16&P: Pregnancy, anorexia, and lacking support from mom

I haven’t blogged about 16 and Pregnant in a while because the themes have tended to overlap, but this week’s episode proved much different than any previous episode in this or any other season. This week we met Kayla, who not only has an unsupportive mom to deal with, but also an eating disorder that makes her pregnancy very tumultuous.

“Don’t get fat, don’t get fat, you’re gross”

These are the words that Kayla said run through her mind whenever she thinks about eating. Kayla was hospitalized and then diagnosed with anorexia when she was 13 years old, and her pregnancy proved challenging because of the weight she gained. Although doctors were continuously telling her throughout her pregnancy that she was not gaining the appropriate amount of weight, Kayla skipped meals constantly and at one point was hospitalized for pre-term labor relating to dehydration.

Kayla explained to her friends that even though they saw a baby bump when they looked at her, she saw flab and would stand in front of the mirror crying. “Only fat people get stretch marks,” she said, concerned that the stretch marks she was getting were a sign that she was overeating or overweight (stretch marks are a very common side effect of pregnancy and are often even hereditary). She knew that she had to feed the baby, but her eating disorder was always in the back of her mind.

Not only was Kayla struggling with the judgment many teens receive for being pregnant, but she was also concerned about the judgment people would give her because of her weight. She went to the beach with her friends but didn’t want to wear a bikini because she was afraid people would assume she was overweight — and if they did think she was pregnant, then she might receive dirty looks for being a pregnant teen.

Being pregnant changes a woman’s body substantially — hips widen, breasts get larger, and there’s significant weight gain. Average size women should gain about 25 to 35 pounds, underweight women should gain about 28 to 40 pounds, and overweight women should gain about 15 to 25 pounds. For someone who has an eating disorder and has body image issues already, it’s difficult to deal with a rapid, dramatic, and most importantly uncontrollable physical transformation like that. There’s a constant fight between knowing the growing baby needs nourishment and the desire to control the weight gain, and that’s something that is rarely seen on TV but something many women struggle with during pregnancy.

A mom who’s MIA 

And though her friends were supportive and reminded her she obviously had a baby bump and not flab, that she didn’t look fat, and that she needed to feed her baby, she lacked the support system that she yearned for and that would’ve helped her the most: from her mom.

After being hospitalized for dehydration, Kayla saw a nutritionist about her eating habits (this is just one important recommendation for pregnant women who have been diagnosed with eating disorders). The doctor told her not to eat alone because it creates an air of secrecy around eating and because having people eat with you makes it more difficult to avoid meals, and also that they should have family dinners. Kayla reiterated this to her mom, who made one home-cooked meal — and that was it.

Kayla’s mom was constantly spending time with her boyfriend instead of Kayla, and she was constantly avoiding having to play the mother role when it came to helping Kayla through her pregnancy. With an eating disorder alone Kayla needs a solid support system, and adding her pregnancy makes a support system essential.

But Kayla’s mom resists being that support system; she makes lots of promises and then breaks them. Or, like when Kayla asks her mom for advice about her pregnancy, what she should expect, what she needs to buy for the baby, and says she is really overwhelmed, her mom suggests that she visit a support group. Kayla practically begs her mom throughout the episode to help her and offer guidance, but her mom doesn’t want to get involved. “I think it’s all going to fall into place,” her mom replied.

I suspect this is because her mom was a teen mom, and she doesn’t want to be sucked into raising another child. I think she stays with her boyfriend so she can avoid dealing with reality (I’d say she was relieving the glory days she missed out on, but Kayla says her evasive behavior only started after Kayla got pregnant), and I think she wants Kayla to deal with everything without any help because she doesn’t want Kayla to rely on her too much.

This is evident when she says she will take a week off work to help Kayla with newborn Preston — keep in mind Kayla’s boyfriend Mike works and Kayla had a c-section so is initially going to be limited in what she can do — and then decides not to take any time off work and tells Kayla and Mike they’ll figure it out. But part of me also wonders if Kayla’s mom didn’t have it so easy as a teen mom, and she for some morbid reason wants Kayla to suffer, too. Her mom even forces Mike to pay $300 rent even though they pay for everything themselves; are literally left with no money after they buy diapers, wipes, and formula; and Mike living there and working there is the only reason Kayla can take care of the baby all day.

Kayla’s mom isn’t required to do anything, but most of the parents on the show who were also teen parents are sympathetic to their kids’ struggles because they’ve been there before. Kayla expected her mom to be supportive, and her mom even said her “biggest fear is that [Kayla] wouldn’t keep it.” Kayla’s mom plays into a common anti-choice theme here: She doesn’t want Kayla to have an abortion, but she doesn’t offer Kayla much support once she decides to keep the baby. Kayla does live in her mom’s house, but she lacks any other financial, physical, or emotional support from her.

Stepping up as parents

I was wildly impressed with both Kayla’s and Mike’s attitude toward this pregnancy. Unlike some teen moms we’ve seen in past episodes who felt their pregnancies and babies shouldn’t impede on their ability to have a normal teenage life (Farrah and Jenelle come to mind), Kayla was more realistic. “I don’t think I should be able to be a regular teenager. I’m not a regular teenager,” she told her mom. On the aftershow, Kayla said that it’s weird to go out with friends now, saying, “I feel guilty about it, like I shouldn’t even get to have that fun.”

Being a parent doesn’t mean your social life is over or that you don’t deserve to have fun, but Kayla realized early on what some teen parents don’t: Parenting involves some sacrifice. And usually it’s the teen mom always making the sacrifices (dropping out of school, falling behind in school, not going to college), but Mike made a lot of sacrifices and to his credit was one of the most involved and dedicated teen dads I’ve seen on the show. He moved an hour away from home to be with Kayla, skipped college, and was the support system she needed throughout her pregnancy. They aren’t together anymore, but Kayla says he remains very involved with Preston.

The importance of support

Kayla’s episode really highlighted how important a solid support system is. She had a close-knit group of friends who were concerned about her health, and she had a boyfriend who was committed and dedicated to her and their baby. It’s unfortunate that her mom — an important piece to the puzzle — chose to let Kayla fend for herself while she struggled with both pregnancy and anorexia.

And how Kayla’s mom doesn’t see this is beyond me. In fact, at one point, her mom suggests they go on a diet together. Even Kayla looked at her with confusion — her mother, knowing she’s been diagnosed with anorexia, a disease that leaves you starving yourself and not eating enough food, wants to encourage Kayla to focus on losing weight and “portion control”?

Part of combatting an eating disorder is learning to eat in a healthy way, but her mom suggesting that she (1) needs to lose weight and that (2) Kayla could teach her something because she knows how to avoid food leaves me speechless. This doesn’t support Kayla at all, but merely asks Kayla to focus on losing weight and eating less.

I wish her mom would be more of an all-around support system for her, because her friends are leaving for college soon and she isn’t with Mike anymore. That is, if she can figure out how to properly support her daughter.

For more information on eating disorders, including treatment and support groups, visit the National Association for Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Eating Disorders or the National Eating Disorders Association.

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