Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Pregnancy brings on remarkable physical changes. I’ve experienced a good number of them. I had the classic early pregnancy nausea, some select cravings, and my torso widened before my belly, indicating a higher blood volume, lung capacity, and overall expanded infrastructure that’s required to support another person.
But plenty of people have griped about swollen feet and an intensified sense of smell. What I have found really interesting and novel is that my physical changes have helped me identify with people who have very different body types from mine.
By nature I’m a sturdy but healthy weight for my modest-to-diminutive height, I’m more sensitive to cold and more welcoming of heat than most people around me, I have a high-efficiency metabolism so I can do a lot with a little bit of food, and while I wouldn’t consider myself an athlete, I have decent coordination, strength, and endurance. All in all, my body does just about everything I ask of it and we have a very copacetic relationship.
In other words, I’m spoiled all to hell. Being pregnant has put me into the meatspace–and a little of the headspace–of people with different physical realities. Here are some examples.
Wow, suddenly I understand what people are complaining about when it gets to be 95 F outside. In general, I bask in broiling summer heat and I’m not truly comfortable until it hits about 85. Pre-pregnancy, I was almost always the coldest person in the room and figured that I suffered enough through other people’s air conditioning whimsies that I really didn’t need to waste any sympathy on their complaints that it was “too hot”. Cry me a river while I shiver all winter AND all A/C-infested summer in 2 sweaters while drinking hot tea.
So, ok, now that I’m metabolizing for two, I get it. I can finally admit that it really sucks to not be able to sleep because your bed is soaked with sweat and there’s nothing you can do about it. This is the first summer since childhood that I’ve used air conditioning in my bedroom, and that was by central air decree, not by choice. I haven’t used it a lot, but a few of those nights when it barely got below 100, I capitulated. Nay, I blissfully surrendered.
On the other hand, it’s been pretty lovely to gallivant around town, riding public transit, popping into stores, office, and cafes, without giving a thought to donning cold weather gear. Normally, I ALWAYS carry something warm to wear in the summer lest I have to sit still in an artificially cooled room, and find myself constantly pulling sweaters and jackets on and off for the transition from outdoors to indoors. So, elevated core temp. I get it now. I’ll sort of miss it when it’s gone.
Speaking of metabolizing for two, the first trimester helped me understand my friends who have much faster metabolisms than I do, and/or have significant brain crashes if their sugar crashes. Before the placenta matures and takes on a lot of the most important maintenance tasks, the rest of the body struggles to keep up with the increased demand. It’s thought that the placenta “taking over” is what helps calm early nausea and fatigue.
For me, a pre-placenta effect was that I would get very hungry very suddenly, and not having food quickly made me totally sad and irritable. Usually I can go quite a while before lack of food impacts my ability to think clearly, but early on this change would happen incredibly fast. Within 10 minutes I’d go from realizing that I should eat, to being very hungry, to reaching a state of resigned, existential despair about the state of the world, a world in which there was no food worth eating so I might as well take a nap. Fortunately I usually recognized what was going on and got some calories in me, and that fixed the problem as quickly as it had come on.
I was astounded at how easily I was manipulated by my blood sugar. Bonking is something I’ve experienced before with distance cycling when I’ve ridden too far without getting some nutrients in me and suddenly felt completely lazy and unmotivated, but not really hungry. This was similar in that the mental/emotional effect seemed disconnected from the physical need. Now I better understand people who get really grumpy or sad if they go too long without eating.
Remember that expanded blood volume and lung capacity? The way the overtaxed cardio-vascular system actually feels is breathless. Walking up 2 flights of stairs is much harder. Early on when I was still biking, I found myself nonplussed as more and more cyclists flitted by me. Anyone who has biked with me knows that I like to go VERY FAST and will chuckle smugly at the thought of my eating the dust of fair-weather riders on janky big-box store mountain bikes. But pregnancy made me a mellow rider and an even mellower walker and stair-climber. Now I hug the right side of the steps out of the subway to let people whisk by me. I understand getting winded more easily, and it’s helped me understand what it’s like to have breathing and blood flow that’s taxed.
High mass torso
Pregnancy has made me bigger overall, but obviously the biggest change is in my abdomen. A pregnant belly is quite firm to the touch, with an inner atmospheric pressure of anywhere from 5-50 mmHg or higher during strong contractions. This makes it especially awkward to maneuver around, like having a watermelon strapped to your front, but it shares some characteristics with non-pregnant large bellies.
Namely, it takes up space. It’s hard to bend over it. Its weight puts stress on the neck and back. It doesn’t fit on top of ladylike closed or crossed legs. I find that my sitting posture more and more often resembles that of people with bigger overall body types. I lean forward in chairs with legs rather wide and it helps me manage the weight and volume of my middle. I better understand the strained back muscles that I’ve noticed in my bigger friends when I’ve offered a shoulder rub. Those muscles simply work harder.
Let me start by saying that this pregnancy has treated me extremely well overall. I feel that I have a fraction of the complaints that I hear from a lot of other people who have been through this. But it’s hard work. The added weight and strain are such that I get unreasonably sore after modest muscular exertion, like moving a few boxes out of the basement. My feet ache much more readily than I’m used to. And there are days or weeks when I have a near constant pain in my middle back or the bottom of my right ribs, where the baby’s butt and/or feet are. Let me tell you, it’ll harsh your mellow! It’s really hard to be cheerful or even personable with constant pain. Even if I can pull off being nice, it makes it harder to focus so I’m a little out of it and slow with witty retorts or I just sit and grin distractedly. It’s easier now to understand the mental wear and tear of constant pain, even before any potentially mind-fuzzying medications come into the picture.
Recently I overheard someone telling a story about the irritated and dirty looks she got as someone who walked with a brace or crutch. That is, until she shaved her head. Then suddenly people assumed she was a cancer victim and her social status instantly elevated. Being pregnant on public transit has been quite an education in how people view others’ hardships. The bigger I get, the more likely it is that someone will offer me a seat, but I’ve been surprised by who does and doesn’t extend this kindness. It’s been interesting to see it offered to me but not to people who need it more, like people with small children or people with more serious physical difficulties. And frankly, while it is very nice to be able to sit down while I’m carrying around an extra 33 pounds, I really needed it in the first trimester when I was nauseous and exhausted all the time, but didn’t look like there was anything wrong with me.
There’s no doubt that people make constant judgements and calibrations about how much others are worthy of kindness or deference. I find myself doing the same. If a man gets on the bus who has a limp, does he need to sit down more than I do? Would he find it insulting to be offered a seat by a woman who is obviously about to give birth any day? What causes one teenage boy to cooly insist that I take a seat while others stubbornly spread their legs so wide that they effectively take up two seats? When so many women smile sympathetically and hold the door for me or give up a seat, what causes other women to blatantly cut in front of me in line? It’s a fascinating study in who gets over and why.
I have to say, I’m really looking forward to getting my abdominal cavity back, and more abstractly, to going back to the freedom to not wear a particular identity if I don’t want to (a convenient tool in the invisible knapsack of white privilege). At the moment, anyone who sees me first sees “pregnant”, and then if I’m lucky, might be able to see a few of the many other things that I am if they look closely past the social glare of my belly. I’ve been The Other plenty of times, but this experience has given me a glancing appreciation of what it must be like to be “the one in the wheelchair” or “the one who walks really slowly” or just someone who is big.