What is it about being a mother that makes you fat? Of course it is not the story for everyone – lots of women "snap back" after pregnancy, or fight their way through WeightWatchers when their youngest is two or three and then keep it off. But there are plenty of others pushing buggies, playing with toddlers and delivering children at the school gates still a stone or three heavier than before they were pregnant.
I am one of these women. I was never skinny but at 5ft 4in, I weighed around 9st 7lb for most of my adult life and had never weighed more than 10st. It was a good level for me: sustainable while I ate and drank pretty much what I wanted and exercised to please myself. A happy size 12.
I loved being pregnant but I remember a sinking feeling when I was reading an NHS pamphlet that warned me not to eat too much. "Pregnancy can be the start of lifelong weight problems for some women," it insisted darkly, and somehow I knew I was one of them. When I dared to weigh myself after my daughter was born I was 10st 10lb – not bad, compared to some women around me, who had three or four stone to lose. But I am still 10st 10lb today and my daughter is at primary school.
The Government is concerned about women like me. At the end of this month, Nice plans to issue guidelines to GPs to advise women against gaining too much weight in pregnancy (you don't need to eat for two), and to assist them in losing their extra pounds afterwards.
Media attention tends to focus on one end of the scale – the pressure on women created when celebrities like Myleene Klass lose their baby weight quickly – but the NHS is probably more concerned about the women who don't lose it at all. When Nice published its draft advice, Mr Tahir Mahmood, vice president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists said, "We need to get the message across that mothers should be encouraged to work towards reaching their pre-pregnancy weight as this is an important indicator of future health."
I think I eat fairly sensibly. I resist my partner's special breakfasts of fried Spam and eggs and I try to fit in some exercise. So what is it that has happened to my body? Why can't I reach and sustain the weight I was before, effortlessly, the way it used to be? Is there some trick of the metabolism at work?
Helen Bond, a nutritionist and dietician based in Derbyshire, quickly banishes that idea. "During pregnancy your metabolism increases greatly, and it increases again when you are breastfeeding, but afterwards, it will go back to where it was before," she says.
Age, however, is an issue, she says, because metabolism slows down when you get older, and of course there are more older mothers these days. I was 39 when I had my daughter. "When you are 39 your metabolism is much slower than at 29. It is much harder. Your body has a set point that your weight moderates to and it goes up as you get older."
The majority of women, she says, do get back to their pre-pregnancy weight within a year of birth, and you should make this your aim. "If you enter the toddler stage still overweight, then it is much harder to get it down. Because all the mum hazards kick in. Baking, clearing up the toddler's plates... their priorities take over from yours. You can't get out to exercise. You might be feeding your children healthily but often not yourself. You have the odd biscuit, the odd fish finger, you don't count it and it all adds up. And if you don't get enough sleep, you will gain weight. Lots of studies show that."
All of that was true for me, but what about now? My daughter is at school, and I spend those hours writing at home or editing in an office, not sitting around eating biscuits with other mums. Sleep is no longer an issue and while life is busy, I make an effort to exercise.
I have a theory that before children, I lived by a set of rules that I was barely conscious of but that restrained my eating constantly. I ate three meals a day; a cake or dessert was a weekly treat; I never put butter in sandwiches; I don't think I'd eaten sweets or biscuits or crisps or pastry for 20 years. I walked everywhere and I swam three times a week.
All that went out of the window with pregnancy. And like people who never recover from the thrill of the Atkins diet, and being able to eat half a pound of cheese in a sitting, I don't think I ever recovered from that time. From having crisps and a cake at lunchtimes with my sandwich; from eating a bacon butty when I got into work having already had breakfast at home. Of eating whatever I wanted. I clearly remember once eating 14 roast potatoes in one sitting. Once you've broken the rules in that way it is hard to go back. But I have reached a point where I have no more excuses.
I keep a diary of my eating for a couple of days and compare it to the way I ate pre-motherhood. Helen looks at it, too. Little things jump out straight away. Like the jacket potato I have for lunch – with butter and mayo and tuna in oil, all of which Helen leaps on. In the old days I would never have let myself have butter, I would have bought tuna in water and I'd have used low-fat mayo. The salad I have with it includes avocado and olive oil dressing – once upon a time I'd have skipped the avocado, however healthy all its calories may be, and just had balsamic.
Helen sends tips and tweaks – my diet really isn't too bad, she says, but she cuts back the fat and "empty calories". I pledge to try to stick to her ideas, and the old ways, for a fortnight.
Helen recommends I make proper time to exercise, to bump up my metabolic rate, so from Monday to Friday I go running every day. It is a delight to do this, but crammed into my already short working day, I find it hard to focus on the target. I run for a bit and then walk. Life is so hectic all I want to do now I have a chance is to wander and daydream and enjoy the peace, not succumb to more targets.
Similarly, while I manage to eat healthily all day that first week, and resist picking at the children's teas, at around 8pm I hit a wall of tiredness and find myself raiding their sweetie tins. I know what I am doing, I can see it and I couldn't give a toss. I am going to have that long chewy snake, and then a choc ice.
Then we hit the weekend. My stepsons are staying. Saturday is the school fête and I have promised to make brownies. Baking is something I do with the children and treasure. They clean bowls, I pick off burnt corners (all the way around). Then we all try one. Then we go to the fête and have a ploughman's lunch and a piece of someone else's coffee cake. Then, much later, after a family barbecue at which I eat multiple sausages and burgers, we have the rest of the brownies, with ice-cream. As well as normal meals I have eaten the equivalent of five brownies and a piece of cake in one day and it doesn't even feel like a lot.
I may tell myself that I eat fairly healthily now but already it is clear that compared to how I ate before children I have turned into Billy Bunter. What is surprising, it suddenly seems, is that I am not 15st.
Week two I am working in an office for a couple of days, then for the rest of the week I am catching up with other work and all the domestic stuff. I manage to get to one Pilates class and run once. I find myself snacking on party rings because there is no fruit in the house. Life has just taken over. It is little surprise when, at the end of two weeks, my weight is unchanged.
I talk to Deanne Jade, a psychologist and founder of the National Centre for Eating Disorders (Eating-disorders.org.uk). I ask her exactly what is going on. Why am I failing so spectacularly?
"It is very complex," she says. "Before children you follow the rules because you are motivated. After you have had children there is an element of giving up. Women have to give up attending to themselves so they lose motivation.
"In pregnancy lots of women eat what they want for the first time, and then it becomes a habit and habits are very very hard to change. You try to go back to the way you were before and you can't and you blame yourself, but it is how we are wired. You can't just go back on autopilot. Life has changed so completely."
Other factors are at work. Sweet foods are addictive, she says, and affect the brain like cocaine: you are going to crave them once you've got used to them. And of course they are in the house, because women buy them for the family. And why do we do that?
"Buying treats like these is a way that a woman might unconsciously try to keep her man and children close," Deanne says. "It is an unconscious desire to be needed and valued." Mild depression is much more common among mothers than we realise too, she says, "and we are all emotional eaters, one way or another."
So what's to be done? I realise now that it is pointless just trying to go back to the way things were. My life is unrecognisable from the neat existence I lived before. I either wait until the children leave home, or I have to find a new way.
On an NHS website, I read about one mother's triumph in finally losing the 3st extra she had been carrying for years – she did it, she says, by putting herself first. I know that is the answer. It is clichéd but true: I need to make my weight and my well-being a priority.
Before I became a mother I had endless time and headspace for all of this without realising it; now the effort involved – to shop and exercise and think ahead and not get so frazzled I blow out on chocolate – is so great that unless it is top of the list, I'm just going to keep muddling through.
I know I do need to do this, for my health as well as my vanity. My BMI is only just in the overweight range but metabolism really takes a nosedive with menopause, and if I don't get my habits sorted by then, I risk seriously gaining more.
But the truth is that it isn't a top priority. That is partly because there is so much else to cram in – not just duty but pleasure, and ambition, and relaxation. And partly I suspect it is because motherhood and a supportive relationship have brought an existential change that means that none of it matters quite as much as it once did.
How to avoid being a big mama
* Don't go mad during pregnancy, says the nutritionist Helen Bond. The energy demands of pregnancy are surprisingly low. Most women probably don't need any extra calories for the first half of their term, and only 200 more calories a day thereafter – a fruit scone.
* Take your time but do make some effort to lose the weight. One American study found that women who hadn't lost their baby weight by the six-month mark were, on average, 18lb above their pre-pregnancy weight eight years later.
* If you need to lose weight later on, Deanne Jade recommends taking time to prepare. Spend a week decluttering your house and your life, she says – this is often a subconscious issue with mothers. Then on each of the next seven days deliberately do something that is out of habit, such as wearing your watch on the wrong wrist or taking a different route to school or work. This prepares your brain for the bigger habit changes to come.Reuse content