athletes · Guest Post · health

On Squats and Snowflakes: How weight lifting was better preparation for childbirth than any Lamaze class (Guest Post)

Left: Black and white photo of pregnant torso with monitoring equipment Right: Black and photo photo of the author in the gym standing in front of the bar

by Nanette Ryan

On July 20 of this year I gave birth to my beautiful, healthy baby boys, James and Alec.  My pregnancy was not easy.  The first three months saw lots of queasiness, naps, and trial and error with foods that I could stomach.  In the second trimester I was hit by a cyclist while walking and rushed to hospital, and in the third contractions started too early and so I was back in hospital for monitoring, bed rest, and treatment.  For 20 days I was almost constantly on an IV of anti-contraction medication, I had 5 blood tests a day, injections, CTGs sometimes three times a day, and frequent invasive exams.

After 20 days in hospital I was briefly taken off my current anti-contraction medication to make time to prepare for the next round.  My boys wasted no time, and in half an hour I was in full labour.  As I was wheeled into the delivery room, exhausted and in horrible pain, I said to the midwives ‘I need something! Any thing!’  ‘What do you mean ‘you need something’?’ they said.  (I want a freakin’ stroll in the park, what do you think I mean!?).  ‘Something for the pain!’ I said.  ‘Drugs! I want the drugs!’  But there was no time, the babies were coming and I had to push.  And so I did.

As it was my first pregnancy I did a lot of reading and research leading up to the birth.  I practised breathing, did my kegels, and (naively) talked to other mums about what kind of birth I should ‘go for’.  The thing that prepared me most for giving birth, however, was something that none of the birthing books, conversations, or women’s health resources talked about.  It was weight training, and in particular, barbell squats and deadlifts.  Before I became pregnant weight training dominated my workouts, and I continued to weight train for as long as it was safe and comfortable when pregnant.

These exercises helped me in a number of ways.  Despite my extended stay in hospital, it gave me the physical strength to do what I needed to do.  It allowed me to trust my body, and it gave me the confidence to do it.  I had pushed my body, and so I was confident that I could push these kids out, like when you walk up to a squat rack with a higher weight than you’ve lifted before and think, ‘I’m going to fucking do this!’

Like so many things for women, the focus on women’s health and birth preparation is on the gentler side of things; focused breathing, gentle stretching, and light cardio.  Don’t get me wrong, these things have their virtues, including distracting women from what can be the horrors to come.  But birth, however you do it, is not gentle.  Women are not snowflakes, and the sooner we start emphasizing this the better.

Nanette Ryan is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at Georgetown University. She is primarily interested ethics, moral psychology, and feminist philosophy.

Image description: black and white photo of baby twin feet in rompers
Image description: black and white photo of baby twin feet in rompers
cycling · Guest Post · training

Why Athletic Challenges are Not Like Childbirth (Guest Post)

Before having experienced natural childbirth (by which I mean, childbirth without any pain medication), I thought that it could be compared, at least in terms of pain, to extreme athletic challenges. In fact, I even wrote a blog post about how, prior to giving birth, I thought that I could draw on my experience as an athlete and train for it.

But was I ever wrong.

As I explained, soon into my own labour I realized that all of my training (or better, “training”) was in vain. It became painfully clear to me that one cannot physically train (as an athlete would) for what one faces during labour.

That is why I was struck, this week, by a comment that Sir Bradley Wiggins – the 2012 Tour de France winner and London 2012 gold medalist – made after breaking the world hour distance record in cycling, a challenge that some consider to be one of the oldest and most difficult. Wiggins stated that his win is “the closest [he] will come to knowing what it’s like to have a baby.”

I do not want to deny the obvious: namely, that in breaking this record, Wiggins experienced a great deal of pain. Nor do I want to deny that this pain was extreme and extremely unpleasant for him. But what I do want to question is the similarity or closeness between what he experienced and what childbirth is like for many women (after all, how many women give birth in an hour?). I also want to question the claim that in having experienced the pain that he did that he came close to knowing what it is like to “have a baby” (by which I take him to be referring to the experience of childbirth).

Here’s where I think the crucial differences lie, and it is not where one might initially think.

The differences I have in mind are not primarily in the degree or even necessarily in the kind of pain at issue in these two types of experiences (although I do think that there are important differences there). Rather, I think that the key differences are psychological in nature and have to do with bodily agency, control, and the ability to prepare oneself (or in the case of childbirth, the inability to do so).

Let me explain.

In training for a cycling challenge (or almost any athletic challenge), one can do precisely that, namely train. In this case, one can get on one’s bike everyday, ride the course (or a similar course), and improve one’s endurance and time. One can train the precise muscles one will be using and one can train as hard and as much as one likes. Crucially, one can for the most part create in advance the very conditions of the challenge.

One knows what to expect and most importantly (although this is not what any athlete wants to consider), even on race day, should something not go according to plan or should one get injured or sick, one can pull out of the race mid-course or not even compete to begin with.

Labour and childbirth are not like that.

Very little is within one’s control, very few things can be done to prepare oneself for the kind and degree of pain, and crucially, if one decides that one wants to stop once things have gotten started, this is not an option. Even if one wants to forego a natural childbirth mid-labour, in many cases, that is not possible (depending on how far along one has progressed). This is because there are certain points past which an epidural cannot be administered, since it would not have time to kick in before the birth.

So in the one case, one has trained the precise muscles, one knows almost exactly what to expect, and one has control over one’s body; in the other case, none of these conditions hold.

The main psychological difference here is tied to the difference in agency, or better, lack thereof. In the case of an athletic challenge, one can set the cadence, push oneself further, or pull back if one has crossed the threshold of pain that’s just too much. Basically, one can turn on, off, or up the energy.

In labour and childbirth, however, this is often not the case.

For many, there is a sense in which there is almost a complete lack of agency, a sense in which one’s body is in control and is calling the shots and one’s will almost entirely vanishes. So whereas one can amp it up or turn it down in biking, one can do no such thing in childbirth.

This psychological difference between the two activities and the lack of control that many women experience in childbirth, makes me question Wiggins’ claim that in breaking the world hour distance record, he has come close to what it is like to have a baby. It is also telling that Wiggins’ wife – the mother of their children – did not respond to his comment. It is my hunch that she was not even asked.

training

On Training for Labour…And Failing (Guest Post)

 

A look at hill climbs through the eyes of a photographer. from http://cyclinguphill.com/hill-climb-photos/
A look at hill climbs through the eyes of a photographer. from http://cyclinguphill.com/hill-climb-photos/

Recently I wrote a post for this blog about my daily running routine, which I think of not as training but rather as a non-negotiable, necessary, therapeutic part of my life that allows me to function well. The minute I see exercise as training it becomes an added stress, which is the last thing I need.

 

In light of these strong anti-training convictions, it struck me as odd that toward the end of my first pregnancy, I thought that somehow I could successfully train for labour. As an athlete, this made perfect sense to me: labour is a physical activity, one improves at physical activity by training (physically and mentally), therefore, by training for labour, I would be able to improve my performance during labour.

 

This light bulb went off for me about five weeks before I was due. I was at the gym on the elliptical machine and the television was showing the Giro d’Italia, a three-week annual bicycle race through the Alps. As I watched these world-class bikers perform athletic feats of Herculean measure, I was struck by their focus, their stamina, and the fact that they didn’t seem to be flinching even while performing the most grueling (and no doubt, painful) of climbs. I began to draw certain parallels in my mind between what these bikers seemed to be experiencing in terms of pain and perseverance and what I thought labour might be like.

 

(Note: in keeping with my very hands-off approach to pregnancy and childbirth, I read virtually nothing about either so I had no expert testimonies against which to compare my own intuitions about what I thought it would be like).

 

What I did know was that I was in excellent physical shape for labour since throughout my pregnancy I continued my daily running and yoga routine, but with my due date quickly approaching, I realized that I had done nothing to prepare myself mentally for the pain. In order to prepare for this part, my doula recommended that I put myself in very uncomfortable positions (like sitting in a semi-squat position against a wall and holding it). But this and her other recommendations did not seem sufficiently challenging or painful to me (I like holding that position). As a marathon runner and as someone who is accustomed to pushing myself physically, I wasn’t worried about the physical pain as much as the mental side of things.

 

So my idea was this: for the month leading up to the birth, while at the gym doing my physical workouts, I would also begin to prepare myself mentally by watching world-class bikers pedal through grueling terrain. I thought that somehow by attuning myself to their focus, stamina, and perseverance, I could train myself to focus through pain.

 

Now for anyone who has experienced the pain of labour, you are probably laughing right now. And rightfully so.

 

But for a neophyte who had read nothing about ‘what it is like’, this reasoning made sense to me. And my dear partner, doula, and midwives were all so supportive of me in every way that when, very excitedly, I told them about my plan, they encouraged me and told me that they thought this was a fantastic idea. With all of my enthusiasm, I don’t think that any of them had the heart to tell me that training (or, “training”) for labour doesn’t quite work that way.

 

And so not only did I get my daily dose of Giro for three weeks (my son arrived a week early), but I also solicited videos (“bike porn” as one of my biker friends called it) of impossible climbs and unimaginable races to help build my mental stamina even more.

 

The one person who vociferously objected to my training regime was my osteopath. After having told him about what I had been doing and planned to continue to do he laughed to himself and responded with four simple words that flew in the face of my strategy and that also turned out, in during labour, to be the most helpful advice I received.

 

“Surrender to the pain,” he said.

 

He continued: “In the moment, that is all you can really do. If you try to fight it, you will be fighting against your body. Just surrender to the pain and let your body do the work.”

 

My osteopath – who specializes in pregnancy and birth issues – is a wise man, both in issues of the body and also in reading characters. He knew me well enough to know that I thrive when I am in control of physical situations and he had the foresight to warn me that this would not be the case in labour. When we spoke about labour and birth, and even leading up to these events, I did not want to believe him. I could not conceive of a physical situation that would so completely overtake me.

 

But during labour, I very quickly learned that he was right.

 

All I could do was surrender to the pain.

 

No amount of mental training could have prepared me for the pain I was to experience (I gave birth at a birthing centre where medical interventions and medication were not options). There was no sense in trying to “fight” or “power” through it, for my body was in control, not I.

 

(Here I realize that I am making a false distinction between “body” and “self” but there is a real sense in which during labour and birth, I felt a split between my “body” and my “self” in that my body was doing work that my self was in no way willing).

 

In the end, surrendering to the pain was what I did. It was the best advice that I received.

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