely changed my relationship with food (and my body)

Rachel McRady

THE WASHINGTON POST – When I was admitted to the hospital, a midwife handed me a cornflower blue blanket. It was the first of March in London, and my backless gown wasn’t doing the trick. As my husband, Caleb, draped it over my shoulders, he declared, “That’s a stunning colour on you! No, really!” It’s a phrase he would repeat throughout my 19-hour labour, eliciting exaggerated eye rolls from me before the pain got so bad that rolling my eyes took more energy than I could manage.

After our daughter, Iona, was born, Caleb plucked the blanket that had gotten me through those severe, all-in-my-back contractions and stuffed it clandestinely into our hospital bag. “You just look so good in it!” he insisted.

“You’re weird,” I replied, secretly cherishing the compliment, thrilled he still seemed attracted to me after what he had just witnessed.

Blanket hidden in our bag, we were transferred to a communal room, and I began trying to nurse Iona. After losing more blood than normal during delivery, I tried desperately to get my screaming little girl to latch in a cramped cubicle sectioned off by curtains with seven other families just feet away. A brusque midwife informed me I was “starving” my child and ordered Caleb to go buy formula immediately. Nerves frayed, we both choked back tired sobs as we asked questions to prove we hadn’t failed as parents in the first day. When Caleb returned, the midwife snatched the bottle and shoved it into Iona’s mouth. My body had failed her.

That first week, I navigated the gruelling process of trying to nurse under the constant fear of failure. The blue blanket stayed in the living room of our small London flat when we brought Iona home. It sat there as a reminder of my husband’s compliment, cheering me as I sat shirtless with savoy cabbage leaves on my breasts because I had read they help ease the tenderness of milk coming in. I had deep purple stretch marks and an inner tube of fat around my middle. I was surprised by how little I cared.

Since adolescence, I had been self-conscious of my body, comparing myself with skinnier friends in photos, trying a variety of extreme diets and constantly seeking positive attention from family members who commented on the slightest weight fluctuation. I weighed myself daily, logging each tenth of a pound obsessively. Now, I was the heaviest I had ever been without a baby in my belly, and I barely even looked in the mirror.

My self-worth was no longer defined by how much weight I was losing; it was defined by how much Iona was gaining. I tried the “rugby” hold, the cross-body and lying-down nursing positions. I worked with a breast-feeding specialist who suggested I tie a scarf under my breast and around my shoulder to hoist it up and offer easier access. Before, I had been self-conscious of Caleb being there when I breast-fed; now, I was asking him to film as midwives positioned me for a good latch, watching the footage back like a high school football coach preparing for a championship. The first time we had a truly successful feed, I proudly snapped a photo of Iona passed out, tummy full. It’s the one moment of genuine happiness I remember from that first week at home. When I wasn’t nursing, burping or changing diapers, I was pumping five times a day, first filling our fridge with milk before packing the freezer until we ran out of space.

Meanwhile, despite what everyone told me, my baby weight did not just fly off from breast-feeding. I lost 10 pounds (only two pounds more than my daughter weighed at birth), and plateaued there for months. Stretchy pants and loose nursing tops became my daily uniform, as I watched other moms in my birthing group slim down.

We moved back to the States and I went back to my job as an entertainment writer, where I spent my days penning articles about celebrities stepping out “just two weeks after having a baby!” I waxed on about their incredible bodies with phrases like “What bump?” and “Total transformation!” while I sat at my desk, rolls stacked on top of each other. I was starting to hear the whisperings of that familiar critical voice telling me it was time to lose the weight. Reviewing photos of my daughter’s first day at the pool, all I could see were my own imperfections in a swimsuit. Gone were the carefree months of not judging myself by my looks. I no longer had a newborn. I was fresh out of excuses for my size.

These unhealthy thoughts, luckily, coincided with me transitioning Iona to solid food. I blended fresh purées, explored baby recipe books and delighted as she took to new foods. When she picked up zucchini and shoved it into her mouth, I felt happier than any time I had lost weight and someone had noticed. Iona’s personality began to shine. She would make a pained face at a sour orange slice or get bug-eyed and slam her hands onto the tray with excitement upon trying her first grits.

I was beginning to view food not as something that makes you fat or skinny, but rather as nourishment for my daughter’s body. I started second-guessing the junk food I was eating, thinking about the importance of giving Iona proteins, vegetables and fruits. If I wanted those nutrients for her, why didn’t I want them for myself? One day, I whipped up some avocado toast and scrambled eggs. With the first bite, Iona’s eyes widened even further as she exclaimed, “Yum!”

It was her fourth word, after “Mama,” “Dada” and “hi.”

I began to approach my own eating with Iona in mind. I ate the things I truly enjoyed, trying to keep the portions in check. For every Chick-fil-A breakfast, I would try a new recipe. In December, I didn’t weigh myself once, allowing for holiday indulgences – something I hadn’t done in years. I tried to appreciate how food was fuelling my body so I could have energy to take care of my growing girl. I also tried to enjoy the treats; seeing Iona grin and reach for more after her first bite of ice cream was further confirmation that she is, in fact, my child.

Mostly, I thought about the day Iona reaches an age where she can understand a disgusted look I make at my reflection or an offhand disparaging comment. I want that self-hate to die with me. I want my daughter to love herself, to eat good foods and to have no shame about her thrill in doing so.

Iona recently turned one, and I have lost more weight. I’ve also gained some back and lost more again. And all of that is okay. These days, the blue blanket sits folded on the top shelf of my closet, a reminder of our journey. I no longer need its comfort. Sitting down to dinner with my daughter is comfort enough.