Before I got pregnant, I was pretty active. In college I rowed and in grad school I boxed. More recently, I trained successfully for a marathon. I also swam regularly and loved playing soccer with friends and colleagues (being a vicious defender works out my aggression nicely). So when we started trying for a baby, I felt confident that I would keep moving.
There is a lot of information available about the benefits of an active pregnancy. Pregnant women are told that an active lifestyle will help keep their energy up, ease the aches and pains of a changing body, improve the experience of labour and make it easier to give birth – not to mention making it much easier to ‘bounce back’ to one’s pre-pregnancy body afterwards. Every pregnancy book and website includes a section on fitness and exercise. They do caution against starting new exercise programs, but you can definitely maintain your activity level. Many go so far as to suggest that not exercising is linked to a host of issues, from labour complications to fetal conditions like gestational diabetes.
For the most part, I think this is great. It’s a vast improvement on advice given to previous generations, when pregnant women were sequestered away and prevented from doing just about anything. The idea that pregnant women are weak is silly; making a human and carrying it around while eating, drinking, and breathing for it – not to mention pushing it out of your body – is a fairly impressive feat.
But it does create one more thing pregnant women have to monitor, besides alcohol, smoking, food, air quality, water temperature, etc. And it’s another way we can fail at being pregnant (as I would discover).
So, I was all set to have a fit pregnancy. The day we found out, I made a chart of nutrients to keep on the fridge, and bought The Runner’s World Guide to Running and Pregnancy. No problem, I thought; I’m already active, so this will be easy.
The problem was, my body had its own plans. I was hit almost immediately with searing hip, leg and lower back pain, eventually diagnosed as sciatica. By my sixth week, I had quit running. By my twelfth week, I could only walk a few blocks before I’d be in the kind of pain that left me gasping. By the fifth month, I was avoiding walking at all costs. I could still swim, but only a few lengths at a time – and walking to the pool on campus hurt too much! I’d plan my days to minimize movement and eventually stopped going out at all. I caught myself dreading stairs, long periods of standing, or any situation that made me bump into things or people.
Hoping to stretch out the tightness, I tried prenatal yoga at a downtown studio, but it didn’t work for me. The poses often made it worse, I felt restless and frustrated all at once, and after a fellow class member commented that, given my body type, no one could even tell I was pregnant, I quit.
It started to seem like I was going to have a very unfit pregnancy. This was demoralizing, and also made me feel vulnerable. I felt like I was failing at pregnancy, worried non-stop about how it might affect the fetus, and got frustrated at everyone’s warnings about what this would mean for my labour and their well-meaning advice about how such-and-such exercise would fix my sciatica – I just had to try harder.
All the advice I’d found so liberating, in theory (Be active! Keep running!) now felt like just another norm governing women’s bodies, telling me I couldn’t measure up.
(By the way, don’t feel too much pity for my sob story. I still had a great pregnancy! My partner was amazing, my workplace was accommodating, and my morning sickness was pretty limited. Lucky, lucky me! But I inhabit my body comfortably when I feel strong and capable, when it can live up to my expectations. This was a tough lesson in my own limits, and how to live in a body that couldn’t do what I expected it to. It was humbling.)
Then, around 30 weeks, I found the solution (for me): I tried a prenatal aquafit class (http://babyandmefitness.com/classes/aqua-bellies/). I was pretty skeptical at first. In fact, I realize now I was an unconscious exercise snob. I thought of myself as someone who did sports (rowing, boxing, running, soccer) not classes.
I think there was a gendered component to my snobbery, too: on some level, I’d decided classes were for ‘girls’. I feel pretty sheepish about that, as a woman and a feminist – and especially now that I know how hard aquafit can be!
I’d come home after each class with shaking arms and legs, a happy ache, and that particular euphoria I associate with a long run. As long as I was really careful about how I moved my hips and groin in the water, I could avoid exacerbating my sciatica, and in the meantime my abs, back, legs, and arms were getting a serious workout, using water and my now considerable weight as resistance.
I also met other pregnant women of all backgrounds, shapes, and sizes (way more diversity than in the downtown yoga class). We set up an email list and planned post-partum stroller walks.
I don’t know whether my unfit pregnancy OR my (aqua)fit third trimester made a difference, in the end, but after a really long labour (ahem – 60 hours) I had a big, strong, perfectly beautiful baby.
And I’ve learned my lesson about exercise snobbery, too. I’m not back at aquafit yet, but I’m taking all the Baby and Me (http://babyandmefitness.com/) fitness classes I can. Two or three times a week you’ll find me squatting and lunging my way through the park while pushing a stroller (http://babyandmefitness.com/classes/stroller-h-i-i-t/) or lifting weights while my baby snoozes in a carrier on my chest, then trying to rediscover my abs by doing planks and making faces at her on the mat (http://babyandmefitness.com/classes/carrier-fit-fusion/).
(By the way, if you like the idea but not the budget for postpartum fitness classes, I’ve noticed people arranging stroller fit dates on MeetUp.com and there are online suggestions for how to structure them).
I didn’t ‘bounce back’ to my pre-pregnancy body, but my sciatica vanished like magic, and I’ve even started running short-distances again. In the meantime, these classes get my daughter and me out of the apartment, structure our week, and have helped me meet some really cool women. But mostly, they’re teaching me that my conception of fitness – prenatal or postpartum – needed just about as much adjustment as my hips.
Alice MacLachlan lives in Toronto with her wife, Amy, and their daughter, Emmylou. When not taking aquafit classes or running around the park with a stroller, she teaches philosophy at York University.