It’s the women that matter

The other day, after teaching an aerobics class, one of my regular participants stopped me to chat.  She’s in her early 60s, and has been taking class with me for a couple of years.  We got to talking, as we usually do, about pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding.  We were talking about why there are so many interventions in birth, why people choose not to breastfeed babies and why some people’s circumstances make breastfeeding virtually impossible.  We talked about things we have done, and things we’d like to do, to try to make things better. 

On the topic of breastfeeding, I said something about breastfeeding having so many benefits for children, it’s hard for me to understand why people without obstacles in the way choose not to do that for their babies.

She put her hand on my arm and said, “Yes, but it’s the women that matter.  The babies, too, of course, but honestly, I really care about the women.”  She then went on to talk about things like breastfeeding lowering the risk for breast cancer, helping the uterus contract back to non-pregnant size after birth, and so on.  She finished her comments by repeating, “I really care mostly about women.  It’s the women that matter.”

It’s the women that matter.

No apologies, no qualifications.  She wasn’t talking about ‘good mothering,’ or living up to this or that ideal, or observing a parenting trend.  She was talking about women, and her matter-of-fact belief in the central importance of our health and experiences.

We need more people like her.

Blizzards are GOOD!

Yes, I’m still scarce around these parts.  Still under deadline, brainpower maxed out, and unable to write a coherent blog post.  However, I am popping in to promote a good cause. I always love a good cause, and especially when it involves ice cream on a hot (okay, well, somewhat warm) day.

Although I’m generally not a fan of fast food establishments (I normally eschew them as the realization of pure evil), and I don’t think their periodic good deeds erase their overall destructive power (still with me?), Dairy Queen’s Miracle Treat Day is pretty cool.  Go get a Blizzard, and DQ gives $1 or more to your local Children’s Miracle Network Hospital.  I know enough people with sick kids and babies right now that this seems like a pretty timely (read:  urgent) cause.

I know, I’m a fitness instructor and I’m advocating ice cream. Stop the presses!  No, really:  occasional ice cream is part of a healthy lifestyle.  What’s not healthy is declaring war on entire food groups because you hate body fat.  I would normally recommend something a little less processed/mass-produced than DQ ice cream, but under the circumstances, I think we can all take one for the team, yes?

So, go get yourself a Blizzard and feel GOOD about it.  Or, if you must, you can skip the Blizzard and just cut your hospital a cheque.  But that’s not nearly as sort-of-not-really-subversive, nor is it as delicious.

 

Prenatal & postpartum weight: giving up and giving in

“All new moms worry about losing the baby weight.”

How’s that for a major generalization? 

True, many new moms worry about this, maybe even most.  But all is a troubling superlative, not only because it’s almost guaranteed to be untrue (find one exception, and the hypothesis crumbles) but more importantly because it reinforces the cultural imperatives for women to be thin no matter what, and to put weight at the top of their list of concerns at all times. Statement:  All new moms worry about losing the baby weight.  Subtext:  If you aren’t worried about this, you should be because everyone else is.

Note that the article linked above, about so-called “mommyrexia” (could there be a more infuriating term?) invites women to share their methods for “stay[ing] slim in pregnancy or los[ing] weight after giving birth.”  I’m all for women sharing their experiences, but I find this formulation troubling. Surely there are better and less sensationalist ways of acknowledging women’s fears about the changes to their bodies during pregnancy.

As a pre and postnatal fitness instructor, obviously I have a vested interest in helping women maintain their health during and after pregnancy. This includes promoting healthy weight gain while growing a baby, and appropriate weight loss in the months following.  But I won’t do it in a way that upholds the paradigm in which weight plays a disproportionate role in determining a woman’s worth or which shames women whose bodies don’t conform to current weight and shape ideals.  Yes, exercise burns calories and can reduce body fat; no, we won’t talk about that in my classes.

I work to support prenatal and postpartum women’s health, not to help them police the size of their bodies.  Body size and weight are only two variables among many that indicate a person’s level of fitness and capacity for activity, and the jury is still very much out when it comes to conclusions about the relationship between weight gain, weight loss, health and pregnancy. Science and Sensibility’s recent series on maternal obesity demonstrates this beautifully.

Different women gain different amounts of weight during pregnancy for reasons that often have less to do with food intake or exercise than you might think. This can be scary for a lot of women. Larger women have reason to fear being treated as if they’ve done something wrong if their weight continues to increase during pregnancy, and they are likely to be categorized automatically as high risk and subjected to a variety of  prenatal and birth interventions as a result. Smaller women may have their own set of fears, especially if they usually go to herculean efforts to keep their weight at a certain level or maintain a particular shape. It’s hard to drop that mentality and to weather the pressure not to ‘let yourself go’ just because the stick has turned blue. 

But what does ‘letting go’ really mean?  There is some implication that it means giving up, giving in, and that these are inherently bad things to do.  But we could re-frame the concept as giving up our culturally-determined beliefs about how our bodies should look. And rather than giving in to the TV-land stereotype of gluttonous-pregnant-woman-eating-for-two, how about giving in to pregnancy, which is designed to ensure that women gain the fat and fluid they need to carry a baby to term, and have the energy necessary to labour and birth a healthy baby.

In this framework, giving up and giving in are important steps toward good mental and physical health, and they are perfectly congruent with staying active and eating a diet of nutrient-rich foods in amounts that satisfy hunger and thirst.  This framework promotes health for all women, all of the time, without prejudice or judgment about size and shape.

The more we learn to listen to our bodies during pregnancy, to explore how they grow and change and to support their new needs, the more likely they are to respond appropriately to pregnancy’s demands.  And the happier our bodies are during pregnancy, when we’re feeding, moving and resting them well, the more likely they are to recover appropriately in the months that follow.

Mom & Baby Fitness: Beautiful Transitions

Today I taught the first class in my new session of Mom & Baby Fitness, following a demo class that I ran on Friday.  Of course I always love teaching fitness, and especially pre and postnatal—that’s a given.  But it’s particularly rewarding this time because the class is composed almost entirely of women who used to be clients in Prenatal Fitness, and who have now returned with their new babies for a session of postnatal. 

Not only is it awesome to see their babies—newborn babies!  super-high squee factor!—and to hear about their births, but it’s very cool to see how beautifully these women are transitioning from one phase of life to another. After class today, one of them mentioned that amazing thing that I’ll bet others have experienced, where your new baby may be only 5 or 6 weeks old, but you absolutely cannot remember what life was like without her. 

Today was really inspirational to me, reminding me how precious those early months are as you create new reflexes, and new patterns of thought and behaviour in the process of building a relationship with a new child.  Of course the early postpartum period is rife with huge challenges, but some of the challenges are quite wonderful.  One baby today, lying on a mat in the centre of the studio, started fussing during a cardio interval.  I watched in the mirror as her mama kept moving, monitoring baby out of the corner of her eye, listening to the sound of her newborn squawking over the music:  she was clearly observing and attending to her baby even as she kept working out and following the choreography.  This was so far from the panicked new-mom caricature of ‘oh my God my baby’s fussing stop the presses and fix it NOW!’ Instead, in the midst of a sweaty fitness studio, it was a calm, intuitive, almost subconscious moment where a mother waited and felt her baby’s cues before going to her to give her exactly the care she needed.  It was breathtaking.

It’s such a privilege to observe women transforming into mothers, and to help support them along the way.  I know that I have a lot of knowledge and expertise to offer the women who take my classes. I wonder if they know how much they teach me when they attend?

About that school registration form in California…

Since this story came out the other day, about an elementary school in California asking parents to indicate on an application form whether a child was born vaginally or by c-section, I’ve had a blog post brewing.  But I’m spurred to actually write it now because of discussion currently ensuing on The Unnecesarean’s Facebook wall.  Evidently, a lot of people believe that it’s both acceptable and wise for a school to ask this question on a registration form. 

To be frank, I first read about this story on The Onion, and was sure that it was a joke.  It struck me as particularly funny-weird because I was asked the very same question on the application form for Annika’s first daycare, and I thought it was kind of hilarious that The Onion would do a spoof of something I thought couldn’t possibly have actually happened to other real-live people. 

At the time when I was asked, I recall doing the head-scratch and wondering why on earth the daycare needed to know this information.  When I asked, the daycare provider told me that it was so she could assist my child with healing from her birth.  Cue vomit.  

It’s no big secret that I hated my c-section and that I wish that my daughter’s time on earth could have started differently.  But the truth of the matter is that my sadness is more to do with me than with her; I’m big enough to admit that any concerns I’ve had about her experience of those first hours of life are more projections of my own experience of trauma than genuine worries about her.  All evidence suggests that she’s fine and has been from the start.  The c-section really sucked for me:  and that matters enough on its own without trumping up some story that my daughter is forever damaged by the way she came into this world.  

This is not to say that the circumstances of a birth are never relevant.  It’s certainly possible for a child’s birth to have an impact on cognitive function, and that is something of which schools need to be aware.  A friend who is a school psychologist explained this to me when I started ranting about the ridiculousness of asking the question.  People who are trained in assessing such things need to ask questions about birth to ensure that they don’t miss any clues that could help them assist a child in need of educational intervention. 

But there are at least two major differences between what my friend described and what I’m talking about now.  The first is that a specialized psychological or educational assessment, performed for a child with an identified need, is very different from a general school application form, which is circulated among a wide variety of people.  The second is that the question rests on an irrelevant dichotomy rooted squarely in the ideology of the person asking.

If the goal of asking about the circumstances of birth is to understand whether or not a child needs particular kinds of support, the question needs to avoid the red-herring, limited c-section vs. vaginal birth dichotomy, and instead be open-ended:  how was your child’s birth?  A vaginal birth can be chock-full of potentially traumatic complications and/or interventions.  Moreover, while I certainly advocate allowing the physiological process of birth to proceed unhindered (some people call this natural birth), I also acknowledge that unhindered processes can sometimes be really hard on everyone involved. 

The point is:  vaginal or natural birth does not necessarily equal peaceful birth, and c-section does not automatically equal trauma.  A question that assumes that one type of birth is inherently more traumatic than another type of birth with no qualifications or consideration of individual circumstances is asinine, and the response to it is irrelevant.

**Edited to acknowledge the school’s appropriate response to the controversy.

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