When I first announced that Andrew and I were expecting our first child, I was bombarded with horror stories about pregnancy and childbirth. All of a sudden, everyone seemed to know someone who’d had an awful experience carrying and/or giving birth to their child. And they all felt a strong desire to share these stories with me. As you can imagine, it was exactly what a twenty-six year old woman, pregnant for the first time, wanted to hear.
As a result of these stories, I was prepared for the worst. I was ready to face major weight gain, extreme nausea, awful acne, limp hair, and swollen ankles. I was ready to spend countless mornings crouching over a toilet, to spend copious amounts of money on a whole new wardrobe, to have complete strangers touch my stomach without permission. I was ready for the absolute worse-case scenarios. I had role-played each of these possibilities in my head, and I was ready to face them head-on (if you were wondering, I have not dealt with most of these pregnancy symptoms- I’ve never thrown up, my skin and hair look like they did before the pregnancy, and my ankles are still clearly ankles).
I was also ready for all the perks of pregnancy. I was ready to indulge cravings for chocolate frozen yogurt and Wawa soft pretzels. I was ready to hear my little baby’s heart beat, to feel him moving inside me. I was ready to buy lots of adorable maternity dresses and tops. I was ready to be pampered, to take advantage of the many opportunities to use my pregnancy as an excuse not to do heavy lifting or moving (or any lifting and moving at all). I thought I was ready for it all.
I wasn’t. I wasn’t ready when the first person touched my stomach without asking. I wasn’t ready when people started staring at me in public, probably debating whether I was pregnant or just disproportionately heavy in the mid-section. I wasn’t quite ready for strangers to make comments about my youth, my size, the shape of my baby bump, and just about anything else you can think of. I wasn’t quite ready for the endless stream of suggestions and advice about pregnancy and childbirth, much of which was often contradictory. All of these experiences took me by surprise, not because I’d never heard stories about them, but because no matter how many times you role-play a scenario in your head, it doesn’t look quite the same in real life.
And then there were a few things that took me by surprise, but in the best way possible. I had been ready for many of the perks of pregnancy, but there have been several realizations that I was totally unprepared for. Some of them have been unique to me, but others are probably experienced by many pregnant women, but don’t get the same spotlight as cravings (when your husband is willing to stop at Wawa on your way home from church because you have a sudden need for soft pretzels) or maternity clothing (when you realize what the rest of the world is missing when you try on your first pair of maternity jeans). Even if these perks don’t get their own pages on thebump.com or fitpregnancy.com, they are definitely worth knowing about.
As a former cheerleader, I was raised in a world where the weight on the scale could make or break you, where you were taught to fear food because it was a constant threat to your “success,” where a pound gained was the ultimate failure and a pound lost was always worthy of applause- even when you had no excess weight to lose. From a very young age, I was taught that we must always be at war with our bodies, that our principal goal in life was to gain mastery over it. We were taught to count every calorie consumed, to avoid carbs like they came straight from the devil himself, to measure our success according to the measure of our waist. My friends and I had it ingrained in our heads well before we hit puberty. I’m pretty sure I first learned the art of calorie counting from a fellow pee-wee cheerleader- we were seven at the time, and she was shocked that my parents still allowed me to eat bread. Bread. I love bread. If my coach had told me that I needed to give up bread, I probably would have quit. Thankfully she didn’t.
By the time the rest of the world caught up with us, when my classmates were hitting puberty and were suddenly very concerned with body image, I had already been monitoring my diet for several years. As cheerleading became more competitive, I found myself constantly trying to up my game. I worked harder, exercised more, and ate less. Fortunately, before it could become too much of an obsession, I was given a choice: as I prepared to enter high school, I had to choose between basketball and cheerleading. It was impossible to do both, and I found myself torn between the sport that had taken over my life and the sport that I actually enjoyed. I chose the latter.
But after so many years spent in the cheerleading world (which, I will acknowledge, is not all bad- I just had the misfortune of encountering one too many obsessed girls who wanted to make a name for themselves), the damage had already been done. I continued to struggle with my self-esteem, and body image continued to be a huge issue with me. Even as I entered into adulthood, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that I was inadequate, that my body was not good enough. Even though my cheerleading days were well behind me, the need to be more beautiful, to be more attractive, was still strong. I had been taught that I can always be prettier, thinner, better. Though my desires never reached the level of obsession, I will admit that it was not healthy. I had been left damaged after so many years in a world obsessed with looks, and I wasn’t quite sure how to recover.
In truth, I only began to find healing when I met and fell in love with Andrew. After carrying the burden of low self-esteem for so long, I was finally able to see myself through another person’s eyes, someone who loved me and found me to be beautiful. Even on my worst days, when I saw the way that Andrew looked at me, there could be no question that he found me captivating. The look in his eyes, the smile that inevitably spread across his face, the feeling of his arms around me- they all communicated to me that I was beautiful.
But a lifetime of interior negativity generally cannot be broken overnight. His persistence and patience whittled away at my low self-esteem little by little, but we both knew that healing would take time. When we married, I still had a long way to go, but we remained hopeful. And then I found out that I was pregnant.
When we first made our news public, many of my friends made comments about my impending weight gain. They told me that they were jealous because I actually had an excuse to gain weight. I could have that second slice of cake, that extra cookie, because I was pregnant. If I was going to gain 25+ pounds over the next nine months, I might as well enjoy it, right?
But the transition wasn’t so easy. Like most expectant mothers, I began to read every single article I stumbled upon about pregnancy. The expert opinion was clear: pregnancy was not an excuse to eat whatever I wanted. Most women gain significantly more weight while pregnant than is strictly necessary. I was warned again and again to avoid this future.
The first few months were hard on my weak self-esteem. Though Andrew had done much to bolster it throughout our relationship, the reality of my pregnancy took its toll on me. When I began to gain weight, I worried about every pound that I gained. Was I gaining too much? Too quickly? In time, I learned to be more forgiving with myself. I was supposed to be gaining weight, and an extra pound here and there was not a cause for concern, as long as I was healthy.
And I was healthy. I was also learning to be more comfortable in my own skin. After a few weeks of wearing flowing tops and baggy tees that hid a bump that was more bloat than baby, I made the transition to fitted maternity tees and tops. After weeks of the usual discomfort associated with the first trimester of pregnancy, I finally began to feel good again. So what led to the sudden change in attire? After the initial self-consciousness that often comes with a rapidly growing baby, I suddenly came to the realization that despite the changes being endured by my body, there was something else that remained constant: Andrew. As Baby Whitmore grew and my baby bump expanded, Andrew continued to look at me just as he always had. If anything, I caught him staring at me more often. His smiles seemed a little wider, and when he hugged me, his hands would almost always wander to my stomach. I have never felt so loved, so beautiful.
My pregnancy also changed my relationship with food. As you can imagine, eating had always been a necessary evil in the cheerleading world. I had been taught that calorie counting was key, that sweets should always be immediately followed by a large dose of guilt. I had been taught that I wasn’t supposed to really enjoy food, because enjoyment inevitably leads to over-indulging, and that could severely alter my desired figure and future. Even after I quit cheerleading, it was hard to shirk the bad habits that I had picked up while listening to some of the older cheerleaders (and some of my own companions). I had excelled at creating excess guilt, and even years later, I continued to fall prey to well-meaning women who were overly obsessed with calorie counting and avoiding fatty foods. It seemed as if there could be no avoiding it.
Pregnancy did not make me deaf to their obsession, though it did change their way of relating to me. Suddenly, everyone was apparently jealous of me, because I didn’t have to count calories anymore. I didn’t have to watch everything that I ate. I didn’t have to feel guilty when I indulged in cake or cookies. I was allowed to gain weight. I was even supposed to gain weight. Lucky me.
In reality, pregnancy is not a time to abandon self-control, to indulge your every craving for sweet, salty, or fatty foods. Yes, a pregnant woman is supposed to gain weight, but she should not be “eating for two,” nor should she be supplementing her pre-pregnancy diet with copious amounts of unhealthy foods. That’s just a recipe for excess pregnancy weight gain and gestational diabetes- neither of which are good things (though there’s nothing wrong with a treat from time to time).
Essentially, pregnancy made me more aware of what I was consuming, but in a good way. I was very much conscious of the fact that I was feeding my baby when I fed myself. It became incredibly important that I eat the right kinds of food in the right quantities. I recognized that I couldn’t over-indulge, but I couldn’t under-eat either. My baby needed me to take good care of my body, because by taking care of myself, I was taking care of him. Eating ceased to be a necessary evil, but instead became an opportunity to care for my child. And once I began to see it as a good thing, I began to take pleasure in it. I began to enjoy the meals that Andrew and I prepared. I even began to really enjoy little treats from time to time- like apple cider donuts, chocolate soft serve ice cream, and cinnamon rolls. By focusing on the livelihood of another person- of my son- I was finally free from the fear that I had learned as a child. There was no more guilt. No more obsessive calorie counting. No more fear of the scale. Instead there was an intense desire to be healthy- for the sake of my child and for myself.
And then there has been one more perk, one that is probably fairly unique but is still worth sharing. In the past six months, I have taken up drawing again. Art has always been something I enjoy, but I largely abandoned my sketch pad and paints after I graduated high school. Overwhelmed by college life, and then by grad school life, I put them away until I had some “free time,” but that time never came. As time passed, I forgot how calming I found sketching. I forgot how satisfying it was to put aside the daily stresses of life to pick up my paintbrushes and paint palette. I forgot what it felt like to have free time at all.
I graduated with my Master’s less than two weeks before my wedding. Two weeks after Andrew and I were married, we found out that we were expecting our first child. Just a few weeks after that, the first trimester exhaustion hit me, and the most I could do after getting home from work was to put on pajamas and pass out on our couch. I didn’t have much time between work and sleep to do anything else.
But then the first trimester came to an end, and as quickly as my energy had been depleted, it returned in full force. Suddenly, I didn’t feel the need to take a nap after waking up in the morning, or before going to bed at night. When I got home from work, there were countless activities to engage in. It wasn’t a battle to convince myself to go for a walk, to clean the bathroom, to decorate our apartment. And so I set my mind to preparing our son’s nursery. And how did I do that? I dug out my sketch pad and began to draw.
Originally, Andrew and I thought we would use Winnie the Pooh as the theme for the nursery. We wanted something gender-neutral so that the larger pieces could be reused with future children, regardless of their sex. I decided that I would create the wall decorations myself, so I selected a few images of Pooh and his friends online and began to sketch. After completing the first sketch, Andrew and I went to Babies R Us to assemble our registry. After picking out our nursery furniture, we began to look at nursery accessories- throw blankets, stuffed animals, mobiles, etc. We looked at several options for a Winnie the Pooh themed nursery, and after realizing that neither of us were overly impressed, we decided to change the theme to woodland creatures. Instead of Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, and Tigger, Baby JT would be surrounded by foxes, owls, squirrels, and other forest animals. Without a second thought, I abandoned my original sketches and began again. But I didn’t regret the change at all.
Though Andrew had been disappointed that the original drawings would not be used, I was quite content to start again. I didn’t regret the hours that I had dedicated to sketching- I had been happy during that time, and the change of theme just gave me an excuse to continue drawing. Hopefully, even after the sketches for the nursery are done, I’ll continue to sketch and paint. Even though my pregnancy reawakened this passion, my goal is to maintain this pastime even after John is born. Granted, taking care of a newborn might make it difficult to find many opportunities to pick up my paints and pencils. But considering how much he has already taught me and the gift that he has already been to me, I’m okay with that.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!